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Mature debate on cannabis use is long overdue

By Eamonn McCann

Published 08/04/2015

‘Claiming it is a gateway drug is just nonsense’
‘Claiming it is a gateway drug is just nonsense’

Actuaries are not normally considered cool. The image is more of desiccated calculating machines - analysing risks, estimating losses, setting the levels of insurance payments. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the latest edition of Contingencies, the magazine of the American Academy of Actuaries, carries an accurate and insightful article on cannabis.

The magazine is concerned to correct a misunderstanding. It seems that many US actuaries dealing with life insurance have been assuming that the risk factors associated with tobacco and cannabis are broadly similar.

Not so, says the official magazine of their profession, definitively.

“Recreational marijuana users enjoy better physical fitness and get more exercise than non-users” and “have even been shown to have higher IQs... The tide is turning. Life underwriters would be wise to be at the front end of this curve, and not stubbornly digging in their heels to the detriment of their products.”

These basic facts are reasonably well-known, if rarely acknowledged by anyone in a position to effect change.

There is no evidence from any art or part of the world that cannabis is as dangerous as alcohol or cigarettes, products which the authorities are patting themselves on the back for discouraging but which are widely, legally available. Anybody out there who imbibes the occasional glass of wine or swallows a pint on a regular basis or smokes a rollie now and again is taking a bigger risk with their health than a regular cannabis user. Fact.

Alcohol or tobacco will make your life miserable and then kill you.

Criminalising cannabis while allowing booze and fags to be sold in shopping centres is the equivalent of making it legal to use residential streets as car-racing tracks while cracking down on people who park in the wrong place.

Last year the number of deaths attributed to cannabis by medical practitioners or in coroners’ courts in either jurisdiction in Ireland was nil. Same as last year, same as the year before, same as ever.

The most egregious inaccuracy peddled about cannabis is that it’s a “gateway” drug leading on to harder stuff. Evidence for this?

Again, none.

It is true, of course, that some hard-drug users start on cannabis. But the connection does not arise from the content or qualities of cannabis but precisely from the fact that cannabis is illegal. To obtain cannabis, it is necessary to venture into murky territory where all manner of dangerous substances are likely to be available.

And since, ludicrously, cannabis is officially put on a par with genuinely dangerous drugs, buyers, particularly the young and impressionable, are likely to think that, well, if each is as bad as the other, crystal meth must be relatively OK.

It is against this background that Andrew Magorrian, Glenn Donnelly and Barry Brown have stepped into the political arena and will be on the ballot papers on May 7 in South Down, North Down and West Tyrone respectively, fighting under the banner of Cista (Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol).

Brown has explained that Cista is “looking to foster an intelligent, mature debate about the merits of legalising cannabis.”

Many of us in favour of legalisation may hesitate to vote for Cista without knowing more about their stance on other issues.

But if they manage to engender an intelligent, mature discussion, they will have done the people of the North, particularly the young people, a signal service.

Cista campaigners will be able to point to the fact that cannabis is now legalised in the US in Washington State, Colorado and Maryland and has either been legalised for medical purposes or decriminalised, as far as personal possession is concerned, in 21 other states — without deleterious effects but providing extra revenue for state coffers.

Tax revenue from cannabis in Colorado is ring-fenced for the upgrade of schools run down as a result of curbs on public spending. The legalisation of cannabis has been of great benefit to the young people of Colorado.

Of course, being less harmful than many legal drugs doesn’t make cannabis entirely harmless. Any substance consumed by sucking smoke into your lungs must be bad for you — albeit that it’s the fact that cannabis is usually mixed with tobacco which causes most problems.

At any rate, smoking cannabis is a lot less dangerous than standing close to a Twelfth bonfire.

All things considered, looking at both sides of the question and taking one thing with another, Cista’s case is as close to conclusive as anything in politics can be.

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