Breaking marijuana taboos, one state at a time

The 2012 election heralded many victories for the U.S., chief among them the re-election of President Obama. We’ve heard about the election of the first openly gay woman to the Senate, Tammy Duckworth. We’ve heard about the new, highly diverse Democratic Congress. And we’ve heard of the much anticipated return of Alan Grayson. Some exciting progress is being made with the war on drugs, though, and this is also something to discuss.

On November 6th, voters in Colorado and Washington approved of marijuana for recreational purposes, becoming the first states to officially break the taboo surrounding the plant. There are now 18 states (plus D.C.) that have legalized marijuana in some manner, usually for medicinal purposes:

  • Alaska: medicinal
  • Arizona: medicinal
  • California: medicinal
  • Colorado: medicinal and recreational
  • Connecticut: medicinal
  • DC: medicinal
  • Delaware: medicinal
  • Hawaii: medicinal
  • Maine: medicinal
  • Massachusetts: medicinal
  • Michigan: medicinal
  • Montana: medicinal
  • Nevada: medicinal
  • New Jersey: medicinal
  • New Mexico: medicinal
  • Oregon: medicinal
  • Rhode Island: medicinal
  • Vermont: medicinal
  • Washington: medicinal and recreational

States with medical marijuana laws on the books have faced some big hurdles. We have legally approved and regulated medical marijuana with varying degrees of success in nearly half the country, but federal drug law still poses a problem for dispensaries operating legally in these states. There have been a number of high profile cases in which federal courts have convicted legally operating marijuana growers and sellers of violating federal drug laws.

Via 1970’s Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is still classified as a “Schedule 1” drug by the federal government. Though it is legal in some states, growers and dispensaries are still susceptible to federal prosecution, especially if they are large scale operations.

Proponents of medicinal and decriminalized marijuana point to assurances from President Obama and AG Eric Holder that the federal government would not make prosecuting legal users of marijuana a priority under his administration. In an April 2012 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, the president clarified:

What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana—and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law. I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, ‘Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books.’ What I can say is, ‘Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.’ As a consequence, there haven’t been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes.

That’s a great point made by the president. However, targeting and prosecuting legal growers and dispensaries limits the availability of legal plants for people who consume it—legally—for medicinal purposes. If it is not available by legal means, people will return to obtaining it by illegal means and that means more drug-related prosecutions and convictions, both on the state and federal levels.

There’s another roadblock, as reported here:

Federal law is such that the government doesn’t recognize the medical value of medicinal marijuana, and there is no distinction between medical use and non medical use… Without that distinction, the government can effectively exclude any evidence of medical use even if people being tried are in compliance with local and state laws.

So long as state and federal law are at odds, marijuana use will continue to be an activity that is criminalized. But which policy (legal or illegal) is the more logical one? Historical data offers some answers and perspective.

In 1936, the propaganda film Reefer Madness effectively scared Americans straight with dire warnings of suicide, rape, and murder as a result of marijuana consumption. However, though prohibition started shortly thereafter in 1937 with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, the War on Drugs officially began in the 1970’s under anti-marijuana president, Richard Nixon. Nixon appointed the Shafer Commission to review and assess the country’s marijuana policy. and according to a book written by two men who worked for Nixon, he promptly and famously tossed it in the trash bin when the results weren’t to his liking.

The Shafer Commission’s report stated that marijuana prohibition and public opinion were based primarily on inadequate understanding of the effects of marijuana, unsubstantiated “lurid accounts of marijuana atrocities”, e.g. propaganda. The report concluded that, “Looking only at the effects on the individual there is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of the natural preparations of cannabis.”

That same Commission suggested a social control policy that would discourage marijuana use without prosecuting users. The report compared this idea of social control to marriage, stating that “We officially encourage matrimony by giving married couples favorable tax treatment; but we do not compel people to get married.”

Despite the Commission’s report, former president Nixon began an aggressive anti-drug policy that resulted in hundreds of thousands of drug convictions. He declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one”.

Today, about 40% of Americans admit to having consumed marijuana at some point in their lives. That means almost half of us are [admittedly] aware of the actual effects of marijuana and may be responsible for changing public opinion. In 2010, an ABC poll said that 80% of Americans approved of legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. As more research is completed and more states successfully regulate its use, favorable public opinion of marijuana use increases.

Among mounting concerns of national debt and government expenditures, common sense drug policy should be a priority. In 2010, the federal government spent $15 billion dollars on the war on drugs; state and local governments spent around $25 billion that same year.  An end to marijuana prohibition just makes sense and we are making progress, one state at a time.