Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Colorado's marijuana policy a real pot shot

By Andy Ho, The Straits Times, 13 Jan 2014

FROM this month, adults in Colorado have been able to get "joints", or marijuana cigarettes, as easily as regular tobacco smokes.

The American state has begun licensing retailers to sell marijuana smokes for recreational use.

People who smoke joints habitually are prone to develop the same respiratory illnesses as tobacco smokers. However, opponents tend to be more concerned about how legalisation will impact the young and impressionable.

Supporters tout the Dutch experience as proof that legalisation of recreational cannabis will not lead to cannabis addiction with its attendant social ills.

However, there are lessons from the Dutch experiment that its fans may not highlight. A closer look at that experience - especially when contrasted with the new Colorado law - shows clearly that the latter is very bad drug policy that no other government should imitate.

A big red warning light comes with the fact that the Dutch themselves had to scale back their permissive regime in October 2011.

The Netherlands decriminalised the sale and possession of up to 30g of marijuana from 1976. Special coffee shops were licensed by the government to sell marijuana, which attracted locals and foreigners.

But a 2011 University of California, Berkeley study published in the journal Addiction noted that the country turned into "a magnet for criminal types". The French and British law enforcement authorities estimate that 80 per cent of heroin found in their countries transit through Holland.

Moreover, because the coffee shops were not open 24/7, the domestic black market for marijuana itself did not go away. Those who were underage who could not legally buy it also resorted to drug pushers. The study found sharp rises in marijuana use rates among the 18- to 20-year-old age group in the Netherlands, growing from 15 per cent in 1984 to 44 per cent in 1996.

Although it was received medical wisdom that cannabis was not particularly addictive, the Dutch experiment showed this was not necessarily the case.

In the Netherlands, increasing numbers of marijuana users did become addicted, with some even developing psychotic problems that led to rising numbers of hospitalisation for treatment of psychosis.

The cause of this unanticipated rise in addiction rates and hospital admissions was traced to the fact that coffee shop cannabis had been getting ever more potent over the years. Its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content had been rising from 8.6 per cent in 1999 to over 20 per cent in 2004. (THC is the active ingredient in cannabis.)

The reason Dutch cannabis became ever more potent over the years was because of selective breeding of cannabis plants by cultivators and processors eager to deliver joints with a bigger wallop. In effect, their joints were giving users ever higher doses of THC, so their bodies developed tolerance for the drug.

This meant that they required higher doses of THC for the same high. When this happens, a user is said to have become dependent on or addicted to the particular drug concerned.

In 2011, it became clear that Dutch marijuana had become so potent that psychiatric problems, including psychotic breakdowns requiring hospitalisation, had been on the rise. So, the authorities reclassified THC of 15 per cent or higher as a "hard" drug, alongside cocaine and heroin. Tourists were also to be banned from marijuana coffee shops.

With business affected, cannabis retailers are appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. But for now, the 35-year Dutch experiment has been scaled back.

In fact, the Dutch did not even legalise marijuana in the way that Colorado has. In practice, Dutch law enforcement looked the other way when marijuana was retailed at coffee shops.

Importantly, commercial production and wholesale distribution were never legalised. Thus, cannabis was never aggressively marketed in the Netherlands, which saw Dutch cannabis prices remain as high as those in other European black markets.

By contrast, Colorado has even legalised the wholesale production of marijuana, which will be legally sold to retail stores for purchase by adults. So, the Colorado approach is far more liberal than the Dutch experiment.

Under the new Colorado law, marijuana joints attract a whopping 25 per cent sales tax. From this, the Colorado state government expects to rake in US$67 million (S$85 million) this year. This should set alarm bells ringing, for Big Tobacco looks set to market cannabis.

Not only does Colorado have every incentive to not stop the sector from growing, given the massive tax revenues it promises, but the state also cannot legally stop Big Tobacco as the new law also legalises the wholesale production of marijuana that will be legally sold to retail stores.

How can we guess Big Tobacco wants a piece of the action? In 2010, a huge class-action lawsuit mounted against the cigarette industry by smokers with tobacco-related illnesses was settled out of court. In the process, the US government compelled Big Tobacco to release a secret document that management consultants had prepared for it in regard to future business opportunities.

The report revealed that Big Tobacco was poised to seize the marijuana opportunity, reckoning that it will be worth US$10 billion annually as "an alternative product line (as we) have the land to grow it, machines to roll it and package it, and distribution to market it".

Indeed, Big Tobacco has already registered trademarks and bought domain names using street jargon for marijuana, all in anticipation of more widespread legalisation of recreational cannabis in other states in the country.

Now that Colorado has legalised the wholesale production and retail sale of recreational cannabis, other states may follow suit. If so, Big Tobacco may proceed to relentlessly commercialise the new sector. If it does so, prices will drop and seductive advertising will draw in the young.

This being the danger, and given what is now known about the psychiatric side effects of high THC use, no responsible government should ever emulate Colorado's misguided marijuana policy.


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