Justin Cremer

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Legalize the safer choice

A joint probably would have been better

Originally published in The Copenhagen Post - December 18, 2011

Last month, the City Council voted 39-9 in favour of a proposal to legalise marijuana use. The proposal, if it gains parliament’s backing, would establish state-run shops for the sale of cannabis.

Despite the council’s overwhelming vote, several national politicians immediately went on the record in predictably reactionary ways, throwing out the same tired arguments against marijuana legalisation that have been debunked numerous times over.

Venstre MP Martin Geertsen called it a “crazy proposal” while Ole Hækkerup of the Socialdemokraterne argued that two-thirds of hard drug users started by smoking hash.

First, if Geersten wants to talk “crazy”, how about the fact that 3,000 Danes die each year from alcohol – as opposed to none, ever, anywhere from marijuana – yet the use of alcohol is not only tolerated, but glorified in Danish society?

This is a people, after all, who celebrate the dawn of the holiday season by counting down the days until the release of a Christmas beer and then promptly go out and drink it until they puke on their nissehue.

While the connection between alcohol use and violent, anti-social behaviour is well-documented, marijuana, on the other hand, has been found to significantly inhibit aggression.

And yet, alcohol is the recreational substance society has chosen to accept. One only has to flip through the TV to see that drunken, boorish behaviour is considered good entertainment – shows like ‘Paradise Hotel’ and ‘Kongerne af Marielyst’ feature young Danes drinking copious amounts of alcohol, sleeping around, and generally acting like fools.

With this message, it is no wonder that statistics from the national board of health show that 62 percent of Danish men and 27 percent of women engage in binge drinking (more than five drinks in one sitting) at least once a month, and over half a million adults nationwide drink more than the recommended units of alcohol per week. On a wider scale, a WHO study from February reported that 2.5 million people a year die from alcohol worldwide, which is more than the global total who die from AIDS.

That’s the legal substance. The illegal substance, meanwhile, has been described – by an administrative judge within the US’s Drug Enforcement Agency, no less – as “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man”, adding that “in strict medical terms, marijuana is far safer than many of the foods we consume.”

In the mid-90s, WHO carried out a study that compared the societal dangers associated with marijuana, alcohol, nicotine, and opiates. Their conclusion?

“[Marijuana risks] are small to moderate. Cannabis poses a much less serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol and tobacco in Western societies.”

Sadly, these findings were removed from the final report under political pressure from the United States. Not terribly surprising, considering the US has jailed over 20 million citizens on marijuana charges since 1965.

To be clear, cannabis isn’t for everyone and some handle it better than others. Politiken newspaper estimated that as many as one-third of the adult Danish population regularly uses cannabis. The majority do so while still being productive, successful members of society, though undoubtedly some develop problems from their use.

But that a portion of users can’t successfully moderate their intake or handle the effects of a substance isn’t factored in to the legalisation of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, or junk food. Why should such an argument apply only to cannabis?

Which brings us to Hækkerup’s ‘gateway’ theory. If he, like so many others who repeat this nonsensical line, is so quick to insist that hard drug users start with marijuana, why can’t he acknowledge that nearly everyone who tries marijuana has tried alcohol or tobacco first? Shouldn’t one of those be labelled the real ‘gateway’ drug? Besides, studies have shown that a vast majority of marijuana users do not go on to other drugs.

Researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction concluded that it is actually the prohibition of marijuana that causes some users to advance to other drugs.

“There is no physically determined tendency towards switching from marijuana to harder substances,” their 1997 study stated. “[However], the more users become integrated in an environment where, apart from cannabis, hard drugs can also be obtained, the greater the chance that they may switch to hard drugs.”

That is a big part of the argument behind the Copenhagen proposal. By criminialising marijuana, it is relegated to an underworld filled with hard drugs and criminality. Denmark’s illegal cannabis trade is estimated to generate upwards of two billion kroner annually. Currently, that money goes primarily to line the pockets of gangs and criminals. If the cannabis trade were regulated and taxed, who couldn’t immediately think of several areas where this money could be better put to use?

As the failed attempt to ‘normalise’ Christiania showed, wasting police resources on the marijuana ‘problem’ is a fundamentally flawed approach. All the years-long crackdown managed to achieve was to spread the illegal drug trade across the city and to sully Copenhagen’s most unique tourist attraction.

Although it has blocked similar proposals in the past, parliament should approve the City Council’s legalisation plan. It’s a sensible approach that would reflect reality and the changing tide of public opinion. Being ahead of the curve on marijuana legalisation would also go a long way in restoring Denmark’s international reputation as a progressive and tolerant nation.

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