By Howard Marks
December 12, 2013 12:33 pm
[blockquote style=”style-3″]Uruguay was right – the world should legalise marijuana. Regulation of the drug will have health and social benefits and reduce crime.[/blockquote]
It is not immediately obvious what a boy from a small south Wales mining village and the government of Uruguay have in common. But there is at least one thing: we both want to end the war on drugs.
A vote in the Montevideo senate this week made Uruguay the world’s first country to legalise the production, sale and consumption of cannabis. In my case, having left Oxford with firstclass honours in nuclear physics and several postgraduate degrees, ethical and financial considerations persuaded me to abandon academia and pursue a business career: the export and import of beneficial herbs. Law enforcement caught up with me and sentenced me to 25 years in prison, of which I served seven. I am now a writer and comedian with an agenda of doing whatever I can to legalise cannabis.
There are three main advantages to legalisation. Besides the health benefits to sufferers of conditions from asthma to Aids, it will free consumers from the need to acquire drugs from illegal sources; and crime caused directly by prohibition (including murder, violence, kidnap, theft and fraud) will disappear.
Most proposals for legalisation share the assumption that the trade cannot be repressed. This is reflected in their insistence on stateapproved health warnings and a ban on sales to children – curbs with which I concur. Disagreement tends to focus on the degree of regulation.
Some models propose a state monopoly on supply, with all advertising illegal. This will lead to a relatively stable but hopelessly bureaucratic structure. An oligopoly, with a handful of enterprises operating as a cartel, seems prone to similar paralysis. A third option – which I prefer – is for production and distribution to be undertaken by small competing private enterprises subject to government regulation.
Any regulations should be aimed at avoiding mistakes made in the trade before regulation, rather than moralistic reasoning. Governments should be allowed to intervene only if doing so will increase consumer satisfaction. Eventually, cannabis should be available in the same way as tea, coffee or medicinal herbs. Unfortunately, it is more likely to be regulated in the same way as alcohol and tobacco – implying, wrongly, that it is equally dangerous.
I think it most efficient and fair for the legalised supply of cannabis to be operated by some of those with experience. Different skills might well be required for importing and retail distribution (commercial freight and retail expertise rather than street wisdom and deviousness); but the production process will remain more or less the same. In terms of export, in countries where cannabis has been grown for millennia, there will be little difference between illegal and legal commodities: officials are paid, and the job is done. It would be a pity not to salvage the many established, honourable and fruitful relationships between growers and other participants in the countries of origin. I would dearly love to apply for such employment but am increasingly resigned to not being around for the day widespread legalisation finally happens.
Generally, the cannabis trade is run not by criminal gangs one would call “organised” but by loose-knit groups of people from a variety of professions who collaborate occasionally. It bears a heavy cost in terms of state confiscations and preventing infiltration by law enforcement. Significant funds are spent on protecting one level of distribution from the impact of a bust at another. The costs and prices of illegal cannabis are therefore greater than those of any moderately taxed legal market.
Some opponents of legalisation envisage it putting a burden on the public health services, and may well demand tax and regulation measures that reflect this. There will also be resistance from unexpected quarters. The hardened cannabis smoker is convinced that legalisation will wreck the quality and quantity of the product. Many will continue to prefer to buy cannabis in the manner to which they are accustomed. Commercialism might turn the product into an ineffectual, manufactured nonentity, like non-alcoholic beer: make it legal then stop it from getting one high.
Adopting such outmoded trappings of puritanism would be farcical. Getting high is OK.