For Mary Jane

From Colorado to Uruguay, experiments with legalising marijuana usage. India should take note.

Colorado, which along with Washington state, became one of the first jurisdictions in the world in November 2012 to legalise marijuana for recreational use (as opposed to medical use, which was already legal in 18 American states), welcomed the new year with long lines and stoner jokes outside a store licensed to sell marijuana without customers needing to brandish prescriptions. This comes only a couple of weeks after Uruguay became the first nation to legalise not only its sale and consumption, but also its production. These decisions seem to signal a move towards a looser drug policy in many countries. They have prompted a revival of international debate on the nature and purpose of narcotics laws, which are predicated on the prohibition policy instituted by the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs.

Evidence suggests that strict enforcement of the narcotics law based on prohibition tends to target the most defenceless members along the drug chain. The big cartels and traffickers remain out of reach of the regular law enforcement machinery. Consumption has risen, as has addiction, and filling jails with drug users and street-level suppliers only stresses the criminal justice system, most obviously in the US, where drug convictions account for almost half of those incarcerated in federal prisons. The experience of many Latin American countries and, indeed, of India indicates that a drug control regime based on prohibition does not work, and strengthens the cartels they should be targeting.

Studies have also shown that public health concerns related to marijuana use are overestimated. In fact, a WHO study concluded that the public health risks from cannabis use were likely less severe than those posed by alcohol and tobacco. Similarly, Portugal's 2001 decision to allow personal use of all drugs in small quantities did not lead to the prophesied apocalyptic landscape of cities torn apart by drug-fuelled criminals addiction and crime rates both declined. Such experiments should initiate a much-needed debate on narcotics law in India.

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