States consider impact of legalizing, decriminalizing marijuana

Friday, December 11, 2009 | 8:59 a.m. CST; updated 1:08 p.m. CST, Friday, December 11, 2009

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: Mind-altering drug production around the world has become an important issue again, but this time it is not narcotic drugs that are the concern. Marijuana is the product under discussion. Seventy-five years ago, 46 states in this country made use of marijuana illegal. The federal government says its illegal now, but several weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder said the government would no longer enforce laws in states where it was legal to dispense marijuana for medical purposes. California legalized use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2006, and since then 12 other states have followed suit. Are we headed down a path toward legalization of marijuana, and if so, what could be the impact? There is talk that California may be headed towards full legalization of marijuana, perhaps to help solve the state’s budget problems through taxes on the drug. Could that be so?

Wyatt Buchanan, Sacramento Bureau, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento, Calif.: That’s right. There is a measure moving through the Legislature to legalize possession, use, cultivation, distribution of marijuana for people over 21. There are also, as California is famous for, ballot measures and there are four circulating right now for signatures that could end up on the ballot next November.

Loory: What are the chances that the citizen petitions could actually pass?

Buchanan: Pretty good. The polls in the state have shown increasing support for doing that consistently. Voters have already approved, in 2006, Prop. 215 to legalize marijuana for medical use. Just in my community, I am seeing people regularly going out to get petitions signed and sometimes lines forming of people waiting to sign up.

Loory: What is the situation in Canada?

Ian Mulgrew, columnist, Vancouver Sun, author, "Bud, Inc.: Inside Canada’s Marijuana Industry": What is happening in Canada is a little more problematic. At the federal level, some legislation is going through Parliament right now that would implement mandatory minimum jail sentences for certain marijuana offenses. Canada has gone back to the future in the last couple of years and begun to toughen up some of its marijuana laws, at a time when many thought that we were going to trail blaze for America. We are probably behind California in terms of the dispensaries, the medical regime, and also in terms of the public discussion about what kind of new regulatory models we could adopt.

Loory: Portugal is a country where not only marijuana but also heavier narcotics are legalized. What is happening there?

Fatima Trigueiros, economist and advisor to the board of management, Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Lisbon, Portugal: It is not legalization that is the issue in Portugal. We have decriminalized possession or use of any drug up to 10 days amount, but it is still a crime to have more than that amount. It is not legalized.

Paul Ames, correspondent, GlobalPost, Brussels, Belgium: Isn’t that a kind of halfway house of pain that we have seen in Holland, where users are made to feel a little more comfortable with decriminalization, but the real problem with organized crime and the scourge in our communities with the underground grow operations continues? We have seen incredible battles in Holland between gangs and surely Portugal is facing the same issue.

Trigueiros: The decriminalization was in force from 2001 in order make drug addicts and occasional consumers more comfortable to come to the health services and be treated. We are aiming to have access to those people and encourage them to go to treatment, and also to protect health in general because those people were not coming to the health services for other diseases. There is no such thing as legalization, but it really is decriminalization because production for instance is still a crime.

Loory: What about the rest of Europe?

Ames: The European Union does not have a single voice. Each country has its own approach to the question of cannabis and other drugs. In the Netherlands, often mentioned in this context, there are a lot of misconceptions. Many people think that there is a drug free-for-all. In fact, they have quite strict policies on hard drugs. Even cannabis is not legalized, it is decriminalized, which means that there are very strict regulations on how cannabis can be used.

Loory: In China and other countries in Asia, there are really strict laws these days?

Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press correspondent, Beijing, China: Yes, Asia-wide really, like Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, China has the absolutely zero-tolerance policy towards drugs of all types. Apart from very hard sentences for dealers including execution — China executes more people here than the rest of the world combined — simple users are routinely sent away for a year either to a rehab facility or a labor camp. Repeat offenders are sent to labor camps for two years or more. Despite that, the problem is growing; it’s mostly heroin. China borders the golden triangle as well as Afghanistan so drugs overflow. Growing wealth in the cities is producing an appetite for cocaine and methamphetamines. The numbers of addicts are growing. The rehab facilities are primitive with a relapse rate of upwards of 90 percent. Fifty grams of heroine can get you the death sentence here, and there is very little sympathy for addicts and their issues.

Loory: Is there any change in attitude towards other narcotics in California?

Buchanan: Not really. This bill in the Legislature is jokingly called the gateway bill, much as marijuana is often called the gateway drug. So far, the lines seem to be strictly drawn at marijuana.

Loory: There seems to be a great difference of opinion among medical people about the use of marijuana, particularly use by younger people. How is this shaking down?

Mulgrew: Most of the regulatory models being proposed see the same kinds of regulations on cannabis that are currently in place on cigarettes or alcohol. The medical community seems to be split, primarily along the pharmaceutical model, because marijuana is a plant and hasn’t been subjected to the FDA, some doctors are concerned about its other effects.

Loory: Is marijuana being prescribed in Portugal?

Trigueiros: Marijuana is not prescribed for teenagers or for anyone. The use of any illegal substance is not criminalized, but it is not prescribed. We are not even discussing the issue of prescribing marijuana as a drug for treatment of other diseases.

Loory: If there is complete legalization in California, will there be the kinds of qualifications that we have in countries like the Netherlands and Portugal?

Buchanan: Perhaps, the details have not been completely worked out. You see it now inside California county by county, even district attorneys in different counties and how they prosecute. Perhaps there might be an opt-out function, creating dry counties that don’t want to participate.

Loory: Tell us about your book, "Bud, Inc.: Inside Canada’s Marijuana Industry."

Mulgrew: The industry here has been huge for at least a decade and is driven primarily by indoor production. The problem with the medical marijuana movement is that it is a Trojan horse for legalization because it makes the environment for law enforcement agencies so complicated that they begin not enforcing the law. Decriminalization is generally a cop-out by legislators from really wrestling with the difficult issues of what kind of legal regime do we replace the prohibition with. Everyone around the world realizes that prohibition has been an abject failure, so we need a new model that will allow us to treat it like the public health problem it actually is. Our children right now can buy marijuana more easily than they can tobacco.

Loory: If legalized, would the use of marijuana, at least in the beginning, increase?

Mulgrew: Actually, marijuana use in the nations where the penalties have been removed is actually less than in America. That is one of the reasons the public health authorities say that a legalized regime allows teachers to talk about it more honestly in the schools and have widespread aboveboard public education campaigns.

Loory: At medical dispensaries in California, you can buy various kinds of marijuana and it appears much of it is not really being used for medicinal purposes.

Buchanan: The bar is low for getting the doctor’s recommendation, to put it mildly. In California law, there are certain things specified, like cancer, that doctors can automatically do it, or any other ailment which your doctor believes medical marijuana could relieve. Headaches, stress, things like that have been used to get the cards. But, there are still plenty of people buying it outside of the dispensaries as well. Many people claim that marijuana is the largest cash crop in a state where agriculture is the number one economic driver.

Loory: Marijuana has been with humanity for thousands of years now and it has had its ups and downs. Whether this is an up period or a down period we don’t really know.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht, and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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