This month’s US election saw a comprehensive victory for Barrack Obama, and more unexpectedly, same-sex marriage success in two states. The result that will have probably caught most this side of the Atlantic off guard however, provided you heard about it, was the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado and Washington State.

In the United States, marijuana laws have been the subject of extensive debate ever since California passed its medical marijuana act in 1996. Since then, seventeen states have introduced similar laws, but none as game-changing as those in Washington and Colorado.

Details concerning the sale and distribution of cannabis are still to be finalised, but a system of dispensaries, acting as legitimate businesses, is the likely outcome. For now, legislation means that it will be legal to possess up to one ounce, and cultivate up to six plants (in Colorado only), when entering into effect on the 6th December.

The significance of these events shouldn’t be overstated. Nowhere else in the western world, not even Amsterdam where it remains technically illegal, are marijuana users officially protected under law. It is a huge step forward in addressing marijuana prohibition, a policy which has been a complete failure since its inception in the early 20th century.

For too long, thousands of lives have been ruined by a judicial system that has unfairly targeted responsible users, and by the violent black market that the policy fuels. Yet what has prohibition achieved? More people than ever are smoking marijuana, with use on the increase for decades, so it hasn’t worked as a deterrent. Moreover, it has served to shape misguided attitudes and a culture of intolerance toward a drug that not only has great medicinal value, but is by any measure far less dangerous than tobacco and alcohol.

These progressive laws may ultimately represent the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in the US, and hopefully other parts of the world. Colorado and Washington will see many positive socio-economic benefits to a change in their law, provided it is properly implemented. Not only will the extra tax revenue be of huge significance considering the current state of economic affairs, but more importantly there will be, as never seen before, a regulated market.

The dangers associated with street dealing will thus fade, and the quality of the product will be controlled. It is not that uncommon, such is the current state of affairs, to find marijuana that has been laced with other drugs or sprayed with glass so as to increase its weight, something unlikely to occur in a regulated market. Furthermore the age restriction will make it far more difficult for young people to get their hands on it; under 21s in the US consistently report finding it easier to get hold of marijuana than alcohol.

It is in this respect that legalisation is wholly superior to decriminalization, which some argue offers a less radical, but nonetheless progressive approach to the issue. While there’s some value in its role as part of a process eventually leading to full legalisation, it alone does not address the inherent problems with prohibition. It’s hence great to see these two states having gone the whole distance concerning reform.

It may not be all clean sailing in Colorado and Washington though, with state law now presenting a clear conflict with Federal law, in accordance with which marijuana remains an illegal, schedule 1 drug. President Obama led a tough crack down on medicinal dispensaries in California because of this clash, and it’s likely there will be a Federal response of sorts in the future. In America though, states’ rights are a huge deal, and people will not easily surrender a law that has been legitimately introduced via the will of the people.

Above all else, the passage of these laws will ensure that the debate concerning marijuana reform intensifies, hopefully on both sides of the Atlantic, where it has for too long been ignored in the political sphere. Maybe America is finally learning the lessons from its experimentation with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Now it’s time for us to take their lead and at least engage in a serious discussion concerning this failed, immoral war on marijuana and those who choose to use it responsibly.

BY: Joel Crawley

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