Would cannabis legalisation simply mean normalisation?

by Colin Hogg / 30 May, 2019
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The writer at the MedMen store in Los Angeles.

No smoking in the waiting room.

I had an other-worldly experience just a few weeks ago and it’s haunting me. I was staying in Los Angeles, in a hotel on Broadway in the city’s old Downtown district. It’s an increasingly-trendy part of LA, the old theatre district, one of the few parts of that over-sized city where walking anywhere makes any sense at all.

Retail knows this and the area is filling up with restaurants and stores, some of them pretty upmarket. One, just a block or so from our hotel, had the immediate, space-agey appearance of an Apple store, staffed by enthusiastic young groovers in fetching red uniforms.

The place, amusingly, was called MedMen. Inside, the wares for sale were an eye-opener, especially for an outsider, just visiting, only briefly sampling the pleasures of everyday life in California. It’s an everyday life that might just be on a slow train to New Zealand. A very slow train, I can’t help thinking.

Because MedMen is a cannabis emporium, all shiny and bright and brazenly legal, offering every iteration of the infamous mood-adjusting plant you could imagine – from potent old-school smokables, by the gram, by the ounce or as variously-sized and packaged ready-rolls, through to THC-laced lollies, tinctures, unguents, teas, all sorts of medicinals.

And many other things I mightn’t have noticed, all brightly, blatantly displayed in glass cabinets, shop assistants hovering, eager to guide, explain and sell. MedMen is a chain store. It’s listed on the Canadian Stock Exchange and employs, across its shops and offices, 1000 workers.

As alluded to back there, I was briefly one of their customers in free-and-easy LA and now that I’m back home, they send me emails telling me about the 50 percent-off sale they have coming up and showing me pictures of some of their favourite customers.

One, just the other day, was of a lively 84-year-old lady puffing on a joint as big as a bread stick. I found the sight very upsetting. The average 84-year-old has no such options here in New Zealand and it’s hard to imagine she will have this side of the rest home. Anyway, I’m not sure at all that we’ll ever be quite like California.

Two years ago, I thought differently. In fact, I thought I might catch the zeitgeist with my cannabis-themed book The High Road. In it, irritated at America leaping ahead with legalising weed while dreary New Zealand lazed behind, I took a trip to several states in the States where shops a bit like MedMen were commonplace, part of the fabric of legal human fun options, along with double-glazed doughnuts and bottomless margaritas.

A trippy sort of travel book lamenting the oddness and unfairness of such a situation, The High Road, however, failed to forward the argument for freed weed and failed also to make the cash registers in New Zealand book shops smoke with activity, though my book is now selling steadily in America, of all places.

Meantime, here at home we’re still wading through glue on the issue of legalising cannabis. It feels like we remain stuck at the beginning of a debate – and still so far ahead of a referendum at the far end of next year that may, or may not, result in the appearance of fully-formed cannabis shops, a bit like MedMen, in Cuba and High and George streets.

Though, of course, if that was to happen, it might mean the end of the civilisation has been reached, or so some fear hounds are already howling. Or, instead, would legalisation simply mean normalisation?

Where, I wonder, will we be in five years. I’ll be 73 by then. I just hope I’m still upright enough to get myself down to the cannabis store, though they’ll probably deliver. They already do in California and several other states.

And I should point out here, if it isn’t already bleeding obvious, that I write this in a completely biased, not to say selfish manner – as someone who’s been quietly using cannabis, illegally, for around 40 years.

I’d never wanted my little comfort to be illegal, of course, or even anyone’s else’s business. It’s been a terrible inconvenience. Though I have, otherwise, always tried to be a law-abiding citizen, just one who happens to believe that what he pops into his own body in his own time is his own business, particularly as the worst it’s ever done for me is make me want to get the dinner on or listen to a bit of Debussy.

Like alcohol, a much more volatile relaxant, cannabis requires tight control and deeming it illegal is the loosest control of all. Like alcohol, it should be legal, regulated and fiercely taxed, with those taxes turned to good purposes, in particular health and harm reduction.

I’m not saying cannabis is good. I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m just saying it is and that around 12 percent of New Zealanders use the stuff and it would be much better, really, to have us inside the tent than out.

We might occasionally be a bit boring, but that’s hardly a criminal offence, surely?

The High Road: A Journey to the New Frontier of Cannabis, by Colin Hogg, is published by HarperCollins.

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