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Arnold Schwarzenegger believes it could solve California’s spiralling financial crisis and supporters rave about its positive effects, so could marijuana be coming to a shop near you? Shane Dunphy reportsChanging attitudes: Legalising cannabis may be on the horizon in California, thanks to a softened stance from Arnold Schwarzenegger

The drug of choice for the free-love counterculture, marijuana has probably received more mixed press than any other recreational drug. Regular users speak of its positive effects: relaxation, warm, friendly feelings towards others and an expanded world-view.

Medical research, however, suggests that marijuana smoke actually contains more toxic substances than tobacco smoke. A study commissioned by the Canadian government, for example, determined that marijuana smoke contained 20 times more ammonia, and five times more hydrogen cyanide and nitrogen oxides than its legal counterpart, making it potentially much more harmful.

Yet the debate as to whether marijuana and its various related substances ( hashish, kief, and hash oil ) should be decriminalised continues, and the latest place to consider the ramifications of such a move is the US state of California.

Supporters of legalised marijuana claim that the drug can solve California’s spiralling financial crisis. A series of television ads was launched last week supporting a bill by Democratic assemblyman Tom Ammiano that would regulate and tax the sale of marijuana in the Golden State, where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration is in a $26bn ( €18.7bn ) black hole.

One of the 30-second films features an “actual marijuana user”. She is a retired, 58-year-old civil servant called Nadine Herndon, shown in front of her family portraits at home in Sacramento County, where she began using the drug after suffering a series of strokes three years ago. She speaks of the huge cuts to police, schools and healthcare that are imminent due to California’s budget crisis. She points out that Schwarzenegger and his legislature are ignoring millions of Californians who want to contribute by paying taxes on their marijuana usage.

The series of advertisements seem to have achieved their goal, as even the arch-conservative ‘Governator’ has softened his stance, and publicly stated that it is time to open the debate on fully legalising the weed, medical use of which was introduced in California by a majority vote in a 1996 referendum.

Commentators propose that there is a huge demographic in California who will support legalisation — children of the participants of the Summer of Love, who were raised within a hippy ethos, believing that smoking the occasional joint is perfectly normal.

The logical extension to this argument is obvious: if legalising marijuana can solve bankrupt California, then why not Ireland? A recent survey by the HSE showed that as many as 15pc of the Irish population use marijuana regularly ( at least once a year ), while 2pc use it daily. The highest using group, the study found, was 15–34 year olds.

Marijuana, as most people encounter it, is a dry, shredded green and brown mix of flowers, stems, seeds, and leaves derived from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. The main active chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol; THC for short.

The average user will buy marijuana by the quarter ounce, the average price of which is around €100. This will make approximately 20 average sized joints, putting the price of a joint at around a fiver, making it a reasonably competitive alternative to alcohol. Whether legalisation and an added tax would increase this price is open to conjecture. Perhaps a government sanctioned hash farmer, growing in bulk and without the need to hide from the law, would be able to produce a crop more cheaply than the current black market gardeners. And think of all the green jobs.

The campaign for legalisation in Ireland has been ongoing for many years, making a minor celebrity out of its most outspoken and flamboyant spokesperson, Luke “Ming the Merciless” Flanagan, currently a county councillor in Roscommon. Occasionally a TD ( usually in need of some cheap publicity ) will attempt to reopen the legalisation debate, but Ireland has never taken the argument really seriously — a fact that might change if California bites the hemp bullet.

Legalisation has been tried in other countries, with varying degrees of success. Some countries, Belgium, for instance, while not overtly legalising cannabis, tolerate its usage, and so long as the amount in your possession could be reasonably defined as for personal usage, the authorities will turn a blind eye. Canada legally permits small amounts of the drug to be held for personal usage, although marijuana is still grown and traded on the black market and is not yet centrally controlled.

Holland has become synonymous with the legalisation of marijuana, where it can be purchased legally through specially designated coffee shops, in the form of marijuana cigarettes, in teas and in cakes and biscuits. Interestingly, Holland does not condone the purchase of marijuana wholesale or in bulk, and this has, apparently, led to continued problems with the black market sale of the drug, and what the Dutch describe as “nuisance drug users”.

Recent studies of schools in Amsterdam show that the incidence of young people using marijuana regularly is slightly higher than Ireland, at 15.8pc. These studies have also commented on the growing levels of THC, the active ingredient, in Dutch cannabis, suggesting that long-term exposure has created an appetite for stronger and stronger crops, which private growers are doing their best to engineer.

New findings which link regular use of the drug to depression and lethargy have also brought the Dutch government under fire, and earlier this year 27 coffee shops were closed, all within 200 metres of schools. The traditional Dutch stance that marijuana is a harmless and relatively innocent soft drug seems to be under revision.

So while California is considering broadening its laws, Holland, with many years’ experience of selling marijuana openly, is tightening its legislation.

It would seem that this is a debate we will be hearing much more about as the international recession continues.
Source: Irish Independent 25th July 2009

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