Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

THE British parliamentary report in favour of legalising cannabis for medical purposes, and the decision of some states in the US to make it legal to smoke it, raises the question: why don’t we follow the Colorado example? After all, we are renowned for growing the best stuff.

It is four years since Colorado voters decided 55%-45% to legalise marijuana, allowing adults to possess, sell and cultivate limited amounts. The referendum was close and aroused passionate argument.

Those in favour argued that dagga (as we call it) was less harmful than cigarettes or hard liquor and made life comfortable for chronic illness sufferers. Those against predicted an increase in criminality, violence, sexual crimes and general laziness. Added were the dangers of driving under its influence. Some used medical arguments — paranoia being one. The Colorado police were uniformly (ahem) against.

The legislation gave no blanket permission. One could sell it, but no more than 28g per person. You could grow it, but only in a sealed-off room. Each plant sold had to be tracked, and dried cannabis had to be tested for its strength and sold in child-proof containers.

Since Colorado took the plunge, 24 other US states have followed — four have made recreational use legal, and the rest approve only its medical use. The four seem to have followed the Colorado experience, seen the result and jumped in to get the same tax bonanza. There are reports that 14 other states may do the same.

There are more advantages than increased tax revenue in making cannabis legal. For a start, the number of people arrested for possession has fallen by 80%, which has reduced the number of young black Americans, in particular, who were being jailed or fined, cut the cost to the state and made a dent in the tax-free incomes of the real criminals of the drug trade.

Colorado’s state coffers have also benefited mightily. Last year, about $130m came in, cash that is earmarked for schools, behavioural health monitoring and the police.

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For producers in what is now a billion-dollar industry, there are still legal problems. US federal law has not changed. Banks risk punishment if they accept cash from sellers or producers of cannabis, which means it is a cash business. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs have expanded their operations. One apparently employs 70 people with a salary bill of more than $3m a year.

But it is not all peace and light. The police have no way of testing drivers who may be "stoned" and claim they cannot keep up with the new regulations.

So, what are the lessons we could learn? Well, legalising dagga growing, distribution and sales has the potential to give a new source of income for the South African Revenue Service. The black market has already proved itself highly competent at growing, distributing and selling dagga countrywide, so it is likely they would grow and create more jobs if they were legal and not constantly harried by the police.

After all, the "pirate" taxi industry, once illegal too, is now providing a valuable public transport service employing thousands.

The costs of jailing dagga growers and smugglers would be saved. Our jails would be less crowded — and since the cultivation of dagga’s cousin, hemp, would no longer be a problem, the expertise that already exists in some of the poorest parts of SA could be marshalled into a flourishing export industry.

In short, we have the best climate for growing both dagga and hemp, and hemp fibres — as the motor industry worldwide knows — are already used extensively. Cloth made from hemp is so durable that not so long ago, a man could leave his shirts to his grandson, not to mention its excellent qualities for rope-making.

We would be wise to watch Colorado and the other 13 US states closely for the benefits that free enterprise can usher in when the law gets out of the way.

• Bryer is a retired communications consultant