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Opinion: Marijuana is legal in nearly half of US States – Ireland should follow suit

Robbing murderous criminals of revenues for selling a drug that’s no more harmful than tobacco and alcohol is a no-brainer.

Aaron McKenna

CONTRARY TO THE landslide election of socially conservative Republicans in the recent US midterm election, voters in several states passed ballot measures to fully legalise the sale and possession of marijuana. It will soon be fully legal to light up in Alaska, Oregon and the capital Washington DC. Conservative Florida voted 58% in favour of legalisation, but just missed the 60% mark required to carry the measure. They will certainly vote on it again.

There are serious efforts in a further dozen states to legalise the trade, and at least five more will be on the ballot in the 2016 election. Twenty-seven of the 50 US states have relaxed their laws on the sale of marijuana, starting with decriminalisation to its use on prescription from doctors (reports of bad backs have shot up); and going all the way to full liberalisation of the business in places like Colorado, Oregon and Alaska.

The business is worth taxing

The federal government under President Obama opposes the legalisation within states, but in reality agencies under its aegis have taken a step back from enforcing federal level laws in favour of the states’ rights. The Internal Revenue Service, meanwhile, has not had a problem levying taxes against the legitimate businesses that have sprung up in the states that have moved to legalise.

The business is worth taxing. It is estimated that marijuana revenues in Colorado alone will be $1 billion in the first year. Across the US it is estimated to be a $40 billion industry. A global best-guess puts the total size at $100bn, most of which is supplied by criminals. Mexican drug cartels, who have been chopping people’s heads off and hanging them from bridges long before Isis came along with their sick video production skills, get about 30% of their revenues from the sale of marijuana.

The unsuccessful ‘war on drugs’

Outside of the US, countries that have been ravaged by the unsuccessful ‘war on drugs’ have been considering legalisation. Uruguay is among the first to have taken the big step. To us in Europe, the ‘war on drugs’ is glorious Garda raids and the odd dramatic seizure at sea by the Naval Service. In Bolivia, a country of 8 million, its 7,000 murders per year; compared to the 6,000 murdered each year in the 500 million person European Union. All this carnage, and drug use is up by about 50% since the UN held an event entitled “A Drug Free World: We Can Do It” in 1998.

I don’t particularly care to use marijuana myself, though like most I have tried it. What I really care about is taking policy decisions based on empirical evidence that can improve the lives of our citizens and people around the world. Robbing murderous criminals of marijuana revenues seems a good step.

Whatever about hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, marijuana stands apart as a drug that is no more harmful, and much research indicates may be significantly less so, than tobacco and alcohol. It’s an old and well-worn argument, but it’s worth considering why it is banned in the first place. It was perfectly legal in most places until the 1930s, and in the US its ban was precipitated by a temperance movement that had scored hits against alcohol (with a corresponding increase in criminality).

Federal prohibition in the US came on the back of national hysteria surrounding black and Mexican immigrants, supposedly using the drug to fuel crime sprees.

Cultural prejudices 

We have many strange concepts about different substances in our national psyches. Snus is a type of tobacco that is placed under the lip, and is quite popular in Scandinavia – but it is expressly verboden in the Netherlands, where you can quite famously light up a joint in the middle of a massive open air brothel in the capital city.

Those opposed to legalisation dread a massive increase in marijuana usage and the path as a gateway drug to harder things. A study by researchers at Emory University has shown that marijuana usage has not increased among teenagers in states that have legalised the drug, and it has in fact been in steady decline over the past number of years. Cocaine use has fallen substantially between 2004 and now, which is probably attributable to the economic crash. Studies, including this one, have shown that relationships between marijuana and harder substances are more correlation than causation, and in any event legalisation has not seen masses of the population invading stores at 4am looking for snacks.

Putting money into the hands of criminals

The main reason to ban marijuana seems to be the highly subjective argument that it is ‘bad for society’, harms the youth and degrades the moral fibre of society. We say this, whilst rushing every foreign dignitary we get our hands on to have a pint of a beverage containing a substance linked to much damage. We view alcohol has a substance that many enjoy, and some abuse; and we work to limit the abuse. Marijuana is in this same category, and may be considerably less addictive and damaging than alcohol.

On the objective side, we have an industry in the hands of criminals that we can legitimise. Remember when head shops were set up in Dublin, selling ‘legal highs’ that were, in fact, mainly chemical substances that simply hadn’t yet been banned thanks to their novelty. The shops were repeatedly fire-bombed by drug dealers.

Now, why would drug dealers attack a shop? Well, because it was robbing them of their revenues. When the head shops closed down, did people stop buying these highs? No, they did not. They returned to putting their money into the hands of criminals.

It’s a basic question, when it comes to marijuana, as to whether or not you prefer the supply and sale to be in the hands of criminals or businesses that employ PAYE workers, are charged rates and rent, invest in safe and clean production environments and pay corporation taxes on their profits at the end of the year.

Decriminalisation could free up Garda resources

A government struggling with major difficulties of the day may be hesitant to take on an issue such as this, which will likely draw much opposition as well as support. When in doubt, do nothing is usually a solid political mantra.

Legalisation hasn’t happened overnight in the US, however. Moves could be made towards increasing the medical availability of the substance, where it has excellent benefits for suffers of many chronic ailments. Decriminalisation could free up Garda resources and create space for less odious elements to enter the market.

Finally, we could hold a consultative ballot – rather than a constitutional referendum – on the matter, and let people vote on the matter and remove the responsibility from less venturesome legislators.

Voters in the US are taking sensible measures about marijuana. We should take their cue.

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 at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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