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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

11th November 2012

I’ve been trying to keep up to date with all the reporting following last Tuesday’s election results from the USA. I don’t mean the main one, though the re-election of Obama could be of the greatest significance. I’m referring to the votes in Colorado and Washington state to allow recreational use of Cannabis sativa, marijuana.

I can’t claim to be an expert on the American system of government and a lot of the news items I’ve seen assume a greater knowledge than I possess so I’m not going to attempt to interpret the situation overall.

There have been a lot of reports and commentaries and op-ed pieces but, I realised, my antennae are tuned to pick up that sort of news. Someone who is not interested in drug policy may not have seen that level of reporting.

I thought I would try and see how much coverage has been given by the mainstream UK media. Based on a Google News search for ‘Colorado marijuana’ it appears that some papers have covered the issue fairly comprehensively while others have more or less ignored it.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Smoking in public may be back.
Picture dates from 1973

I found six items on the Guardian website. Three are news reports in the immediate period after the results were announced; one is an explanation, from Friday, looking at what the actual effect of the votes will be and the timings involved and today’s Observer has a long analysis from its reporter in Denver and a guest column from Eugene Jarecki, the director of the new documentary ‘The House I Live In’.

The Independent reported the election results, carried an opinion piece about the possible effects on drug policy in Mexico and reprinted a Washington Post op-ed about how the federal government is dealing with the votes.

The other three UK reports in my search results were a piece from the Daily Mail focussing on the issue of whether ‘drug tourism’ could become a problem for Colorado and Washington and two pieces in the Telegraph, one reporting the result and the other, on Friday, about the immediate effect of the vote in Denver.

I haven’t provided any links to these stories. The Google News results contain many more pieces from the US and around the world so I couldn’t provide comprehensive links and any I selected would run the risk of cherry-picking.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

1973 pot smoker

Having found only limited UK coverage via Google News, I decided to search specific outlets. I found two further items in the Mail Online, both fairly straightforward news reporting. The BBC doesn’t seem to rate the votes as that important choosing to lead its ‘also voted for’ piece with the three states that voted to approve same-sex marriage and devoting only 129 words to the cannabis votes in Colorado and Washington.

The Sun chose to headline its brief item ‘Americans vote for change in drugs and gay marriage laws’ though whether the use of ‘drugs’ rather than ‘cannabis’ or ‘marijuana’ was intentional or lazy is hard to say. I’m inclined to go for lazy because the piece says ‘Residents in Colorado, Washington and Oregon will now be able to lawfully spark up joints - after cannabis was legalised for recreational use.’ Oregon, of course, voted down its reform proposal. The Times seems to have just one news report on the votes but this is behind its paywall so I can’t see the detail. Sky appears to have only reported the results but, like the BBC, it put the marriage votes before the votes on cannabis.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

So, in the UK, these votes don’t seem to be being seen as especially significant by the mainstream media. I think it is reasonable to assume that the ‘usual suspects’ of prohibitionist pundits have been having apoplexy, yet, I haven’t found any of them being given space in mainstream publications.

Cathy Gyngell, of course, was able to use her ‘Centre for Policy Studies’ website to put forward her claim that this is a ‘‘putting the lunatics in charge of the asylum’ moment’. But, of course, she does her usual thing of equating any drug use with addiction and misrepresents statistics to bolster her point.

She also quotes Kevin Sabet whose reaction was typical. I did actually wonder to make this piece about the danger to wasps from so many of them being chewed by the likes of Mr Sabet. In a tweet, shortly after the result, Sabet repeated some of the remarks of Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper, who said;

‘…federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don't break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly’

Perhaps because of the character limit on Twitter, Mr Sabet excluded the preceding remarks where Mr Hickenlooper had said;

‘The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will’


‘This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through.’

And this is where the minor issue of two states voting for new ways to deal with cannabis becomes a central issue for American politics. With the broadest of brushes, you can characterise the Republican party as believing that it is every man for himself so decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level. The same brush describes Democrats as the ‘we’re all in this together’ party believing that there is a need for a central view of what is best for the majority of people.

Though it is unlikely that too many Republicans will stand up for cannabis law reform, it is an issue where states versus federal governments is very apparent. If President Obama deploys the full force of federal law to combat reforms in Colorado and Washington, he will be making the Republican argument that the federal government gets involved in places where it doesn’t belong.

I don’t think anyone expects Obama to accept that things have changed and press for the federal government and the UN to recognise this and act to create a considered scheme of regulation, though that is what is required. But, I think it quite possible that federal agencies will have other priorities for their tight budgets and that a blind eye will be turned.

At every opportunity, everyone interested in seeing an end to the substantial harms caused by the present drug control regime needs to remind Mr Obama that it is only because he was lucky enough not to get arrested for his substantial pot use that enables him to be President of the USA. There were times in his first term when, perhaps for fear of being branded ‘soft’, he forgot that truth. Hopefully, with no further elections to win, his second term will see him deal more honestly with this issue.

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