Nov. 13–Last Tuesday was a very good day for those of us who think marijuana should be legalized and that the 40-plus-year War on Drugs is an incredibly expensive, destructive failure.
Nine states and localities voted for more sensible drug laws, including Colorado and Washington, where voters decided to legalize and regulate marijuana, and Massachusetts, which became the 18th state to allow medical marijuana.
I used my blog Tuesday to refer readers to the blog of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which spent the night tracking the votes. LEAP is an organization of police, judges, prosecutors and others who believe we need to end the War on Drugs.
Marijuana legalization clearly is gaining momentum. A survey earlier this year by the polling organization Rasmussen Reports showed that 56 percent of Likely Voters now favor legalizing and regulating marijuana in a similar manner to the way alcohol and tobacco cigarettes are regulated.
U.S. Reps. Barney Frank and Ron Paul introduced legislation last year that would have ended federal marijuana prohibition and left the matter to individual states, but it never went anywhere. So even in states where medical marijuana or any marijuana have been legalized, there’s the threat that federal laws will be enforced.
“It really remains to be seen to what extent the Obama administration will prioritize cracking down vs. respecting the will of the voters,” LEAP media relations director Tom Angell told me.
President Obama hasn’t provided much encouragement. As Angell pointed out, the president’s response to questions about marijuana legalization has been to laugh it off.
“No one can laugh this issue off now,” Angell said. “This is a mainstream, majority-support position. It needs to be taken seriously by our elected officials.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration website contains a January 2011 report called, “The DEA Position on Marijuana.” For me, parts of it have a “reefer madness” feel to them, including low regard for arguments regarding medical marijuana. It does contain this passage clarifying Attorney General Eric Holder’s guidelines for federal prosecutors in states that have enacted laws authorizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
“The guidelines … make clear that the focus of federal resources should not be on individuals whose actions are in compliance with existing state laws, and underscores that the Department will continue to prosecute people whose claims of compliance with state and local law conceal operations inconsistent with the terms, conditions, or purposes of the law.
“… While some people have interpreted these guidelines to mean that the federal government has relaxed its policy on ‘medical’ marijuana, this in fact is not the case. Investigations and prosecutions of violations of state and federal law will continue.”
I called DEA to see if it has updated its approach in states where marijuana has been legalized. Its prepared response:
“The Drug Enforcement Administration’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. The Department of Justice is reviewing the ballot initiatives, and we have no additional comment at this time.”
Whatever you think of legalizing and regulating harder drugs it’s difficult at this point to advocate for our present course when it comes to marijuana.
LEAP has pointed to an FBI report showing more than 750,000 marijuana arrests and more than 1.5 million total drug arrests in 2011. That’s one drug arrest every 21 seconds, with almost half of them for marijuana. The report also showed that 81.8 percent of drug arrests were for possession only.
Think of all the productive uses that could be made — or tax money returned — from the funds spent on enforcing these laws, prosecuting these “criminals” and housing them in jails in a war that we have no chance of winning. It’s crazy, even if you don’t consider the human toll of ruined lives and endangered and corrupted members of law enforcement.
Unfortunately, our national politicians, including Obama, have shown no stomach for addressing this. So it will have to happen on a state-by-state or community-by-community basis until they get the message.
I asked Angell if he’s heard anything about legislation or a referendum in Pennsylvania or surrounding states. He said he’s heard about moves in other New England states, but nothing about Pennsylvania. “The play [in Pennsylvania],” he suggested, “would be to pass a medical marijuana law.”
Last Tuesday’s successes have left advocates feeling optimistic, even where they fall short. When I emailed Angell after the election that I was disappointed a marijuana legalization referendum failed in Oregon, he was unfazed.
“Oregon came surprisingly close for such a poorly-funded campaign,” he responded. “We’ll get ‘em next time!”
Bill White’s commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.