Wednesday, 25 June 2014

No easy choices

The changing times have left the world in an interesting position as the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking was observed by the United Nations (UN) on Thursday.

In recent times, two US states have decriminalised or legalised the use of marijuana and a range of derivative products. The South American nation of Uruguay has also legalised the substance and even as CARICOM continues to debate its direction, Jamaica has moved ahead with relaxing legal restrictions on the use of this dug for personal use. Earlier this month, the Portia Simpson Administration announced that it would be amending the laws related to possession of small quantities of the substance for personal use, smoking in private places and the use of medical marijuana.

Many commentators maintain that it is important that the distinction be emphasised between decriminalisation and legalisation. The former does not declare the substance completely safe, but instead changes the type of punishment meted out to those found in breach of the law. Many see this as a pragmatic tactic in the ‘war on drugs’. It is felt that resources could be put to better use than hearing cases of possession in already backlogged courts and sending such offenders into an overcrowded prison system. It is suggested instead that fines or similar punitive measures be employed. Meanwhile, legalisation takes it a step further and removes the taboo from the use of the product altogether.

Surely this last step might be a difficult about-face to accept for many officials in the healthcare and security sectors. After decades of being on the frontlines of the battle, being told that the war is over can be a tough pill to swallow – especially if the message being sent is that one was fighting for a cause that has been made null and void. However, despite what some fear, legalisation does not mean a total free-for-all and that ganja will become as ubiquitous a flavour as chocolate and vanilla. There is still accommodation for restrictions and regulations to be applied, as is currently the case with alcohol, tobacco and other controlled substances.

Certainly, this is an issue in which there are no easy answers. Human manipulation of naturally occurring substances has resulted in the creation of addictive and harmful substances, some more so than others. Some, due to their history or perhaps the strength of the lobby of their proponents, have established a somewhat respectable status even though their harmful effects are well documented by the medical community. In the end, it may come down to a question of resources and whether it is more cost-effective and feasible to regulate the sale and use of the substance than to prohibit and police it.

Some might say that the writing is on the wall and perhaps the theme for this year’s International Day is indicative of this sentiment. The UN is this year urging persons to ‘make health your ‘new high’ in life, not drugs’. Rather than focus on the ongoing marijuana debate, the international body instead highlights the proliferation of new psychoactive substances (NPS) which it says “can be far more dangerous than traditional drugs”. One only has to recall the spate of bizarre and violent behaviour exhibited by those who consumed bath salts to understand their concern. The UN is therefore asking persons, especially young people, to experience life naturally and not under a chemical haze. But given the mixed signals that are constantly sent about the role of narcotic, pharmaceutical and other types of substances in recreational, medicinal or even everyday use, this is no mean feat.

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