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Column: It’s time to tax and regulate marijuana sale in Ireland

Uruguay is legalising the cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana. Why? Because the ‘war on drugs’ doesn’t protect the public, it it only lines the pockets of criminals. Ireland should follow Uruguay’s lead, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

BY THE END of this month Uruguay will have passed and signed into law an act completely legalising the cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana (cannabis). The move is being hailed by lawmakers and law enforcement agencies alike as a vital step in the war on organised crime that ravages so much of Latin America, freeing up police to chase what they perceive to be the really harmful criminal enterprises, and depriving cartels of a massive revenue stream.

The toll of the Quixotic War on Drugs falls mostly on the heads of Latin American countries like Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala and Columbia. Of the worlds eight most murderous countries, seven are on the drug trafficking route from the Andes to the United States and Europe. Honduras is a country of 8 million people in which 7,000 people are murdered each year. Contrast that with the 500 million person European Union, where the figure is around 6,000.

Drug use is up by about 50 per cent since the UN held an event entitled “A Drug Free World: We Can Do It” in 1998. A poor result for all the treasure and blood expended to fight drugs.

“Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act”

Insanity is defined as taking the same course of action time and again and expecting a different outcome. Meanwhile a Mexican think-tank, IMCO, reckons that cartels in that country will lose about $1.4 billion of their $2 billion revenues from marijuana thanks to the legalisation of the stuff in certain US states that will then go on to supply other parts of the country far easier than humping drugs across the border.

The states of Colorado and Washington have voted to legalise marijuana, joining a long list of states that have moved against the tide of prohibition, firstly by making it available to people with certain medical conditions. In Colorado voters went the whole hog, voting by 55 per cent for a measure entitled “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act”.

The well-named measure cuts right to the heart of the debate on marijuana: the drug is arguably less harmful than alcohol, and certainly no more so, to those who consume it. The real harm caused by marijuana is in its cultivation, trafficking and sale; which is an almost entirely organised criminal enterprise.

Not a war worth fighting

Many European countries, such as Spain and Germany, have been trialling homegrown and co-op schemes for people to join and cultivate their own. Medical marijuana use is becoming more and more prevalent and accepted. Basically, governments around the Western world in particular have been acknowledging that marijuana consumption isn’t a particularly harmful activity.

But when you’ve been fighting a war against the stuff for so long, old habits die hard and there is a strong vested lobby in law enforcement and policymaking that doesn’t want to see the war on marijuana given up, despite the clear evidence that it hasn’t worked and the general acceptance that it probably isn’t worth fighting.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime figures suggest that around 180 million people smoked weed in the past year worldwide. Among the Western world the consumption figure is highest in the US and Italy, with 14 per cent of people aged 15-64 estimated to have used cannabis in the past year. Only 2.6 per cent of Swedes have partaken, while in France the figure is 8.4 per cent.

In the famously liberal Netherlands, where a ham-fisted law makes it illegal to grow but legal to sell cannabis, the consumption rate is a fairly sober 7 per cent. The UK is 6.8 per cent, and Ireland is 6 per cent. This suggests that usage has more to do with social acceptance than availability.

Alcohol usage

Contrast this with alcohol usage. About 81 per cent of Irish people drink, and in Europe up to 20 per cent of men and ten per cent of women are likely to meet the criteria for alcoholism during their lifetime. According to The Lancet, a dependence on cannabis can occur from chronic use in up to 10 per cent of users.

The negative behavioural and societal effects of alcohol abuse are well known. Cannabis can also be a dangerous drug when abused, and long term chronic use has been linked to mental health issues.

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The big worry about cannabis is that it acts as a gateway drug to more harmful substances, such as cocaine and heroin. It may not be an unfounded fear, but one of the things that may help it be a gateway drug is the fact that the criminal supplying cannabis today is probably also a dealer in harder stuff. Walk into a store in Colorado and it’s just pot.

People will continue to use marijuana either way

Regardless of whether it is legalised or simply decriminalised, people will continue to use marijuana. Most will, just as with alcohol, enjoy it in moderation; likely for a short period of time if the annual statistics on consumption in even countries where it is legal are anything to go by. The harm it causes will be no greater than today, on balance, but the reduction in harm by robbing criminals of a profitable revenue source will be significant. The state of Colorado also reckons that it will raise $60 million a year in taxes through the legal sale of the stuff (and their excise duties are minimal compared to what we slap onto existing substances like alcohol and tobacco).

Eighty-one per cent of us vote with our feet and say that alcohol is, on balance, a societally acceptable drug. Quite what the difference is with marijuana, apart from historical precedent, I’m not sure. The benefits of legalising, regulating and taxing the stuff are clear. I think we might do well to follow the Uruguayans and get on with it.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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