Uruguay was in the spotlight last week as news spread that the South American country had proposed to become the first to legalise marijuana – not only making consumption legal, but also taking control of the production and sale of the drug, in order to regulate its usage and reduce the black market. The controlled legalisation of marijuana is not a new concept, with US states Colorado and Washington recently doing the same. However, a country-wide legalisation, led by President Jose Mujica, forces us to think about what sort of impact this could have on the rest of the world, and Britain in particular.

When we see headlines like this, the initial reaction from British students is – “When will cannabis be legal here?” We dream of a future where we can stroll around in an elated haze, smoking a joint with our dissertation tutor, and envision a smoking room in the library for when exam pressure gets a bit too much….

OK, maybe that’s too far. But it cannot be denied that university culture would be largely affected by the legalisation of marijuana, as this group is one of the most likely to experiment with recreational drugs. Additionally, as the legalisation is restricted to over 18s it would coincide with when people make the step into higher education.

What worries me about the legalisation of marijuana, especially in a university context, is the way that it affects the brain. We all know how difficult it is to get up for a 9 a.m. lecture at the best of times, and if you’ve smoked cannabis, you may develop a more nonchalant attitude to your studies. People smoke for relaxation, but this could have a knock-on effect on a struggling youth culture with difficult job markets and unemployment; with drugs added in, young people may experience a lack of drive and motivation. Additionally, the mental health issues are a cause of concern, having seen first-hand the way that smoking marijuana causes increased paranoia and anxiety attacks.

Another main concern is that legalisation could cause an increase in users, and therefore lead to an unprecedented amount of drug-related issues; and our hospitals and societies would be left to pick up the pieces. Its legalisation would encourage those who had previously been deterred by the criminal implications to try the drug, and possibly become regular smokers. Although this has some level of truth, I hold the opinion that just because it’s legal, not everyone would do it.

Those who adopt the pro-legalisation viewpoint often compare marijuana with alcohol. The legal drug is enjoyed and abused in equal measures, whilst it is condoned in our society, especially in university culture. The health effects of excessive drinking are arguably more severe, but because it is socially acceptable we would see a ban as outrageous, and few students would seriously question the legality of the substance. I think it comes down to personal restraint; in the same way that most can enjoy a drink a couple of times a week, those who want to smoke recreationally would not turn it into a daily habit that had a damaging impact on their work, social and family life.

People who want drugs know how to get hold of them, and I think that those who smoke cannabis would do so whether it was legal or not. Therefore, the safe regulation of the drug is an excellent idea – reducing the danger associated with drugs, and trying to eliminate the drug dealers who make excessive profits in process.

Uruguay has set itself up as a guinea-pig, in that the world will watch and wait to see what impact legalisation has on the country, whether our fears will be realised or if we will be surprised by the positive results. Who knows, it could be only a matter of time before the world follows suit – we could have that smoking room in the library by Christmas.

Bethany McLean


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