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Should SA legalise marijuana?

Nicotine is probably the most addictive recreational drug around. Just ask anyone who has ever tried to quit. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), tobacco is the single greatest cause of preventable death globally. The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention describes tobacco as "the single most important preventable risk to human health and the most important cause of premature death worldwide".

Yet, tobacco is legal.

Alcohol is not only unhealthy and addictive; it's also tearing at the fabric of our society. According to the Automobile Association of South Africa (AA), the majority of all fatal accidents are caused by drunk drivers, while the bulk of pedestrians and people who die in motor vehicle accidents were under the influence of alcohol. A South African multi-centre study demonstrated that 78,9% of all patients at trauma units with violent injuries tested positive for alcohol. Of all homicides, more than 50% were alcohol-related. In South Africa, as elsewhere, when people get drunk, death and destruction all too often reigns.

Yet, alcohol is legal.

The glaring absurdity of a ban on marijuana while the more harmful alcohol and tobacco are tolerated, as well as a host of other very strong policy arguments, has led many to clamour for legalisation.

"The benefits of legalisation exceed the disadvantages," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of San Francisco's Pro Legalisation Drug Policy Alliance. "We know that marijuana is available to anybody who wants it."

The results of three surveys in the US over the last ten years reveal that young people said it was easier to buy marijuana than it was to buy alcohol.

"So this notion that somehow we're protecting young people by keeping marijuana illegal for adults is a joke really," says Nadelmann.

He says the question that South Africans have to ask is, "Do the costs of keeping marijuana illegal - throwing non-criminals in jail, eschewing enormous amounts of tax revenue, keeping it a black market industry powered by organised and unorganised criminals, no quality control, revenue collected by criminals rather than law-abiding entrepreneurs, etc - outweigh the benefits?"

"Should you not rather legalise and regulate more or less like you do with alcohol? There are massive advantages in terms of taxation, regulation, undercutting the black market, putting fewer people in prison and reducing low level police corruption.

"The same arguments that are persuading people in my country will ultimately persuade people in your country as well."

He adds that while legalisation might increase use "somewhat", this will not be the case amongst young people.

"Young people already have such easy access to it. I think the principal increase you'll see will be among older people. It will be people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. It will be people who find that having a little marijuana is better than taking a sleeping pill at the end of the night, or who find they prefer it to having that glass of alcohol, or that it helps with their diabetes or their arthritis. It'll be the type of marijuana use that is somewhat recreational, somewhat medical, and lies in that in-between area.

"Quite frankly the risks of an increase in elderly people using marijuana compared to the potential benefits make it a non-issue," says Nadelmann.

He mentions the wildly successful example of Colorado, which six months completely legalised the recreational use of marijuana.

"The sky did not fall. Those who used to buy marijuana on the black market are now buying it legally and paying taxes. Colorado is earning a fortune in tax revenue; in years to come it'll amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. The funds from marijuana taxation are building schools and funding police departments. There's not much harm, but a lot of good and less crime."

Israel is another model that South Africa can look to, says Nadelmann.

"Their Health Ministry runs the medical marijuana industry and they currently have about 15,000 patients. It's all very well done. There are so many models for South Africa to look at."

Marijuana was legal almost everywhere before widespread prohibition took hold in the late 1930s. The tide, however, is turning rapidly, with many countries now mulling legalisation.

In 2013, following in the footsteps of the US states of Colorado and Washington, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the sale, cultivation and distribution of marijuana.

Other countries that recently legalised the medicinal use of marijuana include Canada, the Czech Republic and Israel.

Listen to the podcast for more detail.

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