A Tipping Point for Marijuana Reform?

A week after Election Day 2012, I am still considering the full significance of the legalization of adult marijuana use in Washington and Colorado. I don’t mean whether this is an important development for the reform of American drug policy. It is. My colleague Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch has an excellent piece in Project Syndicate that thoroughly covers why the voters in these two states chose legalization. As Kasia’s counterpart working specifically on U.S. drug policy, I am asking myself a slightly different set of questions. How did this happen? What could happen next? What should happen next?

I believe—and even say out loud, occasionally—that laws prohibiting adult marijuana use are headed toward extinction. It is just a matter of time. Focus groups and opinion polls, old and new, consistently show that younger people better understand and are more comfortable with the idea of regulated access to marijuana than older generations. The influence of these voters increases with each election cycle, as additional young voters take the field and older voters depart. It is simple mathematics.

But, can it be happening so soon? Clearly, many (older?) voters who were unsure about marijuana have changed their minds. Credit the local-level reform campaigns—and not just in regard to successful state ballot efforts. Numerous municipalities around the country have elevated these issues by changing their local marijuana policies. It would also be unfair not to acknowledge the massive 2010 effort in California to pass Proposition 19. It lost at home, but maybe it has something to do with the wins in Washington and Oregon.

And, for me, the outcomes in both Colorado and Washington are only a part of the story in 2012. The fact that a similar measure in Oregon didn’t pass could actually be even more compelling evidence that America is approaching a marijuana policy paradigm shift. Why? The campaign to pass the initiative in Oregon was a pale shadow of the efforts mounted in the other two states. The Oregon campaign did have Willie Nelson, but that’s about it. It did not have Washington’s astounding cast of unimpeachable supporters and spokespeople; it did not have the Colorado campaign’s experienced and relentless staff. The sponsors of the Oregon initiative were also hamstrung by the provisions of their own proposed law, which some knowledgeable reviewers have described as “flakey.” And yet, 45 percent of Oregon’s voters, nearly half, still supported marijuana legalization with their votes.

So, is this a tipping point for marijuana reform? Maybe. But, I see it more as the leading edge of a trend that will intensify. I sense an element of historical inevitability.

How will the Obama administration respond? Nearly all U.S. marijuana arrests are made by state authorities and prosecuted in state courts, with only possession on federal property and large scale trafficking charged and prosecuted federally. Washington and Colorado voters flipped that relationship in their states. They have decided to try something different, and the federal government can do nothing to reverse their decision.

On the other hand, federal law enforcement authorities could roll into states that legalize marijuana and start arresting marijuana users on purely federal charges. There will certainly be some primitive thinkers at the DEA who will recommend this course of action, but it is hard to imagine the more thoughtful individuals in the Obama administration agreeing. Even the well-publicized raids on medical marijuana providers around the country have been justified as a crackdown on “fake” dispensaries. That justification will no longer exist in Washington and Colorado. I’m sure there will be federal arrests, but I see no way that the federal government would be able to sustain the logistical and political burden of a protracted marijuana war in the states.

So, what should the federal government do? Above all, the Obama administration should take it slow. Nothing in Washington or Colorado is going to change overnight, with the exception of the elimination of the individual and public cost of marijuana arrests and prosecutions. Marijuana use might go up some, but millions of Americans have still used and produced marijuana even under prohibition. Both states have implementation horizons that will give the federal government plenty of time to weigh in on issues that are properly of federal concern.

There are areas where the feds should act now. For example, the federal government should ensure that marijuana does not cross state boundaries in violation of either state’s laws, just as we do with alcohol. And the Obama administration should be considering how we can produce and control, on a national level, the supply of marijuana domestically. We already do produce much of our own marijuana domestically, but without even the simplest safeguards. And, by the way, if Mexico and other countries are to stop paying the price for our appetites, we should also consider realistic options for dealing with the demand for all drugs in America. Hint: The threat of criminal punishment hasn’t worked.

Let me suggest a starting point for the Obama administration. Talk to the sponsors of the marijuana initiatives in both Washington and Colorado. They are as different as their respective states. The president’s team would learn a lot about how to be part of the solution, rather than the last stay of failed drug policies. And, as this president said when asked if he inhaled, that is the point. This is the federal government’s opportunity to get in early and help shape an orderly transition. Regulated access to marijuana for adults in the states is inevitable. The question is whether the new national marijuana policy will be realistic and benefit society or repeat the same old mistakes.

11 Comments

Let's see how things work out in CO and WA before rushing to any judgement.

I think the time has come for the legalization of Hemp as well. The USDA spends US tax dollars to promote the use of Hemp for food, fuel and fiber yet restricts domestic growth. Hemp is allowed to be imported but not locally grown. These laws must be changed. Keep up the good work folks!

I suggest that YOU raise the money and put hemp on the ballot where you live. Thanking others is not enough.

The terrorism against medical Marijuana Cancer patients in San Diego has reached the critical point. The District Attorney considers it her duty to follow the Obama Administration and shut down all dispensaries using Commando Tactics to intimidate the community.

Craig, I suggest to you that if you want Hemp legalized, YOU need to raise the $$$ and get it on the ballot where you live. Just thanking others is not enough.

WAR ON DRUGS is based on prejudice, subjugation and elimination of minorities, similar to the First and Second World Wars. History repeats itself: Gustav Mahler in his own words was a "trice homeless" person, 'as native of Bavaria in Austria, as Austrian in Germany, and as a Jew throughout the world, always an intruder, never welcomed," and Pablo Picasso was a "stateless person," in Nazis' occupied France, accused of undesirable paintings. There is a Czech or Hungarian ancestry very prominent Superior Court Judge in Los Angeles who several years ago sentenced an innocent man to 20+ years in prison in the famous "Rampart scandal" case. He sentenced many more for drug offences who overcrouded California prisons at taxpayers expense. Ironically, today all Los Angeles county courts are shut down due to budget shortage. When the War on Drugs ends, so will prejudice, subjugation and elimination of minorities who are filling up prisons, creating jobs for narrow-minded biased judges and prison guards.

Revenue sharing should be taken into account. Medical marijuana under FDA- since it less expensive for cancer patients and for liver damage (Hepatitis C) patients as well as for bipolar people ( same effect as catnip for felines). The savings for legalizing marijuana are tremendous in law enforcement/court costs/penal institutes- 3x offenders-small amts. Thinking back to Prohibition Era- and Amendment procedure in States' ballots like 1932 FDR winning 'wets'. Taxing marijuana to fill the empty federal coffers should also be taken into consideration.

My family are British and most of them are still in the UK. I am told by my sister, who works in a hospital in southern England, that Marijuana is used quite widely in that hospital for a variety of problems and often for severe pain. I am rather ignorant about the extent of the use but do know that in one Hospice in London it is used quite widely. It does seem to me that the expensie should be conttolled but that the good effects of that plant - as with many other herbs and plants - should be widely recognized and legalized. I have Hepatitis C and am doing very well on two simple mountain herbs prescribed both by my gastro person in London and a fine medic here in Italy.

How about Democracy, and giving the people want they want? How about instead of an already bankrupt government prosecuting medical marijuana, how about prosecuting the crack dealer that was probably within a 2 mile radius of the marijuana shop. You can't say you promote democracy, leave something up to a vote of the people, and then threaten to "crackdown" on them because of the decision they made! Its complete madness! Government is suppose to work on behalf of the people, not against them. Why not go make marijuana arrest in a state where the state doesn't want it?!

How about NOT arresting ANY illegal low level drug dealers unless they are also stealing your phones etc? it makes NO sense to me to say it is OK to bust the ass of one illegal drug seller and not the other
They are all innocent (with regard to that behaviour) ; it is the laws that are bloody daft and creating corruption, completely off the wall levels of incarceration, bloodshed, violence, inequality, AIDS, Hep grief and death
Whisky is more dangerous than heroin to the body if used regularly but nobody punishes the whisky sellers thankkfully: what difference would it make ? Remember Al Capone!!!!

I hope I have made myself clear....In Short, if people are harming others, their property or obviously creating havoc by their drugs use, MAYB law enforcement is appropriate BUT methinks that mostly it is treatment that people need, or to be left to their own devices: it is their life after all not yours or mine

What is there to say about Marijuana? Really? Haven't we all heard the several arguments which favor Marijuana use?
It's unbelievable how demonized Marijuana has become. There isn't one logical argument to be made against Marijuana use. Sure, so-called society somewhat opposes Marijuana use, but those are only the people who object to others doing things to feel good. Why is feeling good so objectional? Sooner or later it'll all be legal. I won't be around but it will, someday, happen.

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