Source: Evening Standard
27 April 2010
By: Simon Jenkins
What is the single most curable evil afflicting community life in London? The answer is the criminalisation of drug use under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
It blights half the capital’s youth at some stage or other. It hovers as a black cloud over every neighbourhood, pub and street corner. It causes crime and gangland disorder. It packs the courts and fills the prisons. It costs billions of pounds in personal loss and public spending.
Needless to say, not one party in the current General Election is prepared to discuss it. As a result, London is about to be taught a lesson in social policy by, of all places, America.
As I whiled away last week waiting in Los Angeles for Her Majesty’s Government to find an ash cloud policy, I decided to pop into one of many local cannabis “dispensaries” — strictly in the interests of research.
While the exteriors are carefully anonymous, the interiors are designed to cater for all whom “a doctor” has decided need the therapeutic benefits of a dose of “weed”. I could choose between Harmony House and Holistic Harvest. I could try Nature’s Wonder or Mary and Jane’s mobile delivery service. The Green Oasis chain offers “40 flavours” of cannabis, including Sour Diesel, Blue Dream and Woody Kush, plus a 1,300 square meter “vaporising lounge” to help things go swimmingly along. In most cases, the requisite chit certifying medical need is available on the premises, like club membership in a casino.
California now makes Amsterdam’s drug laws look timid. Since the licensing of “medical marijuana” production and sale in 1996, California and 14 states across America have seen a blossoming of cannabis retailing. Some estimates are of more dispensaries (or “clinics”) in Los Angeles than Starbucks. The city authorities reckon they have at least 500 and possibly 1,000 outlets, meaning that in some areas there are more dispensaries than there are bars serving alcohol.
Since reliable figures are hard to find, it is impossible to discover whether the result has been an increase or decrease in the overall consumption of marijuana. Use of the drug has come out of the closet. There are certainly testimonials to the relief of pain delivered, and with it a reduction in need for conventional medicine. There is a corresponding reduction in pressure on law enforcement and imprisonment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that private growers are supplanting the criminal gangs who have long imported supplies from Canada.
More serious is the backlash against a spread of outlets that seem to cock a snook at the law, which restricts sale to those in medical need. Our old friend, stress, is so often cited as to render the restriction meaningless. As a result, two moves are now afoot. A Los Angeles city ordinance seeks to limit the number of outlets to 70. This would mean savage closures, in effect creating local licensed monopolies bound up in a tangle of red tape. But the effect would be clear, as the mayor has said, “to regulate the collective cultivation of medical marijuana” and to end the proliferation of operators who are currently “not inspected or analysed by the US Food and Drug administration”. In other words, the marketing of the drug under pseudo-medical conditions would be as legitimate as alcohol.
A more radical proposition, on which Californians will vote in November, is to legalise the consumption of marijuana as such and do away with the medical facade. It would be allowed to over-21s, who could grow their own and possess a maximum of one ounce per person. What is sold in shops would be inspected as pure. It would be approved and taxed, like alcohol. In a recent poll, half of Californians wanted to see the drug taxed, if only to relieve the state’s crippling budget deficit.
Such legalisation would run contrary to US federal policy, as well as various United Nations protocols. But Barack Obama has already said he will not enforce federal policy against states that have eased marijuana controls. Pressure across America to end this form of prohibition is now growing from the bottom up, though as with the ending of alcohol prohibition it is unlikely to be everywhere or overnight.
For those like me who regard cannabis as a potentially dangerous substance for many young people, California’s route to regulatory control and, if necessary, treatment is sane. Nor does it make sense to decriminalise use but criminalise supply, since they are part of the same market sequence. There is no point in removing the police from the front of the house merely to send them to the back.
Whether the same common sense can be extended to the greater curse of cocaine remains to be seen. No one reading the American press can be in any doubt of the horrendous cost to Latin American states of the continued criminalisation of coca products. It has reduced large parts of Mexico to a lawless jungle, as a result of the gigantic profits available from America’s cocaine trade — said to be on a par with the oil industry. Heavily armed cartels are massacring each other daily in the streets. The policy is plunging half a continent into misery.
The encouraging sign is that, when Americans are asked what they would like done about a problem, they answer with the beginnings of a solution. When California has brought its cannabis use under control, perhaps it can start grappling with its far greater challenge, cocaine and heroin.
And London? It has the toughest drug laws and the worst drugs problem in Europe. We jam our courts and our prisons with young people, to no beneficial effect and at vast cost. I imagine that Londoners might indeed vote for a California-style proposition to license and regulate marijuana in the capital, to reduce the power of the gangs, help the young cope with drugs and raise revenue.
But I cannot imagine any national politician allowing it, certain not at election time. We still have a long way to go to democracy.Republish