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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