The 2012 election was a game changer in U.S. marijuana law—for the first time in over 70 years, two states legalized the plant for recreational use. It’s a defiant break from long-standing federal prohibition, yet other states are considering a similar path. Is America going to pot, or is there more behind legalizing marijuana than just an excuse to get high?
To date, 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, but voters in Colorado and Washington have taken another step: ending prohibition.
While the two laws differ on details, voter referendums passed in both states essentially grant cannabis the same restrictions as alcohol: permitted only for adults over 21.
To some, marijuana is a panacea of health and happiness. To others, a slothful scourge. As with any modern controversy, numerous studies make a case for both sides.
But it is the changing attitude toward legislation that is finding more common ground. You can find many unexpected legalization allies in an organization called LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). Founded in 2002, the group consists of individuals who have fought on the front lines of America’s drug war, including police, judges, prosecutors, and federal agents.
Founding LEAP member and Board Chair Jack Cole has witnessed the effects of U.S. drug laws up close and in practice. Cole retired as Detective Lieutenant after a 26-year career with the New Jersey State Police. More than half of his career was spent in narcotics, mostly undercover.
“When I got out, I felt very bad about my role in implementing what today I’ve decided is not just a failed drug policy, but a self-perpetuating and constantly expanding policy disaster,” Cole said. “Every year it’s worse than it was the year before. And every year we try to correct for it by throwing more cops and more money at it.”
To understand Cole’s change of heart, you have to consider the federal policy it’s breaking from—the War on Drugs.
As more states begin following Colorado and Washington’s lead, eventually the whole house of cards is going to fall.
–Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML
Cole offers a compelling array of facts and statistics detailing the tragedies of America’s longest running “war”: the rise in gangs and violence, the enormous racial disparity in policing and prosecution, and the alarming increase in unsolved murders, robberies, and rapes that correlate closely with a system incentivized at every level to focus on drug arrests.
“[Police] don’t want marijuana legalized because they get overtime pay; they get better salaries; they get promotions; they get top-of-the-line equipment, all based on the number of arrests they make,” said Cole. “This is considered by cops the low-hanging fruit.”
But after 42 years, a trillion-and-a-half in tax dollars, and 46 million arrests of nonviolent drug offenders, Cole says America’s War on Drugs has had little to show for itself.
“We should make marijuana legal so we can keep it out of the hands of our children, who have told us in every government survey for the last 30 years that it is easier in the U.S. to buy illegal drugs than it is to buy beer,” Cole said as part of his research-based list of reasons. “Why? Because they get carded when they ask to buy beer.”
“The House I Live In” is a film that attempts to portray a sense of the devastation the drug war has caused. The film won the highest award for a documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and is a sobering look at American drug laws—from their history as “thinly veiled instruments of racial control,” to today’s mandatory minimum sentencing, which critics say does more damage to individuals and families than the drugs themselves.
Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki says the drug war has essentially taken a health problem—addiction—and turned it into a criminal problem, designed to reap political and economic gain. He says the only reason more people aren’t outraged by the policy is because it hasn’t touched them in ways they can easily see.
“If they haven’t lost their brother, or uncle, or cousin, or child, or grandchild to the voracious jaws of the drug war yet, they may not have done the math of how disruptive it is,” he said.
Finding a Solution
According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 82 percent of Americans say the drug war has failed. Legalization advocates point to U.S. alcohol prohibition as the cautionary tale, and surprising policies in Europe for the cure.
“We want to end drug prohibition just like we ended alcohol prohibition in 1933 in this country,” Cole said. “The day after that terrible law, Al Capone and all of his buddies were out of business. They were off our streets. They were no longer out there killing each other. They were no longer killing our children caught in the crossfire in driveby shootings. They were no longer killing us cops, charged with fighting that useless war.”
Cole says that like alcohol prohibition, it’s illegality that makes marijuana so dangerous, producing an “obscene profit motive” for what is essentially just a weed.
“It grows anywhere, and yet this weed is worth almost as much as gold, ounce for ounce,” said Cole. “That’s nuts—it’s just a weed! If it were legal, it would have almost zero value.”
According to DEA estimates, U.S. marijuana sales account for 60 percent of the profit for Mexican drug cartels—profit that Cole says could be instantly wiped out if the weed were legal and regulated.
Just as with alcohol prohibition, illegality has done little to deter marijuana use. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), cannabis remains the third most-popular recreational drug of choice for Americans (behind alcohol and tobacco), despite decades of criminal prohibition.
“Legalizing and regulating cannabis like alcohol and tobacco is an acknowledgement of the reality that cannabis is already an intrinsic part of existing society,” said NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano. “So the question then becomes: How do we put a policy in place that best reduces the potential risks to the user—abuse of the drug—and limits access among young people?”
LEAP looks to Switzerland as a model for better drug laws; Jarecki prefers Portugal. But both agree that the United States could learn a lot by examining an alternative approach.
In what may seem to be a counter-intuitive strategy, in 2001 Portugal decriminalized all drugs for people 18 and over. Despite criticism that the move would make the country the drug tourist capital of the world, over a decade later the statistics speak for themselves.
“Instead of chaos, drug use in every age category went down. And the biggest drop was among the youngest people,” said Cole. ”For children from 13 to 15 years old, drug abuse declined by 25 percent. And from 16 to 18 years old, drug use declined by 22 percent. It cut heroin dose deaths by 52 percent. Blood-borne diseases declined 71 percent.”
Anticipating Federal Reaction
Of course, not everybody is sold on the idea of legalization. Following the wins in Colorado and Washington, former drug policy advisor Kevin Sabet said that while reform may be needed, ending marijuana prohibition goes too far. He warns that the new state laws will only make drug access easier for young people, and lead to a potential increase in auto accidents and drug-induced mental illness.
But so far, the most significant voice of concern has come from outside the United States.
In a Nov. 15 statement, the U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) said the laws in Colorado and Washington “pose a great threat to public health and well-being of society far beyond those states.”
According to INCB President Raymond Yans, cannabis legalization “would send wrong and confusing signals to youth and society in general, giving the false impression that drug abuse might be considered normal and even, most disturbingly, safe.”
While the state measures now conflict with federal law, they may have caused a rift in international law as well. Yans accuses the two states of violating the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in which 185 nations (including the United States) agreed to “place cannabis under control and limit its use to medical purposes.”
Yans says the United States has an obligation to clamp down on legalization efforts.
But the Obama administration has yet to give an official statement. However, the feds have been down this road before. When California made a push for legalization in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) drew a line in the sand. Proposition 19 never passed, but feds pledged that if it did, they would step in to do the work that state law enforcement wouldn’t.
In a 2010 letter sent to former DEA administrators, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that prosecution of marijuana distribution, manufacture, and possession would remain “a core priority” of DOJ, and that they would “vigorously enforce” the measure even if it was “permitted under state law.”
But NORML’s Armentano says that judging by history, the federal government will eventually cave to the will of the states.
Just as was seen with the fall of alcohol prohibition, Armentano says that if enough states band together, the federal government will lack the manpower, funding sources, political will, and public support to continue its drug policy.
“As more states begin following Colorado and Washington’s lead, eventually the whole house of cards is going to fall,” said Armentano. “Because without state and local law enforcement actually carrying out the prohibition of cannabis by targeting small-time users, by arresting them and prosecuting them, the federal policy doesn’t have any teeth.”
But LEAP isn’t taking any chances. On Nov. 20, the group sent a letter to Attorney General Holder, urging him not to interfere with the will of Colorado and Washington voters.
“This is not a challenge to you, but an invitation—an invitation to help return our profession to the principles that made us enter law enforcement in the first place,” states the letter.
To its credit, the Obama administration has shown signs of changing course. In April 2012, the federal government announced a revision of U.S. drug policy, which allocates more resources to treatment rather than incarceration.
But critics say that while the language has changed, the budget has not.
According to Diane Goldstein, a grandmother and LEAP member who served 21 years with the Redondo Beach Police Department, funding favors enforcement over treatment 2-to-1, even though the federal government has known for decades that treatment is a much more effective strategy.
“They may be parroting a good line, but at this point I’m not certain that they’re actually implementing or making any changes,” said Goldstein. “They clearly understand that they’re on the losing end of this war on drugs, and if they don’t change the message it’s going to end much sooner than they want.”
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