VERITY JOHNSON: Legal marijuana has turned Los Angeles into la la land

07/06/2017

I've just come back from LA and it was hard to tell what was more omnipresent: the sense of misguided ambition or the smell of dope.

Walking along those exhausted, beaten down streets you can't go for more than four minutes without marijuana circling over you like a particularly pungent seagull. Possession is legalised there, as is the purchase for medical purposes. Come January 2018, you'll be able to buy it for recreational purposes too.

But it's already everywhere. It wafts about along with the smell of burgers and the saccharine effusiveness of retail assistants. Green Cross dispensaries fight with greying Batman imitators for your attention.

I decided to ask everyone I met whether they used medical marijuana. I might as well have asked if they wanted a stripper covered in mini marshmallows. Yes, yes we do, they said. 

·         Don't shame me because I've never smoked weed

·         Restrictions to come off cannabis-based medicines

People used everything from CBD spray (a spray with the THC taken out), to eating weed caramel popcorn, to straight up just smoking it. Their reasons were many, varied and sometimes completely left field. I spoke to one person who used CBD spray to counteract the anxiety and panic attacks that were a symptom of her post-traumatic stress disorder.  Another smoked because it negated the side effects of her anti-depressant medication. Others said they just liked dope.

It's not hard to get your hands on. The standard practice is to have a doctor on site at the marijuana dispensary, who will ask you if you have anxiety, trouble sleeping etc. If you have a Californian ID then they will write you a prescription so you can then buy your medical marijuana right there and then.

Put it this way: there are guys dressed up as giant bushes standing along Venice Beach collaring people saying, "trouble sleeping? Come in and we'll sort you out!" Go in, get diagnosed, get dope. Done.

Two things struck me about this. One, there clearly are a lot of people who use marijuana effectively in a safe, completely medical way. Like the person using the non-high inducing CBD spray. There are a lot of these people, and a lot of conditions that can be treated effectively and accurately with marijuana. 

Two, there are also a lot of people who abuse the system. And while being there made me realise there is a strong case for medicinal marijuana, it also scared the shit out of me.

I'm fairly certain if we had made marijuana as readily available here in New Zealand then we would abuse the system.

We already have one of the highest rates for cannabis usage in the world, with over half of us aged 15 - 45 admitting to have smoked. It's so normal it's not considered particularly scandalous or even illegal, really. Mentally it's in the same basket as jaywalking. So if we legalised it then yes, many more people would benefit medically, but many people would just be stoked it's now easier to get stoned.

Do we want this?                                                                

I like our current semi-blind eye policy where you get stoned in private but don't admit to it in public. If it was as easy to get our hands on as it is in LA then it just becomes even more widespread.

And I don't want it to be. I still think dope is something you can tolerate but not promote. I don't want to go for a run and breathe in weed. I have a right to nice public spaces that don't feel like high school house parties where I'm stuck to the floor with Lion Red.

Not only that, but weed is one of those things that's probably fine as a one-off thing. Active usage is just a huge barrier to productivity. We have enough problems getting our lives together as it is without the barrier of being semi-permanently stoned.  I don't want NZ to become somewhere where that's ok.

So while LA showed me that yes, medical marijuana can be useful and is probably a good idea, if we want to make it more readily available here, then we need rigorous, tough legislation around it. Tougher than anywhere else.

Because otherwise NZ would be in real danger of becoming a way too dopey society.

Verity Johnson is a Newshub columnist.