On 1st January 2014, recreational cannabis became legal in Colorado. 136 stores have been granted licenses to sell the drug, though only thirty or so were open on New Year’s Day. The first person to legally buy recreational cannabis was an Iraq war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who uses it to help treat his condition. The shops that did open sold over $1 million of cannabis, the first day of a new industry that is expected to raise $67 million in tax revenue for Colorado in 2014 alone. The first $40 million is earmarked for the construction of new schools.
What is happening in Colorado – the result of a public referendum – is simply remarkable. It is a significant defeat for the proponents of the ‘war on drugs’ that has caused so much suffering, wasted so much public money and criminalised so many innocent people to so little effect. If cannabis is a ‘gateway drug’, its very illegality makes it so. With the noble exceptions of Colorado, Portugal, Holland and a few other places, the people selling cannabis have a vested interest in providing users with the most addictive substances at the highest possible price. Legalising cannabis for recreational use pulls the rug out from under the feet of these gangsters and gives those who simply want to use cannabis a safe and legal means to do so.
The situation in Colorado now contrasts sharply with that here in Britain. I undertook some research for an article I wrote last year and discovered that between October 2011 and October 2012, nearly 40,000 people were arrested for possession of cannabis in the UK. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Ramsgate or Tonbridge arrested in one year for possessing a substance no more harmful than wine and beer. Even if they were subsequently de-arrested, the arrest would still show up on CRB checks and they would have to declare it when applying for jobs.
I know some people who are regular cannabis users. They have responsible jobs, pay their taxes and are productive and involved members of society. If caught with cannabis, they could be sent to prison for up to five years, their careers would be destroyed along with their reputations and the rest of their productive lives. How is that a proportionate outcome?
Britain must look to Colorado for our lead on rational drugs policy. Controlled, taxed, regulated legalisation (or decriminalisation, which is as far as we can go under certain international agreements) of cannabis would be a powerful and sensible measure. It would stop the needless arrest and prosecution of innocent people and would represent a blow to the criminal gangs who make billions from trafficking the drug. Of course, it would never be legal to sell drugs to minors, or to smoke cannabis and get behind the wheel of a car. All the details of legalisation – package labelling, advertising etc. – would be worked out on a common sense basis.
Legalising cannabis would not represent the sum total of a rational approach to drug policy. For example, the continual game of whack-a-mole the authorities play with legal highs is ludicrous and distracting. But legalising cannabis would at least be a partial recognition that we are responsible adults capable of making decisions about our lives, our bodies and what we do with them.