Lessons for Ireland in changing US attitudes to marijuana?

Some states in the US have relaxed their marijuana laws, despite the federal government still refusing to co-operate or provide any support, reports John Riordan

THE ‘Mile-High City’ of Denver, Colorado, is appropriately nicknamed. The first Tuesday in November, when Barack Obama was re-elected, the good news kept on coming for the liberal half of America — as Ohio was swinging towards the Democrats, voters with other priorities were celebrating the passage of more lenient laws on marijuana use in Washington and Colorado.

It seemed a liberal development for what is regarded as a conservative nation.

In reality, it widened the chasm between traditional America and its more modern grandchildren.

It was no surprise that these were the two states out in front: Washington is quite liberal, Seattle being the birthplace of grunge music and highly profitable purveyors of strong coffee; while one unofficial nickname given to Colorado is ‘Cannabis Country USA’.

Getting high might be a rite of passage for the majority of American teenagers, but recent legal developments have meant that their elders have seen an opportunity to chase a buck or, if they are ill, to ease their pain without fear of prosecution.

Money talks and entrepreneurs are seeing the production and sale of pot as a growth industry — the so-called ‘green rush’ is on the verge of blossoming.

The increasing acceptance of marijuana’s medical benefits has allowed dispensaries to open in 18 states (along with Washington DC), from Arizona to Michigan and New Jersey to New Mexico, as pressure to legislate continues in other areas of the country.

Connecticut and Massachusetts are the most recent inductees to this list, while reports suggest that there is support for marijuana’s introduction in the country’s largest retirement village, the sunny state of Florida.

Whereas, once, the thought of granny smoking a blunt for medicinal purposes would have caused a scandal, proponents of marijuana’s palliative qualities can cite inhalers and edible treats with a little something in the mix, which have made it healthier and more accessible.

The potential of widespread, legal recreational marijuana use has sharpened the ambitions of entrepreneurs.

“It’s an industry that’s in desperate need of professionalism,” says Seattle-based Brendan Kennedy, who has started up Leafly.com, a user-friendly website that allows exploration of 500 varieties of marijuana, and that provides a database of where they can be bought.

“It’s an entirely new industry. You don’t get opportunities like that many times in a lifetime,” says Kennedy.

According to a report produced by See Change Strategy, a pro-marijuana lobby that claims to have conducted extensive research, the market could be worth an initial $2bn a year, rising to $5bn in five years, before doubling to $20bn per annum.

Of course, there is a huge catch, which is part and parcel of the complexity of the federal system that governs America.

While it’s all very well how each state conducts itself internally, Capitol Hill is clear about its opposition to marijuana, which is regarded as the same threat to society as heroin.

As long as this is the case, banks under the federal umbrella will not work with marijuana dispensaries. That means no business accounts, no convenient way of paying salaries, no ability to accept credit-card payments, and no tax write-offs.

“The federal government has a long history of being very much opposed to the legalisation of marijuana and I don’t think that’s going to change easily,” Harvard University professor, Jeffrey Miron, recently told NBC.

“You could start in on this and then realise that it’ll be years, if not decades, before it becomes a legal product.”

To make matters more complicated, the US Department of Justice might sue Colorado and Washington, a decision that is expected in the next few months.

What form that action would take is something even officials in DC admit they’re not sure about. It’s more of a case of wait-and-see for when the new recreational laws embed, and are put into practice.

The concerns of the federal government are legitimate, of course, with genuine fears that a more frenzied flow of illegal drugs from Mexico will cause further chaos along the border.

“We have treaty obligations with nations outside of the United States,” US attorney general Eric Holder told reporters last month. “There are a whole variety of things that will go into the process of the determination we’re making.”

That said, President Obama, a former dabbler himself, has publicly stated the obvious: federal agents will not have the time, nor the inclination, to arrest individual marijuana users and small-time growers in Colorado and Washington.

November wasn’t a complete success for the movement, however. One other state, Oregon, put a similar constitutional amendment to their voters on election day, but, as with California in 2010, the motion was defeated, preventing the commercial cultivation and sale of the drug.

However, in that Pacific coast state, home to the capital of slacker cities, Portland, people cannot be arrested or jailed for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, while Portland’s own relaxed reputation has been built on 35 years of low enforcement of the law.

Meanwhile, back in Colorado, John Ingold, a reporter who has been following the story closely for the Denver Post, says that some advocates see his state as potentially overtaking the world’s most famous bastion of cannabis culture, Amsterdam.

“Amsterdam’s cannabis coffee shops are really only half-legal, while marijuana sales in the Netherlands are technically illegal,” he wrote.

“The Dutch government recently backed off from a plan to prevent tourists from visiting the shops, but it is pursuing a ban on sales of high-potency marijuana.

“In Colorado, at least, the legal place of marijuana stores is now written into the state’s constitution. Regulations of the stores will have a big impact on what the market in Colorado looks like, but don’t be surprised to see cannabis connoisseurs arriving at Denver International Airport, even though tourism boosters aren’t thrilled at the idea.”

That said, consumption will be tightly controlled and the list of locations that permit smoking will be even more restrictive than for regular tobacco.

Not only will marijuana be banned in public parks, it will be banned on footpaths, and users will have to own the building in which they are smoking, or will have to have permission from the owner, possibly paving the way for dedicated cafés in the mould of the Dutch city.

People with the means to grow their own marijuana are restricted to six plants, only three of which can be flowering, or ready for harvest, at any given time.

Low-key growers can then gift the product to their friends who are aged over 21 years — selling is a crime.

It had been speculated that people would band together to form massive marijuana-growing cooperatives housed in single warehouses, but one of the amendment’s authors, lawyer Brian Vicente, dismissed this, saying that the creation of those types of cooperatives might draw concerns from the feds.

Whatever way it plays out, eventually, it seems appropriate that the route there is a lethargic one, with nobody quite sure how they’ll be able to enact the new law.

As Ingold says: “Washington has a similar valley between legalisation and retail sales, though the state doesn’t allow home growing. Basically, if you have it — no matter how you got it — you can keep it.”

And pass it around, naturally.


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