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Inside Story

US Marijuana: Pot luck or politics?

As Barack Obama says the drug is no more dangerous than alcohol, we ask if American society is ready for legalisation.

Last updated: 22 Jan 2014 09:19
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US President Barack Obama has openly admitted to smoking marijuana as a young man. Now he is stirring the debate on legalising the drug.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Obama said: "I don't think it [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol ... in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."

His comments to the American magazine come at a sensitive time as the lobby to decriminalise the drug gathers pace.

By any objective scientific measure, marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, is less toxic … is less addictive. About 9 percent of people who use marijuana become dependent at some point, for alcohol that figure is 15 percent, so it is less harmful to the individual user. It is also less harmful to society. Alcohol is linked to about a third of all violent crimes in our culture … so there is not a question. Both to the individual user and to society marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and I think as a society we should treat it this way.

Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project 

Obama said the legalisation of marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington would be a challenge, but he added: "It's important to go forward because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."

However, he also sounded a note of caution: "Those who argue that legalised marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems, I think, are probably overstating the case."

Marijuana remains illegal in the United States under federal law, but 21 states allow or are about to allow marijuana for medical use.
 
Colorado and Washington have just passed laws to decriminalise the use of the drug and, in December, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the sale, cultivation and distribution of cannabis.

Decriminalising marijuana would see offences managed by issuing fines or other civil penalties. But there are no criminal arrests or charges. If the drug is legalised, it would not be a criminal offence, but instead be regulated like alcohol and tobacco - possibly with a few more restrictions.
 
Attitudes towards marijuana are changing within American society. A Gallup poll last October in the US found for the first time that a majority of Americans - 58 percent - favoured legalising it, and 39 percent said it should remain illegal.

This a huge swing from when Gallup first asked the question in 1969; back then only 12 percent of those asked said marijuana should be legalised.

The so-called war on drugs has also been costly, and to date, not particularly successful.

The Bush-era operation 'Fast and Furious' allowed hundreds of US weapons to be passed to suspected gun smugglers, in the hope that they could be traced to Mexican drug cartels. But the US lost track of the weapons.

The Merida Initiative launched in 2008 gave anti-drugs training and aid to Mexico and other Central American countries. But Mexico's own war on drugs has claimed an estimated of 60,000 lives over the past eight years.

The US currently gives Colombia $1.3bn in military aid to tackle drug cartels, yet cocaine production in Colombia is still among the highest in the world.

So, is the US ready to legalise cannabis? Is marijuana really less harmful than alcohol? Can legalisation lead to less crime? And what impact could legalisation have on other countries in the region?

To discuss this, Inside Story presenter Adrian Finigan is joined by guests: Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, and a former district prosecutor; and Jeffrey Reynolds, the executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

"When the president says that marijuana isn't as dangerous as alcohol is like saying that rattles snakes are not as dangerous as cobras, they are both dangerous and they both pose significant health consequences  …  so I am really worried about the direction we are heading in our decision."

Jeffery Reynolds, a public health expert

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