My colleague expressed consternation recently when he forwarded me a link to an article1 claiming that tobacco giant Phillip Morris had released a new brand of marijuana cigarettes.
As it turns out this article was a satirical piece that rung a little too true, given the fact that US states Washington and Colorado have recently regulated the sale of cannabis.2
By the way, there is no difference between the term 'cannabis' and 'marijuana' except that health professionals refer to it as 'cannabis' which is its botanical name whereas 'marijuana' is Mexican Spanish slang and also the more common street name for cannabis - they are signifying the same drug.
The hoax email from colleague did provide me with some useful food for thought: my colleague was upset that Big Bad Tobacco was going to be adding still more cash to its coffers; profiting from the use of cannabis.
My reaction to the hoax/hypothetical was decidedly different.
NEW COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITIES
After Washington and Colorado recently regulated cannabis for recreational use, different companies have started looking for ways to capitalise on the drug. The emphasis at this time is, perhaps predictably, on cannabis dispensaries and growers, but according to Examiner, new business opportunities are arising in other areas as well.
The company Surna, for example, was created specifically to target the cannabis industry. CEO Tom Bollich (cofounder of Zynga, the online gaming company that created Farmville) set up the company in Colorado, joining forces with veteran gardening company Hydro Innovations, to produce water-chilled cooling systems for cannabis.
On top of this, companies already tied to the industry like mCig, Medical Marijuana Inc. and GrowLife, are expected to see a “surge in business”3 since the regulation in Washington and Colorado.
SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH REGULATION?
Although both Washington and Colorado have in a sense 'legalised' cannabis – first for medical use and now more recently for recreational use – they have taken different approaches to the regulation of it.
There are, however, some similarities: recreational users must be twenty-one years of age or older to purchase, possess or use cannabis in both states. Like alcohol and tobacco, it is illegal for retailers to sell cannabis to minors, and cannabis can only be purchased at licensed retailers. Both states also prohibit the public use of cannabis.
Washington is more restrictive than Colorado in its regulations: personal growing is strictly prohibited and licenses to sell cannabis are hard to come by.
Despite voting to regulate cannabis in 2012 the first licensed stores only opened this August (whereas Colorado saw stores opening in January).
There is a cap on the number of licenses available (just over 300 stores are allowed) and advertising is restricted.
The marijuana sold is “regulated, tested for impurities, heavily taxed and in short supply” 4
The short supply is due to commercial growers only having limited crops available when stores officially opened, as heavy restrictions are in place:
“Washington's Liquor Control Board began working right away to develop rules governing just about every aspect of the industry, from what fertilizers can be used to how extracts are produced. Fewer than 100 growers have been approved, and only about a dozen were ready to harvest in time for the market's launch.” 5
Washington’s experiences and regulations differ greatly from Colorado, where information on legalisation is more readily available.
[This information is taken from North Denver News]
Colorado residents can possess up to one ounce of cannabis at a time, whereas state visitors can only purchase ¼ ounce of cannabis. It is also illegal for marijuana to be taken out of the state; so visitors may not purchase cannabis and leave with it. Denver International Airport also bans the possession, use or transfer of cannabis.
The use of cannabis in public spaces is strictly prohibited. It can only be used on private property and, in some cases, certain establishments (hotels, motels etc) provided they expressly allow the use of cannabis on their property.
Cannabis is also prohibited in vehicles: it cannot be consumed nor can packaging be opened while in a vehicle. It is illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana just as it is illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol. Specifically, it is illegal to drive with more than five nanograms of cannabis in your system.
People under the age of twenty-one are not allowed in stores selling cannabis, as per rules passed by the Department of Revenue.
In accordance with a Colorado government report, both retail and medicinal cannabis must be packaged in a specific “child resistant” way in order to minimise risk:
“[Packaging must be] designed or constructed to be significantly difficult for children under five years of age to open and not difficult for normal adults to use properly … Opaque so that the product cannot be seen from outside the packaging; Closable for any product intended for more than a single use or containing multiple servings, and labeled properly” 6
Under Colorado Amendment 64, citizens can grow up to six plants (three of them mature) in a private, locked space, and legally own all produce grown provided it stays on the premises. One ounce of cannabis is also permitted while traveling (provided it is not consumed/opened), and buyers are able to give up to one ounce as a gift to others aged twenty-one or older.
Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Colorado since 2000. Under Amendment 20 patients with written consent can possess up to two ounces of medicinal cannabis. Other laws and regulations are consistent with those for recreational cannabis growing and use.
WHERE DOES ALL THE TAX GO?
In Colorado, the state passed Proposition AA. This adds 10% on top of cannabis sales as well as the standard 2.9% sales tax. Plus 15% was added to the wholesale figure. The big question that is currently being asked is where is the money going to go. Colorado seems to have accrued around an extra $30 million in tax since they began regulating cannabis. Politicians have said that the first $40 million will go into schools and back into regulating cannabis. To me it would seem foolish not to put this money back into drug treatment and health promotion campaigns akin to our tobacco ads. This way the polluter pays.
BUT WHY WOULD WE REGULATE A SUBSTANCE SIMPLY TO TREAT IT THE SAME WAY AS WE TREAT THE SMOKING OF TOBACCO?
To me it's about control. When I witnessed, for the short space in time that it happened, the regulation of the use of synthetic drugs in New Zealand, there was a moment of great control by the government and law enforcement. For that moment, when they had the distributers, retailers and marketers signed up to the new code, they had a tremendous amount of information and control. The government had dealers who had previously been part of a black market now part of a transparent market. The government could test the chemicals being produced and could discover how many people were purchasing the drugs. That sort of information is almost impossible to come by when you have a black market. In a black market we have no control and the control is held by powerful syndicates. And to come back to tobacco and how we regulate that - everything we've done with tobacco has seen a decrease in the use of it. And is there a black market for cigarettes? No - even with the burden of taxes, it's far too costly to sell illegal tobacco. And so you see with more control, it's easier to tighten the screws on drugs that are licit. It's pity we're not tightening the screws on alcohol companies. It does beg the question.
WHAT IF REGULATING A SUBSTANCE INCREASES MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES?
It's important to remember that by regulating a substance, it doesn't reduce either the dependancy of some users and it certainly doesn't reduce the burden of mental health issues. But on the other hand it's unwise to jump to the conclusion that it would increase mental health issues. In fact, if we look at how NSW has dealt with heroin over the past 15 years, we have in many ways regulated its use through needle syringe, medically supervised injection and methadone programs.
But it would also be possible, considering an uptake of cannabis use, of a possibility of mental health issues associated with it. That possibility cannot be denied. But getting to people sooner because there is less stigma around a drug's use - in the same way as we've been able to get to people using heroin sooner, is also beneficial. That is why the Colorado experiment is so vital to track. Again, it's about getting to people who are suffering from mental health issues sooner and a black market slows us down tremendously for various reasons including stigma and fear of being caught.
WHO MAKES MONEY FROM THE DRUG TRADE IN AUSTRALIA?
Where do the profits from our illegal drug trade end up? The short answer is: in the hands of the criminals who sell them.
Organised crime in Australia costs us around $10 billion a year, and a primary contributor to that figure is the illegal drug trade:
“Illicit drugs are responsible for at least half of Australian criminal activity, thanks to our country's massive domestic demand for drugs. When you add to this illicit drug trade the money-laundering and fraud that go with it, the combined figure makes up at least 75 percent of all organised crime.” 7
The most prominent drugs organised crime bosses are deriving their massive profits from are ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, ice, amphetamines – and of course, cannabis.
THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS
I hope my kids grow up and never use any drugs but that hope alone has never worked for most kids.
If my kids do use drugs, I hope the harms associated with their drug use is minimised and that they aren't harmed by an unjust criminal system.
And if they do come to some harm, I would like to be able to hold someone responsible.
It would be nice to think I could sue the supplier or manufacturer of a particular brand of ecstasy, ice or cannabis for poisoning a young person.
It's not impossible - in 2005 a family was compensated $8 million by KFC after the court found that a young girl from Sydney was poisoned and left handicapped by a chicken wrap.
When I looked at that photoshopped mockup of the fake Marlboro M brand marijuana cigarette packet, my reaction was not one of consternation, but rather optimism.
When you compare it to the alternative, how much control do you feel you have currently?
1. Phillip Morris Introduces Marlboro Marijuana Cigarettes by Akoy Ciraulo
2. Gone to Pot by Snopes
3. Three Companies Capitalizing on Cannabis Right Now by Alan Brochstein
4 and 5. Washington Legal Marijuana Sales Begin Today by GENE JOHNSON
6. Retail Marijuana Code from Colorado Government website: http://www.colorado.gov/
7. ILLICIT DRUGS: Australia's $10 billion industry - organised crime by David Perrin