Friday 26 July 2013

Rethinking Legalization v. Decriminalization of Marijuana

Full disclosure: I am 65 years old and smoked my first joint in or around 1965, when I was ~18. I haven't smoked a joint in or around 10 years, but in the intervening years I smoked almost every day. I quit simply because I lost interest in the effects. My personal preference was for hashish rather than marijuana, but the point is moot.

For decades I have advocated the legalization of these substances, and frequently compared their side- and after-effects to those of alcohol. Numerous studies have evinced, for example, the fact that stoned drivers tend to be far more cautious than drunk drivers. I did read the results of many studies on various drugs, also including LSD, mescalin, peyote, etc. I fancied myself well-acquainted with the published literature.

But now that Colorado and Washington have voted in favour of either decriminalization or outright legalization, I have become aware of the side effects -- not of the substance itself but rather the complications inherent in outright legalization, and also of my naive simplification of these issues. Consider a few of these:

1. Regulation by content: in the case of alcohol, this is easy. Despite all the talk among devotees of wine or whiskey, from the regulatory point of view there is only one significant measurement: the percentage of alcohol within any particular beverage. Depending on the country, percentages vary considerably. On average, however, beer contains about 4-6% of alcohol. "Hard" liquors such as Scotch or vodka or gin can go to 40% content. The governments tend to price them relative to that content factor. For example, the price of a single liter of vodka is equivalent to a case of 24 beer, and both are taxed accordingly.

I used to think that equivalent rules could be applied to the world of marijuana and hashish, in the belief that the THC count was the only important measure. But lately I've been doing some reading of the research available, and have come to realize how naive were my original beliefs. First and foremost, measuring the THC content is woefully insufficient: between 35 and 40 other variables factor into the ultimate effect of any given sample of marijuana; to cite just one, the content of triptamine significantly affects the resultant effect. The net result of this research is that one cannot test simply for one element, but must factor in the relative presence of many others as well.

2. In the case of alcohol, one simple measure indicates the content, and can easily be printed on any given brand's label. But how should we deal with the fact that 35-40 elements all factor into the resultant affective content? Who makes a label that large, upon which to print such information?

3. No two batches, even grown from the same seeds under the same lights, will be equivalent. Granted, that could ultimately result in a market in which, say, the 1998 batch was far superior to the 2010 batch, and the result would be something akin to the wine or Scotch markets, which in itself might be a good thing, but which would place an enormous burden on both the growers and the governmental machinery required to conduct these measurements -- not to mention the huge task awaiting the equivalent of wine-reviewers, whose lives would be further complicated by the simple fact that most wine-reviewers take a sniff and then a taste and then spit it out rather than ingesting it. Not possible with marijuana or hashish.

One argument often proposed by those who object to decriminalization is that marijuana is a gateway drug (i.e. it leads to the use of cocaine, crack, heroin, Oxycontin and similar hard drugs). My counter-argument is that tobacco is the gateway drug, not marijuana.

I have written frequently about the incredible costs of criminalization of these substances: the number of people in jail, the vast costs of finding the traffickers in terms of police expenditures, the overall failure of the War on Drugs, and perhaps most significantly, the movement of billions of dollars per year into the hands of criminal empires. All these arguments remain relevant, in my opinion, but I used to think it was a simple problem to solve, and I now see that this is far from the case.

Time was, I thought that decriminalization was senseless, since it prevented the governments from acquiring a huge new source of taxation revenue. But now I'm thinking that decriminalization is the middle path. As now, go after large-scale grow-ops and prosecute them to the full extent of the law, but permit Joe and Joan Average to grow a few plants at home with impunity. Keep it as a cottage industry, so to speak. This would effectively cut the legs out of the criminal empires, while simultaneously avoiding the nightmare of regulation. It might not be the perfect solution, but then what is? A world in which people had no desire to take recreational drugs, perhaps, but what is the likelihood of that?

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