Sunday, 10 August 2008

Should marijuana be legalized?

As a member of the Baby Boomer generation I was exposed to marijuana at a young age. It was widely regarded as harmless, and as a much more civilised alternative to alcohol. Its use allowed for enhanced musical listening pleasure and for a great deal of introspection. In the late sixties and early seventies marijuana and hashish (the plant's resin), became a central feature of the developing 'alternative' culture that focused on love, peace and living for today as its core values. The drug was widely used by the youth and the intelligentsia.

Today the social use of the drug has changed to a large degree, but marijuana still has its proponents. Many of the positive connotations associated with the drug in the hippie era have gone, and research - mostly - inconclusive - has indicated that marijuana may not be quite as harmless as was thought in those years. But use of marijuana remains widespread as a recreational drug.

As long as marijuana remains illegal, it shares a similar status to highly dangerous and addictive drugs such as heroin, crack cocaine and morphine. But a range of highly dangerous and toxic substances remain freely available.

Tobacco is one of the biggest killers on the planet, but can be purchased legally over the counter at any supermarket. Alcohol has caused countless deaths and broken homes but remains legal even if distribution is subject to some controls. Many would argue - with some justification - that tobacco and alcohol are much more dangerous than marijuana.

The legal status of marijuana places it into the same category as highly addictive and dangerous narcotics. Distribution of the drug is achieved through illegal channels, often organised crime. Because of their criminal connections, dealers of marijuana become associated with other drugs as well. These are more profitable drugs so why not use the opportunity? The user is thus exposed to the opportunity to try and buy a wide range of truly dangerous drugs.

The Netherlands has taken the step of legalising marijuana and hashish. The drug can be obtained legally with controls and can be used in a more controlled environment. Although use of the drug is quite open and free, the society has not disintegrated. There has been little evidence of damage to health, and the relationship of marijuana to criminal acts is much lower than is the case with alcohol.

As long as marijuana remains associated with more dangerous narcotics the risk of marijuana becoming a 'gateway' to other drugs remains strong. Alcohol is a powerful and often destructive drug that is fully legal. But its legal status ensures that alcohol does not become associated with other narcotics. Alcohol users do not migrate to heroin in great numbers. The perception of alcohol as legal and legitimate separates it from heroin and cocaine.

The beneficial uses of marijuana are largely under-reported. Research has supported the value of marijuana in the treatment of arthritis, asthma and Alzheimer's disease amongst others. But sufferers of these diseases are unlikely to benefit from treatment because of the legal status.

Legalisation, regulation and control are the proper solution. Users of the drug will no longer be criminalised. The subculture status will be removed. Most importantly, users of marijuana will no longer have to associate with the dealers of narcotics to get their supplies. The potential to use marijuana for a range of medicinal purposes will become viable.

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