Jan 14, 2014

    Colorado's marijuana policy a real potshot

    FROM this month, adults in Colorado have been able to get marijuana cigarettes as easily as regular tobacco smokes.

    The American state has begun licensing retailers to sell marijuana joints for recreational use.

    Supporters tout the Dutch experience as proof that legalisation of recreational cannabis will not lead to addiction with its attendant social ills.

    However, there are lessons from the Dutch experiment that its fans may not highlight. A closer look shows clearly that the latter is very bad drug policy that no other government should imitate.

    A big red warning light is that the Dutch themselves had to scale back their permissive regime in October 2011.

    The Netherlands decriminalised the sale and possession of up to 30g of marijuana from 1976. Special coffee shops were licensed by the government to sell marijuana, which attracted locals and foreigners.

    But a 2011 University of California, Berkeley study published in the journal Addiction noted that the country turned into "a magnet for criminal types". The French and British law-enforcement authorities estimate that 80 per cent of heroin found in their countries transit through Holland.

    Moreover, because the coffee shops were not open 24/7, the domestic black market for marijuana did not go away. Those who were too young to buy it legally also resorted to drug pushers. The study found that marijuana-use rates among the 18- to 20-year-old age group in the Netherlands grew from 15 per cent in 1984 to 44 per cent in 1996.

    Although it was received medical wisdom that cannabis was not so addictive, in the Netherlands increasing numbers of marijuana users did become addicted. Some even developed psychotic problems that led to rising numbers of hospitalisation.

    The cause of this was traced to the fact that coffee-shop cannabis had been getting ever more potent over the years. Its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content rose from 8.6 per cent in 1999 to over 20 per cent in 2004. (THC is the active ingredient in cannabis.)

    The reason Dutch cannabis became ever more potent was due to selective breeding of plants by cultivators and processors eager to deliver joints with a bigger wallop. Their joints gave users ever higher doses of THC, so their bodies developed tolerance for it.

    This meant that users needed higher doses of THC for the same high. When this happens, a user is said to have become addicted to the particular drug.

    In 2011, it became clear that Dutch marijuana had become too potent. So, the authorities reclassified THC of 15 per cent or higher as a "hard" drug, alongside cocaine and heroin. Tourists were also to be banned from marijuana coffee shops.

    In fact, the Dutch did not even legalise marijuana in the way that Colorado has. Dutch law enforcement simply looked away when marijuana was retailed at coffee shops.

    Commercial production and wholesale distribution were also never legalised. Thus, cannabis was never marketed aggressively in the Netherlands.

    By contrast, Colorado has legalised the wholesale production of marijuana, which will be sold legally to retail stores. So, the Colorado approach is far more liberal than the Dutch experiment.

    Under the new Colorado law, marijuana joints attract a whopping 25 per cent sales tax. From this, the Colorado state government expects to rake in US$67 million (S$85 million) this year. This should set alarm bells ringing, for Big Tobacco looks set to market cannabis.

    Not only does Colorado have every incentive to not stop the sector from growing, given the massive tax revenues, but the state also cannot stop Big Tobacco, as the wholesale production of marijuana can now be sold legally to retail stores.

    How can we guess Big Tobacco wants a piece of the action? In 2010, the United States government compelled Big Tobacco to release a secret document.

    The report revealed that Big Tobacco was poised to seize the marijuana opportunity, reckoning that it will be worth US$10 billion annually as "an alternative product line (as we) have the land to grow it, machines to roll it and package it, and distribution to market it".

    Now that Colorado has legalised the wholesale production and retail sale of recreational cannabis, other states may follow suit.

    If so, Big Tobacco may proceed to commercialise the new sector relentlessly. Prices will drop and seductive advertising will draw in the young.

    This being the danger, and given what is now known about the psychiatric side effects of high THC use, no responsible government should ever emulate Colorado's misguided marijuana policy.