Legalizing marijuana, the U.S is learning, is no easy thing. Even for the most experienced marijuana-tolerant countries, like the Netherlands or Spain, legalization is still an issue enveloped in confusion, contradictory laws and not as clear-cut as it’s presented to the rest of the world.
It’s a new and brave move for the State of Washington, where a measure legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use for anyone over 21, took effect last night. For now, though, it’s characterized by mixed signals, ambivalence and contradictory reactions on the part of federal and state governments.
Not so different, in fact, to what’s happening in the Netherlands – after decades of legal sale and consumption – despite the general belief that you can enter a coffeeshop and buy marijuana selected from an extensive menu offering many varieties and then smoke it freely wherever you want.
For the Dutch, we learn, marijuana use is a private matter that should be framed by the notion that we’re all free to decide our own health habits, and that hiding social problems only serves to make them more difficult to influence and control.
What usually goes unexplained is that even in their tolerance, Dutch marijuana laws have kept production, trading and storing drugs a criminal offense – just like most countries – under the still-valid 1919 Opium Act.
Among owners of Dutch coffeeshops, it’s called “the back-door problem”: While they’re free to sell cannabis in all its forms – marijuana and hashish – to clients who come through the front door of their shops, they’re breaking the law, and could face jail time each time they take in their shipments from their providers through the back door.
Police have no choice but to apply a “spirit of pragmatism” and assume a lenient attitude toward the legal contradictions.
Take Spain, another country considered extremely liberal in its marijuana laws. Nevertheless, while it has decriminalized possession of marijuana plants, trading in seeds and private consumption, it outlaws sale and transport. Public use of marijuana is a midemeanor punished by fines and confiscation.
The idea is to encourage recreational drug users to stay off the streets and out of public areas – which has led to “cannabis clubs,” equivalent to the Dutch coffeeshops, but private.
Police in Spain, as well, had to learn to walk carefully over the grey line.
Not so different than the U.S., except that America’s “official” posture has never been indulgent and the curtain of taboo has remained closed, despite that weed is sold and consumed everywhere, legally under the guise of “medical marijuana” in 18 states and the District of Columbia, and has become so mainstream that it appears without censure in TV and movies.
After all, the U.S is the largest consumer of drugs in the world, a fact popular culture had to reflect sooner or later. Washington state legalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, but like Spain has kept possession and smoking in public illegal under federal law. According to the New York Times, the city’s police department has been told to stand down for now. In Colorado, things are very much in limbo.
Regulators are looking for guidance in this new territory, and the examples are not that clear.
It’s early days still, but judging from the experience of more open and liberal countries, the Washington and Colorado experiments, serving as laboratories for the rest of the country, will likely travel the same unclear route.
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