Sunday, August 11, 2013

Uruguay has taken a leap to legalise marijuana

By Pierre Heistein

Weed, dope, marijuana, cannabis – they’re words that strike fear into the hearts of policymakers. Except in Uruguay, where last Wednesday the House of Representatives passed a bill to legalise marijuana.
The bill is expected to be approved by the Senate and signed by President Jose Mujica as the initiative to legalise the drug was not driven by activist groups, but by the president himself.
Once approved, Uruguay will become the first country in the world to legalise the growing, selling and recreational use of marijuana. The world is watching to see what the impact of recreational drug use will be, but in the background the liberalisation may pave the way for a shift in global industries.
Marijuana, also referred to as cannabis, is only useful as a psychiatric drug if consumed in such a way that its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) compounds enter the blood stream to produce an intoxicated sensation. In addition to this use, however, there remain thousands of other applications for the plant.
Researchers at Harvard University have shown that injected THC prevents cancer cells from reproducing, spreading to other organs, and – especially important to brain cancer – it causes tumour cells to turn on each other, causing them to die without damaging surrounding cell matter. Cannabis has also been linked to medical benefits related to glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, and in slowing formations in the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s.
The medical use of cannabis is legal in a number of countries including Canada, France, Israel, the UK, Netherlands, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and certain states in the US. It remains illegal in South Africa. Despite its legality in certain countries, the industry is highly regulated and patients and suppliers need to undergo rigorous qualification processes in order to produce or consume products containing THC.
The UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs allows countries to criminalise the growth and use of cannabis for all non-research purposes and gives the state full control over where and how research into the use of the drug is performed. This places massive restrictions on the progress that can be made in this area of science by pharmaceutical companies or individuals.
The use of hemp, a collective term for strains of cannabis that have no or very low levels of THC, is more widely accepted although still placed under strict regulation. Because of its nutritious oils and strong fibres, hemp is used in a vast range of products including nutrition supplements, fabrics and clothing, ropes, insulation and other building materials, and plastics. Most leading car makers include hemp products in their vehicles. As early as 1941 Henry Ford experimented with hemp and plastic composites to make car bodies lighter and stronger.
While the benefits and applications of cannabis have been, and continue to be, explored, it has always been under a “Big Brother” environment with the law close at hand to ensure that no recreational drug use takes place as a consequence.
Uruguay has taken the leap and opened the gates, and while in the short-term conversation will be dominated by the increasing smoke cloud hanging over the small South American country, the long term could give way to some world-changing technological breakthroughs.
Growth and production of cannabis products may be illegal in many other parts of the world, but the importation of proven technologies with cannabis ingredients is not.
Researchers in Uruguay have been given carte blanche to independently build on the slow progress that has been made in more stringent countries. If they are successful and create profitable medical and goods industries from the liberalisation of cannabis controls, it is likely that the rest of the world will soon follow.
Pierre Heistein is the convener for UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision-Making course.

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