In the last decade, 14 states in the US have decriminalised the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. And although the current legal status is still somewhat confused, indications are becoming clear that its acceptance in at least some parts of society is becoming more widespread.
Since the 1950s, marijuana played a part in American culture and in its early days was seen to be a vice as serious as heroin and prostitution. But in the decades that followed, the use of marijuana as a recreational drug has become almost expected in colleges and universities throughout the US.
The original marijuana smokers are now parents and grandparents, with their hippy days far behind them and few, if any long-term negative effects. Its acceptability as a recreational drug has now almost become a rite of passage among Western youths to the extent that it is no longer seen as a stigma or hazard to future prospects to have been a user in years gone by. Indeed, David Cameron became British Prime Minister earlier this year, despite it being known that he smoked marijuana at school.
He is not alone either. Former US president, Bill Clinton also confessed to using the drug, although he famously claimed never to have inhaled.
If these men can become national leaders on the world stage, despite having confessed to and gone unpunished for what is in their own countries, still regarded as a serious offence, it could be taken as a sign that a full legalisation, or at least decriminalisation is on the way.
But its former reputation as a hard and addictive drug lingers on and no politician is yet willing to put their career on the line by calling for Cannabis use to be taken off the statute books as a criminal offence.
One of the principal problems is classification and definitions. As smoking marijuana is a crime, all marijuana smokers must be criminals, associate with criminals and engage in criminal activities. From that point of view, what government would want to give into the demands of criminals?
But as can be seen from alcohol prohibition in the early part of the 20th century, decriminalising a substance decreases the numbers of so-called criminals without lowering the number of users.
It does however isolate those involved in the genuinely criminal distribution networks, who are not merely end users – the smugglers, the importers and the pushers, who sell cannabis as one of many drugs on offer.
If cannabis were sold from behind the counter of a chemist or corner shop, users would not have to come into contact with street dealers and the dangers of cannabis becoming a “gateway drug” to harder narcotics would be minimised. In addition, the US legal system would have to deal with 700,000 fewer crimes every year – those associated with the possession and use of marijuana.
Another argument in favour of full legalisation is that it is considered by medical professionals to be a relatively harmless drug. While there is evidence of depression being linked to overuse and it is a known fact that breathing in cannabis smoke on a regular basis significantly raises the risk of cancer, there is as yet, no suggestion that casual use poses an immediate danger to health.
In spite of politicians’ reluctance to commit, those on the front line of the fight against drugs have given a qualified endorsement of cannabis as a recreational drug and in 2000, the British Police Federation said in a report that, “By any of the major criteria of harm – mortality, morbidity, toxicity, addictiveness and relationship with crime – cannabis is less harmful than any of the other major illicit drugs, or than alcohol or tobacco.”
This is not to say that they will tolerate its use, or fail to arrest those caught smoking Marijuana in public, but perhaps those who make the laws may eventually listen to those who have to enforce them.
And perhaps it can soon be realistically hoped that the common sense displayed by law enforcement officers in other parts of the world, may spread back to America.