The pitfalls of moving to higher ground

Following this week's United States presidential election the impact here was felt on the stock exchange.

But votes in two states may also have a far-reaching impact. Washington and Colorado backed the recreational use of marijuana. The decision prompted the Seattle Times to write that prohibition had failed.

"Licensing the growers and retailers will take marijuana out of the hands of criminal gangs and bring it into the open, where it can be regulated and taxed," the state's biggest newspaper added.

Both states have rejected federal laws on the use of the drug, but federal laws still hold sway. So on one hand, from next month the two states say it will no longer be illegal for people over 20 to possess an ounce (28.5gm) of marijuana, but on the other the US Department of Justice says its enforcement of controlled substances will remain unchanged.

US media have reported the Obama Administration is expected to challenge and block aspects of proposed law changes but that it is unlikely to be strong enough to stop residents possessing 28.5 grams or less of the drug.

Across the border from Washington, in neighbouring British Columbia, Canada, the American vote is seen as putting another hole in a dam. There is a similar push there to decriminalise the drug.

An editorial in one newspaper there proclaims the vote to legalise recreational pot follows a chorus of calls by prominent leaders on both sides of the border that the war on drugs has been a gigantic failure, particularly with marijuana.

The call for change is certain to be echoed in New Zealand, though the country's major pro-marijuana organisations, Norml and the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, have limited support on either side of the House.

Former ACT leader Don Brash went out on a limb to support a review of cannabis laws a little over a year ago and he suggested there were better ways to spend the $100 million spent enforcing marijuana prohibition. His successor, John Banks, disagreed and the then Labour leader Phil Goff said Dr Brash was "a bit old to be a hippy".

Prime Minister John Key was also having none of it, saying there was no place for drugs in our society.

"That is the thing that leads to criminal activity; it leads to brains being fried, it is a drug that takes them on to other drugs."

But the irony is that dairies are now selling a legal synthetic version of cannabis that is as close as it could possibly be to the real thing.

While pro-cannabis supporters can point to good reasons for permitting a level of recreational use and argue responsible people should not be deemed criminals because they smoke pot, legalising it will come at a social cost. Many parents will testify to seeing their teenagers' "brains being fried" as a consequence of regular cannabis use.

The chances of New Zealand being a leader on marijuana law reform are remote, but what would be a social experiment in Washington and Colorado should be monitored. If the dam is breaking, we should prepare for collateral damage.

Taranaki Daily News