Marijuana USA: Would you really want 50p cannabis lollies on sale in YOUR corner shop Read this shocking report from drug-legal Seattle – and you decide
00:14 GMT, 9 December 2012
Twinkling Christmas lights adorn a large tree in the main square, carols ring out from packed stores as families bustle about doing their shopping.
It could be any town in America except for one pungent difference – the sickly sweet and unmistakable aroma of marijuana hanging heavy in the air as crowds congregate to openly smoke fat joints with hardly a policeman in sight.
This was the scene on Friday in downtown Seattle in the shadow of the city’s famous Space Needle tower after Washington state became the first place in America to legalise marijuana.
Relaxed: Iraq War veteran Darin Ellis proudly clutches a joint as he poses for a snap in Seattle with his wife Amberlynn and his nine-year-old daughter Milena
I joined a ‘stash mob’ (a play on the internet craze of flash mobbing where large groups assemble suddenly in public places) in the heart of this city of 620,000 in the Pacific North West which, until now, was famed as the home of Microsoft, Starbucks and grunge music.
Today, Seattle is revelling in its new title as the cannabis capital of the US. Legalisation of the drug has been described as one of the most politically significant moves since the end of Prohibition in 1933. And it has ramifications around the world.
Tomorrow, a British Government report will call for a Royal Commission on drugs to ‘look at’ decriminalising cannabis in Britain. High-profile advocates of legalisation include Richard Branson and Paul McCartney.
In America, many believe the legalisation of pot in Washington and Colorado – where the law changes on January 5 – is likely to be followed by copycat laws in other states.
Supporters: High-profile advocates of legalisation include Paul McCartney, left, and Richard Branson, right
‘This is comparable to the first bricks being taken out of the Berlin Wall,’ electrician Eric Bertoglio told me as he puffed away in a haze of smoke.
‘Where Washington and Colorado go so will follow California, New York and Texas. And what happens in America always crosses the Atlantic eventually.’
Yet the new law has left Washington in a state of legal limbo. While it is now legal for anyone over 21 to possess an ounce of the drug, it is still illegal under federal law to buy, sell or grow it. Plus, the new law only allows for pot to be smoked in the privacy of one’s own home – a rule being openly flaunted.
Police are turning a blind eye until the legal glitches can be ironed out. One young policewoman rolled her eyes and said: ‘Hey, we’re as confused as anyone. At the moment we’ve been told not to arrest anyone until the laws are clarified.’
The official Seattle police website declares rather bizarrely: ‘The department’s going to give you a generous grace period to help you adjust to this brave, new and maybe kinda stoned world we live in.
The police department believes that, under state law, you may responsibly get baked, order some pizzas and enjoy a Lord Of The Rings marathon in the privacy of your own home.’
Limbo: The new law in Seattle means it is now legal for anyone over 21 to possess an ounce of the drug, it is still illegal under federal law to buy, sell or grow it
The jocular attitude belies a deadly serious debate. While pro-drug activists argue marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol or cigarettes and that the new law will bring in more than a billion dollars in taxes in the next five years, anti-drugs campaigners insist it is a gateway to harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
They point to the deadly drug war in Mexico – the major cannabis supplier to the US – which has left 60,000 dead.
A number of studies have shown links between chronic marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.
In Britain, potentially deadly varieties of African ‘skunk’ have actually led to a decline in its overall use. The numbers of British 16 to 59-year-olds taking drugs in the past year is at its lowest since 1996.
Conversely, in America, recreational
drug use is booming. Recent studies show 17.4 million Americans, or 6.9
per cent of the population, claim they used marijuana in 2011, up from
14.4 million in 2007.
The Seattle I saw gives a glimpse into the future in a cannabis- legal country.
John Davis, dressed in a pinstripe suit, shows me around his medical
marijuana dispensary in West Seattle, an affluent suburb. He describes
his customers as ‘soccer mums and professionals’.
business is totally legitimate. Under existing laws that allow the use
of marijuana for medical reasons, anyone in possession of a
‘recommendation’ from their doctor can purchase the drug. Mr Davis can
sell it to them, but not for profit.
Getting high: Recreational drug use is booming in America, where recent studies show 17.4million people, or 6.9 per cent of the population, claim they used marijuana in 2011
It is expected that facilities such as this will have to apply for some sort of state-sanctioned licence next year and will then be free to sell to the general public – and Mr Davis expects business to be good.
Since decriminalisation last week, he has been ‘swamped’ by people walking in seeking to buy the drug. ‘The irony is I can’t sell it to them – yet,’ he explained.
He says he’s off to a meeting at Seattle Town Hall to discuss how state-regulated ‘pot shops’ will operate next year.
‘Whatever we figure out will be a model for the rest of the country. The war on drugs hasn’t worked.
You’ve got people in jail now who did nothing more than get caught with pot in their cars or on their person. It’s costing millions to incarcerate them.’
Mr Davis’s store, which turns over more than a million dollars a year and has a dozen employees, resembles an old-fashioned sweet shop. Buds of marijuana are displayed in glass jars neatly lined up on well-lit shelves (albeit behind a thick layer of bullet-proof glass).
The shop has never been robbed in the two years it has been open.
There are marijuana tinctures, lollipops, chewing gum, pot-laced iced cookies and rows and rows of drug-infused sweets in flavours such as cherry and orange. There is even marijuana-laced lip gloss.
An ounce of marijuana sells for the equivalent of 160 but a lollipop or cookie costs between 50p and a pound.
Mr Davis leads me through security doors to the back where two well-lit rooms are filled with growing plants. The smell is so overwhelming I get an instant headache.
‘This is the future,’ he says. ‘These plants are my babies. Here in Seattle, Nescafe wasn’t good enough so we invented Starbucks. It’s the same with marijuana. We’re going to become the cannabis capital of the world.
Harm: Marijuana, which is now being marketed in
lolly form, left, has been linked to increased rates of anxiety,
depression and schizophrenia in chronic users of the drug
We will refine and perfect different strains for whatever you need – stuff to bring you up, stuff to bring you down, to help with backache and so on.’
PLANS are already being discussed for ‘cannabis tourism’ – busing in people from Vancouver to the north, and Oregon and California to the south who can light up once the ‘cannabus’ crosses the Washington state line.
Back in Downtown Seattle, a crowd of 200 lawyers, teachers, students and hippies compare strains with names like Bubba Kush and Up’N’Atom. Darin Ellis, an Iraq War veteran, is with his wife Amberlynn and nine-year-old daughter Milena.
He said: ‘When I got back from Iraq I drank heavily and was a far worse father and husband.
‘When I discovered pot my post-traumatic stress disappeared. My daughter calls them “daddy’s funny cigarettes”.
‘She knows I smoke them to relax. When she is old enough I hope I can smoke her first joint with her.’
Backpacking student Randell Turner from Tenby, South Wales, said: ‘This is cool. If this was a town centre in Wales and everyone was drinking the same way we’re smoking pot, you’d have fights breaking out.’
Maybe – but when I get back to my hotel the first report on the nightly news is about two masked men being shot dead during an attempt to rob a pot-growing facility just south of Seattle.
Clearly the winds of change are blowing, but it remains to be seen in which direction and what the ultimate outcome will be.