Pubdate: Sat, 02 Nov 2013
Source: Timaru Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2013 Timaru Herald


ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, easily the best European interpreter of 
America, observed of how opinion shifts in this still-new country: 
"As long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried 
on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone 
is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure 
unite in assenting to its propriety."

If you want to know why universal healthcare is still being fought 
over in America, the answer is that the country remains split on the 
subject. And if you want to know why gay marriage has suddenly gone 
from being unthinkable to being an increasingly accepted part of the 
American landscape, you'll notice how polling support for it has 
shifted from 57-40 against marriage equality as recently as 2009 to 
54-43 in the latest Gallup poll four years later.

That's why it's striking that Gallup just found the first clear 
national majority for legalising cannabis for all uses. Like the 
question of gay marriage, the idea of legal marijuana was once 
unthinkable. In 1996 only 27 per cent of Americans backed same-sex 
marriage and 25 per cent backed legalising weed, in Gallup's polling. 
In 2013, those numbers became 54 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively.

In the last year alone, Gallup found support for legal pot rising 10 
points. (The notion that the 1960s were much more relaxed about this 
is a myth. In 1969, at the height of the youth revolt, only 12 per 
cent favoured legalisation.) As with gay marriage, the younger 
generations are the most emphatic. About 70 per cent of young 
Americans favour both.

The young columnist, Josh Barro, puts the 58 per cent statistic in 
perspective: "More Americans want to legalise marijuana than think 
President [Barack] Obama is doing a good job (44 per cent), want to 
keep or expand Obamacare (38 per cent), favoured attacking Syria (36 
per cent), support a 20-cent gas tax increase to pay for 
infrastructure (29 per cent), or like the Republican party (28 per 
cent). And legal marijuana has more than five times as many 
supporters as Congress does (11 per cent)."

Yes, marijuana is more popular than Republicans! Sadly, that isn't saying much.

In this climate, the federal government's official position is not 
just an outlier, but an absurdity. In the US, unlike Britain, the 
government's legal view is that "marijuana has a high potential for 
abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the 
United States, and has a lack of accepted safety for use under 
medical supervision". This is simply empirically untrue.

No-one has ever overdosed from cannabis; it has been used in the 
Americas for centuries for medical purposes. Even the federal 
government's own National Institutes of Health has a patent for 
medical cannabis on the grounds that "cannabinoids are found to have 
particular application . . . in limiting neurological damage 
following a . . . stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of 
neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's 
disease and HIV dementia". The potential for cannabis-based 
breakthroughs in treatment of various ailments led The Lancet to call 
it "the aspirin of the 21st century"  a decade ago.

Yes, like many substances it can lead to psychological 
dependency  but its hold on addicts is far weaker than alcohol's. It 
can also harm the brain development of minors, which is why keeping 
them from the drug is essential, and yet beyond our grasp as drug 
dealers ply their unreliable wares. But to go from this to arguing, 
as the Obama administration does, that cannabis is more dangerous 
than crack or meth is just bonkers.

Marijuana for recreational use is fully legal in two states, Colorado 
and Washington state, where marijuana sales are now regulated in the 
same way as alcohol. The sky has not fallen. Legal marijuana for 
purely medical use  something deemed impossible by the federal 
government  is now permitted in 19 states and Washington DC.

A social reform can be experimented with on a smaller scale  and the 
results assessed, before any national decision is made. When 
California's medical marijuana law was passed in 1996, it was seen as 
highly risky. And there have been abuses  with medical marijuana 
often being passed off as a ruse for recreational use. But 17 years 
later, we've seen no damaging social consequences and - here's the 
rub - more than US$100m (NZ$121m) in sales taxes going to a 
revenue-hungry state.

The other aspect that makes criminalising cannabis problematic is the 
fact that law enforcement overwhelmingly targets young black men for 
prosecution. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, many young 
black men have a joint in their pockets, which gives them a criminal 
record, and can blight their life prospects for ever. Young whites, 
who are just as enthusiastic dopers, rarely get caught in this web. A 
single joint, as any cop will tell you, is not a priority for law enforcement.

Cannabis is increasingly a middleclass drug, too. Vast swathes of the 
American professional classes use it the way they drink alcohol after 
a long day at the office, or as a toke before a concert.

The impact of so many patients with Parkinson's, cancer or HIV 
finding marijuana a critical part of their survival has influenced 
many families. Americans still giggle about the subject. But you 
won't find many giggles when a friend is nauseous after chemotherapy 
and the only thing that helps him keep his food down is a joint.

America, of course, is a Puritan country, founded by Puritans. My New 
York apartment sits above an old speakeasy from the 1920s, where the 
rich used to drink in secret. Prohibition of alcohol was immensely 
popular when it was introduced. It collapsed only because it was 
proved to be a boon to crime, hypocrisy and misery when the Great 
Depression kicked in.

When Prohibition ended, it did so like an ocean liner going vertical 
and sinking. It will happen with prohibition of marijuana too. Much 
sooner than many now expect.

The Sunday Times
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom