A customer selects marijuana strains at the 3-D Denver Discrete Dispensary in Denver, Colorado. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cannabis in Colorado: The ups and downs of legalising highs

With more cannabis shops than branches of Starbucks and further liberalisation to come - why hasn't the trade in legal marijuana decreased the number of dealers on the street in Colorado?

There are now more cannabis shops in Colorado than there are branches of Starbucks. Since 1 January, it has been legal to sell cannabis for recreational use on licensed premises, three years after the drug was cleared for medical use. The recreational stores sprang up and 37 were granted licences to begin trading on New Year’s Day.

With the help of the Cannabis Map of Colorado, I find my way to the Native Roots Apothecary dispensary on the eighth floor of a soulless building in downtown Denver. The shop looks like a cross between a GP’s waiting room and a homoeopathic clinic. It is bare and painted white, apart from a coffee machine decorated in the Rastafarian colours.

Courtney Phillips is behind the counter, fielding calls from customers. “Lots of reporters from all over the States have been asking questions about this,” she tells me. “I think it’s great that Colorado is leading the way in being accepting of pot as both a medicinal aid as well as the fact that some people just prefer it to alcohol.”

Before being allowed a doctor’s prescription, patients have to apply to the state for a certificate of eligibility that costs between $60 and $100. On prescription, it is possible to buy up to two ounces a day per person. It costs between $150 and $400 an ounce, including tax at 8.5 per cent.

The price of weed when not buying on prescription can range between $400 and $500 an ounce, and all you need to make your purchase is a piece of ID to prove you are over 21.

Despite decriminalisation, there is still an illegal market for weed which sells the drug at half the price of legal retailers. According to one police officer I spoke to, the legislation could, paradoxically, lead to an increase in the involvement of criminal drug dealers. He believes the normalisation of weed-smoking will increase overall demand and that users will soon turn to cheaper black-market suppliers.

But the new law has found support in unexpected places. Steven Foster, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, endorsed the law, arguing that poor and black Americans are disproportionately targeted by drugs law enforcement. This is also one of the arguments taken up by the state chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers trade union, one of the largest in the United States.

The legal cannabis market is tightly governed. Until October this year, recreational marijuana stores have to grow almost all the cannabis they sell, a policy that will shortly be reviewed. Retailers can’t advertise in places where children might see it and must sell their product in opaque, child-resistant packages. They will be inspected regularly by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and surveillance cameras will track sales to identify each customer.

In the hour I spend at the LoDo Wellness Centre, another cannabis retailer in central Denver, at least 300 people come through the door, ranging from young men in pairs to older women on their own. There are carloads of tourists from as far away as New Jersey, California and Ohio, some of whom ask Elizabeth, the receptionist, which weed-friendly hotels she considers the best value. Elizabeth checks each customer’s ID and then directs the client either to the dispensing room or to the commercial storeroom.

I speak to Al (not his real name) who is a regular cannabis smoker. Al tells me that he has visited the store out of curiosity but will continue to buy his usual stash off his dealer. “It is much cheaper, quicker and easier.” Two grammes from the store, he tells me, costs him $37, “more than twice as much as I usually pay”.

Washington is preparing to liberalise its cannabis laws this year to bring it up to speed with Colorado, and activists in several other states are preparing to follow the Coloradan model. But federal organisations are trying to reverse the law.

Many Colorado businesses are cash-only, as the banks, controlled by the federal government, are refusing to open accounts for cannabis retailers. This makes them a target for organised crime, and the Internal Revenue Service is unhappy that such affluent businesses have no clear money trail.

In Colorado, however, many argue that the new laws are helping the state out of a bad recession. The Tax Foundation, a think tank, estimates that the state will raise almost $70m in new taxes this year.

Weed lovers and libertarians are united in their support for Colorado’s approach, but is there enough attention being paid to the lows as well as the highs of legalisation? One thing is certain: with more than half of all Americans supporting legal pot, this issue is unlikely to disappear in a puff of smoke.
 

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.