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Cannabis: debate comes out of the long grass in US

As cannabis supplies proliferate in Scotland, a US state will next month become the first where shops can legally sell the drug. GILLIAN FURMAGE reports and finds some international comparisons with other liberal - and very illiberal - locations.

A typical thesaurus lists at least 20 alternative names for cannabis sativa and cannabis indica: marijuana, weed, pot, dope, grass, ganja, and many more.

To some, cannabis is a fun way of combating stress, relaxing with friends, or even helping with illnesses such as MS; to others, it is a harmful and illegal drug that endangers users and contributes to crime in society.

What is not in dispute is its widespread availability. Earlier this week, it was revealed that police are raiding a cannabis farm every day in Scotland.

Gangs are using smaller properties to minimise their risk of large quantities being uncovered, according to officers. Cannabis is now seen as so profitable and low-risk that Scottish gangs are competing with those from south-east Asia to try to meet demand.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in the US, the state of Colorado will next month try a different approach: in a bold new move, authorities will allow selected premises to sell cannabis to customers for their own use.

The state, best known for its ski resorts, will be the first in America to introduce recreational cannabis shops after new laws legalise the possession, use and purchasing of marijuana.

Customers over the age of 21 will be able to buy up to one ounce of the drug, although limited to a quarter ounce for tourists.

These new laws have led to Colorado being dubbed "the new Amsterdam", and to fears that so-called drug tourism will lead to weed enthusiasts descending on the state.

However, unlike Amsterdam, there will be no "coffee shops" or public spaces where smoking cannabis will be permitted, so tourists may find it difficult to find an appropriate place to use the drug, as it must be done on private property, with the full knowledge and consent of the owner.

Visitors will also be restricted by the smaller amount they can buy and the fact they can't take it across state lines after purchase.

Some 1400 miles north-west, a second front in the American liberalisation is opening. Washington State, the first to legalise recreational marijuana use per se, is now receiving applications from prospective shop owners and looks set to open similar stores in the near future.

In another radical move, Uruguay has become the first country in the world to legalise marijuana in a bid to nationalise and regulate the business. State-controlled selling and production of marijuana, at a lower market rate for buyers, is designed to deter traffickers and achieve lower crime rates.

In the UK, cannabis is still classified as a Class B drug, with the maximum penalty being two to five years' imprisonment, but with first time users being given verbal cannabis warnings.

There has been much debate over whether cannabis should be legalised in Britain, as many believe new methods are needed to win the drugs war. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has admitted that he thinks we are losing it and that new solutions must be considered.

Campaigners say legalising cannabis here would save the country a great deal of money as people who would normally be in prison, or unable to get a job because of a previous conviction, would be able to work and pay taxes.

The UK, they add, could regulate its own market, set standards for the strength and price of the drug, and therefore improve safety and discourage dealers.

However, opponents point to links between prolonged cannabis use and poor mental health, such as triggering the onset of schizophrenia and paranoia. It is also said to impair memory over time, affect balance and perception, and be a contributory factor in lung cancer.

From next month, the debate here will be reignited by the experience of the state immortalised in the late John Denver song which could have been prophetic: Rocky Mountain High.

The cannabis experience: liberal v. illiberal

Liberal

Washington State: the first in the US to legalise recreational marijuana use and looks set to follow in the footsteps of Colorado and open stores which sell marijuana.

Uruguay: first country to legalise cannabis, intended to mean that the drug is safe, affordable and accessible

Amsterdam: Dutch authorities allow people to smoke together in selected "coffee shops" and it is not a crime to own under 5g of the drug.

Spain: it is legal to grow or smoke cannabis for your own use, as long as it is done in the privacy of your own home.

Portugal: has taken the radical step of decriminalising all drugs, treating this as a social issue rather than a crime. This approach has seen a lowering of drug use and a decrease in the number of people who are HIV positive.

Illiberal

United Arab Emirates: after Briton Keith Andrew Brown was sentenced to four years in jail after 0.003g of cannabis were found on his shoe, tourists have been warned to be aware of the severe laws. The maximum punishment for possession here is the death penalty.

Malaysia: penalties for possession include not just lengthy prison stays, but public lashings (at least ten strikes if more than 50g is found). Again, the maximum penalty is a death sentence.

Indonesia: being found with a single joint can result in a four-year jail term. Taking cannabis into the country can result in up to 15 years in jail and, in the most extreme cases, life imprisonment or death by firing squad.

Singapore: their Misuse of Drugs act is very severe. There is a mandatory death penalty for anyone who is presumed to be trafficking cannabis (owning 17 ounces).

Philippines: having just 5g on your person is enough to merit a long-term jail sentence.

Contextual targeting label: 
Drugs

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