And a hippy new year….

Published by The i paper (1st January, 2018)

The first time I went to the United States was in 1983 when I spent summer working at a camp for diabetic children in California. It was a beautiful time – hiking in sun-dappled forests of giant sequoia, sleeping under stars and partying hard with fellow workers in free time. Among them was an affable man with a handlebar moustache, who claimed to be a carpenter. One night he confessed to me over a beer that he really lived off profits from 45 cannabis plants he grew each year hidden in woods.

Today he can finally go legal, if still in business. For the Golden State has legalised recreational use of cannabis, opening up the biggest marijuana market in America. Medical cannabis has been permitted for two decades – as it is for more than half the US population – but now Californians over age of 21 no long need a doctor’s approval if they want to use weed without breaking the law. The state joins seven others allowing casual usage, with Massachusetts set to follow suit later this year.

This is a watershed moment for drug prohibition, a stupid policy that predictably proved such a boon to gangsters. Not just because it was Richard Nixon, a former state congressman, who launched the disastrous war on drugs during his shamed presidency. But because this is the most populous state in the country, so wealthy it is the world’s sixth biggest economy and so influential as home of the global entertainment industry. This $7bn new market will alter the economic, physical and social landscape while expected to raise a handy $1bn annually in taxes.

So roll up, roll up, for a hippy new year? Certainly reform in California was pushed by libertarians in a culture riddled with cannabis. This is home to Haight-Ashbury, after all. Already there is talk of culinary cannabis, special smoking lounges – and fears of big business forcing out small farmers such as my summer friend. Yet this seismic shift is just part of the fast-changing global scene on drugs, driven as much by criminal justice and health concerns as by arguments of personal freedom – although sadly Britain sits on the sidelines to our immense national detriment.

Country after country is recognising the failure of the drug war and its tragic impact in destroyed lives, devastated communities and damaged countries. Just look at the maelstrom of deadly violence in Mexico, the lethal arrival of ever-stronger drugs at lower prices – or listen to gangland experts such as Misha Glenny. ‘If you want to do something about organised crime, the quickest way to do it is legalise drugs,’ the author of McMafia told The Guardian. ‘In Latin America, more than 100,000 people are murdered every year because of drug laws fashioned in Washington. It’s the most immoral thing that I’ve come across.’

Thankfully things are changing fast. Across the US border Canada is preparing to end pot prohibition this year, a flagship domestic policy for the government of Justin Trudeau. This follows a similar move last summer in Uruguay and is even more significant than California’s step. Given that Canadians already spend as much on weed as they do on wine according to official data, it makes sense to accept reality. Yet this bold political move is being overseen by a former police chief to protect children, backed by hefty spending on public education.

Contrast this to Britain, where regulation on alcohol ensures it is easier for children to buy cannabis than beer while profits from an unregulated drug market fuel the criminal gangs wrecking deprived communities. Skunk shows again how prohibition leads to stronger drugs – which are easier to smuggle in smaller quantities – while spice, a potent synthetic alternative, wreaks havoc in heavily-guarded jails. Yet the government bleats about stopping drug use alongside its mantras on social justice and mental health while refusing to explore if legal regulation might be safer and saner for society.

Britain looks increasingly isolated, despite efforts by a handful of progressive police forces to stop prosecuting drug users. More than 25 countries are pursuing reform worldwide. In Europe, Portugal blazed a path by decriminalising all drugs in 2001, slashing heroin use so fast that today its drug mortality rates are one-tenth those seen in Britain. Norway is shifting from punishment to treatment after MPs from across the political spectrum united last month to push this cause in parliament. Ireland is introducing safe drug consumption rooms.

Others are shifting on the cannabis front. In Holland, a new right-wing government is trialling four models of legal mass production; despite those smoke-filled coffee shops, production is currently illegal in the country. Germany is loosening rules on medical marijuana in bid to seize control of a potentially massive market. This is bad news for Britain, which has the world’s most valuable firm in this sector amid excitement over its new cannabis-based treatment for childhood epilepsy. And the biggest player in the US is run by a Briton, who would love to offer his products to patients with conditions such as cancer and chronic pain in his native land.

Our government loves to talk about global Britain. Yet while ministers mouth dreary platitudes about preventing drug use – often despite their own experiences and while hypocritically glugging back glasses of alcohol – the cannabis conundrum shows again how we are being bypassed by more progressive nations. Clearly Theresa May dislikes evidence that challenges her prejudices but I sense change in Westminster. So it would be good to see MPs show some new year resolution by coming out of their stupor on drugs and taking back control, at least on cannabis.

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