Web Only / Features » April 12, 2009
An End to the War on Weed?
Marijuana advocates believe legalization is on the horizon.
Once derided and dismissed by lawmakers, law enforcers and the law-abiding alike, marijuana reform is sweeping the nation
As a medley of border violence, recessionary pressure, international criticism and popular acceptance steadily undermines America’s decades-long effort to eliminate drugs and drug use, the U.S. movement to legalize marijuana is gaining unprecedented momentum.
Once derided and dismissed by lawmakers, law enforcers and the law-abiding alike, marijuana reform is sweeping the nation, although the federal government appears committed–at least for the time being–to largely maintaining the status quo.
A week after Attorney General Eric Holder announced in March that raids on state law-abiding medical marijuana dispensaries would end, the Drug Enforcement Agency effectively shut down a San Francisco dispensary, claiming it violated both state and federal laws.
But to paraphrase Victor Hugo, not even the strongest government in the world can stop an idea whose time has apparently come.
Indeed, support for legalization is at an all-time high, and continues to grow. In 1969, just 12 percent of Americans favored legalizing marijuana, the Holy Grail of cannabis advocates; this number had tripled by 2005, according to a Gallup poll. Barely three years later, another poll showed 44 percent of Americans support legalization.
“If we continue on this curve–and there is no reason to think we won’t–we’ll hit 58 or 60 percent by 2020,” says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “We’re seeing also that the government is finally playing catch up with the people.”
In February, a California state lawmaker introduced a bill to legalize and tax pot, and marijuana reform bills are being debated in at least 37 other states. (Last November, Massachusetts became the thirteenth state to decriminalize adult possession, while Michigan became the thirteenth state to legalize marijuana for medical use.) All told, more than one-third of Americans now live in a state or city that has legalized medical marijuana or decriminalized its recreational use.
“It’s the busiest period for marijuana law reform ever,” says St. Pierre. “Legalization is definitely on the political horizon.”
Growing calls for reform
Arguments for ending the war on weed–that marijuana is safer than alcohol and that its prohibition leads to violence, exorbitant enforcement costs, billions in lost tax revenue and infringements on civil liberties–haven’t changed much since the 1970s.
But the arguments have taken on unusual gravity over the last year, as drug-fueled violence along the Mexican side of border has excited fears that the carnage and mayhem will spill over into American cities. Testifying before a House panel in March, a top Homeland Security official warned (PDF link) that the cartels now represent America’s largest organized-crime threat, having infiltrated at least 230 American cities. Already, police in Tucson and Phoenix have reported a surge in drug-related kidnappings and murders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently acknowledged that America’s “insatiable” appetite for drugs has helped fuel the cartel-related violence. In fact, the Mexican cartels reap as much as 62 percent of their profits–and derive much of their power–from American marijuana sales, which total $9 billion annually, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
But Mexican weed represents only a sliver of America’s annual cannabis consumption. Each year, Americans spend a whopping $39 billion on domestically grown marijuana, and another $7-10 billion on weed smuggled in from Canada. In short, untaxed and unregulated marijuana is America’s–if not the continent’s–largest cash crop, more valuable than corn and wheat combined, according to DrugScience.org.
The growing sense that America’s marijuana policy is more harmful than the plant itself is leading some cash-strapped states to rethink the efficacy of locking up non-violent offenders and consider taxing medical marijuana, despite the federal prohibition on doing so. Several California cities are already taxing medical marijuana sales. Oregon’s legislature is debating whether to regulate and tax it as well. (Last year a bill that would have allowed Oregon liquor stores to sell marijuana failed.)
And in the first such step by a state government, New Mexico’s Department of Public Health is now overseeing the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana, brushing aside legal concerns that state employees could face federal drug conspiracy charges.
Although marijuana reform has gained little traction in Congress, last year Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) cosponsored a bill to protect medical marijuana patients and decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. “It’s no longer just potheads who want this,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We’re at the tipping point, in that we’re seeing the most sustained discussion ever by media and policymakers.”
Although President Obama jokingly brushed aside economic arguments for ending marijuana prohibition during his March 26th online town-hall discussion, a mounting body of research underscores their validity.
In 2005, Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron published a report showing that legalization would save $7.7 billion each year on enforcement, while generating as much as $6.2 billion in taxes. In response, more than 500 leading economists wrote an open letter to federal and state officials supporting a regime of legalization and taxation.
With increasing frequency, mainstream media outlets are also advocating major changes to U.S. drug laws. In March, the Economist’s editorial board called for the legalization of drugs, and CNN, Time magazine and other publications have published op-eds supporting an end to marijuana prohibition or calling for an “honest” discussion about legalizing drugs. Also earlier this year, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which includes three former heads of state, issued a report condemning drug prohibition and calling for cannabis’ legalization.
“[Cannabis] consumption has an adverse impact on the user’s health, including mental health,” the 17 commission members wrote. “But the available empirical evidence shows that the harm caused by this drug is similar to the harm caused by alcohol or tobacco.”
Given President Obama’s penchant for pragmatism, Piper chalks up Obama’s dismissive response regarding legalization as a first-term answer to a second-term question. “There is debate as to whether he was even joking,” Piper says, “because in many ways he’s signaled that this administration will take a different approach to drug policy.”
The ‘vanguard’ of legalization?
American attitudes toward cannabis have softened considerably over the last decade, yet they remain largely ambivalent about reform. “Most people agree the laws are too harsh, but many of these don’t want to see it legalized, either,” says Mason Tvert, who in 2005 co-founded SAFER Colorado, which promotes marijuana as a safer alternative to alcohol.
Economic arguments like those supported by Miron’s Harvard study, says Tvert, are ineffective because the same could be said of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. Legalization, he says, will happen only when people realize that marijuana is safer than alcohol.
“The problem is that people still have a perception of harm that’s been built up over many years,” he says. “If marijuana were legalized tomorrow, in 10 years these perceptions would be very, very different.”
Tvert agrees that perceptions about marijuana are rapidly evolving for the better. Earlier this year, when a picture surfaced showing Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps smoking from a bong, many expected the 23-year-old to lose many of his endorsements. But only Kellogg’s dropped him. Even more surprising, the move seemed to hurt Kellogg’s more than Phelps, as surveys showed the move injured its brand reputation.
For those seeking higher office, past pot use is no longer the political death knell it once was. When asked if he ever smoked pot in 1992, Bill Clinton claimed he didn’t inhale, and in 2005, tapes surfaced of George W. Bush acknowledging past marijuana use after years spent dodging the question. Remarkably, voters seemed largely unconcerned by Barack Obama’s candid admission that he once used both marijuana and cocaine. “This is a huge turning point in people admitting to past use and not suffering any consequences,” says Piper.
With public acceptance growing and states increasingly at odds with federal marijuana laws, how much longer can Washington remain impervious to calls for reform? NORML’s St. Pierre, who says there are major chinks in the armor of blanket prohibition, believes federal reforms are imminent.
“At some point, we’ll have run the gauntlet of states that have passed reform bills by popular vote,” he says. “It’s getting harder for people to say we’re going to hell-in-a-basket when the state next door has had these laws for years without problems. This generation is on the vanguard of legalization.”
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Nathan Comp is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist who has written extensively on criminal justice and other social issues. He is currently writing a book about a Madison, Wisc., man whose 2004 disappearance and presumed homicide sparked a massive federal drug investigation stretching across six states and into Canada.