The Business case for Cannabis legalisation

The political process in Ireland is as prone to mendacity and falsehoods as anywhere else, but one of our most obvious flaws is the failure to think of new ideas. Every business in the world tries to innovate and to come up with new ideas in order to gain a competitive advantage, but in Ireland, at least from a national perspective, nothing can be done without someone else’s example.

From transport to health to same-sex legislation, the standard questioning in the media revolves around where the idea has been tried before and how that has worked out. If something hasn’t been tried, the standard argument against it is that ‘nobody else has done this’.

This circular argument compels us to take our cues from others, and while it is often a reasonable approach, in other cases it prevents us from acting in this country’s best interests.

We are a small country where the six stages of separation from each other may in fact be only two or three, and putting one’s head above that cliched parapet may result in lost job opportunities, or even public ridicule. A person who supports gay rights, for example, will be assumed to be gay. Nothing is ever said, but it is noted.

Similarly, a person who advocates the legalisation of drugs is supposed to be a pothead/stoner, because why else would a person care about such a thing?

That’s regrettable, because there is a strong business case right now for the legalisation of marijuana cultivation. Unfortunately, it will never get heard because no-one in the business community could be taken seriously if they advocated it. Not because the idea makes business sense and is a reasonable proposal, but because of that immediate ‘stoner’ label – ‘not to be taken seriously’ classification.

The fact is that around the world, medical and recreational marijuana use is being legalised at almost the same pace it was decriminalised previously. Several American states have legalised recreational marijuana use, while many more have legalised medical use.

Jamaica and Uruguay have also decriminalised cannabis for recreational use and many more are expected to follow. But before I get to the business case for legalisation here, let’s take a quick look at how marijuana got criminalised in the first place.

Marijuana is illegal because of one man – Harry Anslinger. There were about 30 States and a few countries that had prohibited cannabis by the time Anslinger became Head of the Bureau of Narcotics in the US, following a stint as assistant Federal Prohibition Commissioner. When Prohibition was shown to be a complete disaster and repealed, (while also creating a huge criminal infrastructure across the United States) Anslinger turned his attention towards banning cannabis.

His motivation was not just racist (Quote – “Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with female students (white) smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result, pregnancy.”) it was to retain the huge bureaucracy left over after prohibition.

He wasn’t the first civil servant to try to maintain as much money, power and staff as he could, but he could only do this by lying about the effects of marijuana and the consequences of smoking it. He did this while ignoring medical advice because that didn’t fit.

Eventually, Anslinger was able to persuade a section of the American public on the imagined dangers of marijuana and laws were passed criminalising possession. Anslinger’s view of the drug was undoubtedly influenced by his racism – marijuana was smoked by Mexicans and African-Americans and its criminalisation allowed police forces across the US to harass/arrest black men without sanction. It was, after all, against the law.

America’s decision to criminalise cannabis had consequences for everybody else too. The US sought to have its drug laws made universal through various international agencies, and because of its standing and world power, many countries complied. This was mainly to combat cocaine and heroin, but the US had to insist on all its laws being followed, or it would have looked hypocritical. So cannabis got drawn into the campaign.

If you’ll forgive the pun, cannabis prohibition was the slow-burning version of prohibition, and it had much the same effects – people who used the drug ignored the laws, and a large criminal industry was built up on the back of its illegality.

That ‘War of Drugs’ has been a dismal failure and has caused many miscarriages of justice. I recommend Eric Schlosser’s ‘Reefer Madness’ for anyone who wants to read further, but for our purposes, there is a huge black market for cannabis in the US and elsewhere, and it is growing because there is a demand.

Therefore, there is potential for quite a large industry and equally large numbers of jobs which, in a small country like Ireland, would have quite an impact. While we are in the early days of cannabis legalisation, branding and quality have already become huge factors in States like Colorado and Oregon where the drug is legal.

The entrepreneurs who have developed new cannabis products in the US already have successful brands and are diversifying into other products. In this country, we have a thriving retail cannabis market, but no innovation, no jobs and no tax on a product that many of our own citizens consume regularly.

Instead we waste police time investigating people who, in another jurisdiction, would be classified as entrepreneurs.

I’m not even suggesting here that we make cannabis legal – though if we were to have a cannabis industry it would be somewhat hypocritical not to – simply that we begin to cultivate it and develop products that can and will be sold around the world.

The only reason we have not done this so far is the fear of being ostracised by our EU and American pals. But since the ground has completely shifted on cannabis in the last few years, no-one could seriously complain about our attempts to develop a marijuana industry.

Other countries already have a head-start. But we have several factors on our side – a strong agricultural sector that’s good on innovation, a good reputation as a country for quality in agriculture, brand name recognition around the world, and the chance to promote ourselves every year on March 17.

We could add a huge sector to our economy and create long-term sustainable jobs as a result if we were willing to grasp this particular, eh, nettle.

But as cannabis continues to be legalised around the world, we need to get ahead of the curve and establish Irish cannabis as a premium brand that is up there with Bailey’s, Guinness and Irish beef. We need to supply our customers with what they want, and the demand is not only there – it’s on the cusp of spectacular growth.

Can we really afford to throw away this opportunity because of the fear-mongering of a self-serving American racist from the 1930s? Or will we look to the future and create a vibrant economic sector that is sustainable, growing and job-producing?

My bet is that we will, but only after many others have done so, thereby limiting our wealth-creating possibilities.

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