IMAGE: Darryl James
The Obama administration, already overtaxed with two foreign wars, made headlines in May when it waved a white flag in a fight much closer to home. Gil Kerlikowske, the White House’s newly minted director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—the so-called drug czar—called for an end to the “War on Drugs.”
Granted, Kerlikowske wasn’t signaling an intention to lay down arms and pick up a pack of E-Z Widers. His was a semantic shift—a pledge to abandon gung-ho fighting words and imprisonment in favor of treatment. But it was newsworthy nonetheless. As Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project—the biggest pot-policy reform group in the country—puts it: “Can you imagine [Bush administration czar] John Walters saying that? The earth would open up!”
Kerlikowske’s speech may have been a subtle testing of the political landscape surrounding the marijuana question as we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in the push for pot legalization. The horrific violence of Mexican cartels, which make perhaps as much as 75 percent of their money from marijuana (in Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard’s estimation), has started moving across our Southwestern borders. The budget meltdown in California has led state pols—even GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—to reconsider the tax revenues ($14 billion, according to Time) that could be harvested from the Golden State’s biggest cash crop. Politicians, no longer confined to the left and libertarian right, are increasingly willing to say legalization makes sense.
Nearly every day offers another object lesson in the merits of marijuana reform. And the American people seem to be noticing. At least four polls in the past three months have shown a greater uptick in the public’s receptiveness to legalization than ever before. One Zogby poll released earlier this year found that 52 percent felt pot should be regulated and taxed. So far, the president—who supported decriminalization when running for U.S. Senate in 2004, but not when running for president in 2008—hasn’t exactly been a profile in courage. But that may not matter all that much. “Obama is against gay marriage, at least nominally, yet that issue is moving forward, too,” said statistician Nate Silver, founder of fivethirtyeight.com. “Once one state does something, then other states start to think about it.”
Even if Obama isn’t yet bumping Pineapple Express to the top of his Netflix queue, then, this much seems clear: The thoughtfulness he’s brought to Washington—zealots out, pragmatists in—is evident. And suddenly, whether his fingerprints are on it directly or not, “change” may be more than just a buzzword.
None of which is to say the trend is inexorable. But this may be the moment. If we don’t see an end to marijuana prohibition in the next decade or so, it’s reasonable to say there’s a fair chance it’ll never happen. And that, as some are wont to say, would be an enormous harshing of one’s mellow.
In the ’70s, as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Barney Frank filed a bill that sought to allow possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. It went nowhere.
Then, as a U.S. congressman, he co-sponsored, with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008, which would have lifted federal penalties for possessing 3.5 ounces or less. That bill never made it to committee. Recently, though, Frank (D-Mass.) and Paul introduced another bill that did reach the committee stage, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009, which would end the ban on cultivation of nonpsychoactive hemp.
“I think people have gotten more skeptical of government intervention,” says Frank. “And I think people have seen the ineffectiveness of the all-out-war approach to all this. Third, we have concerns about the costs, about overcrowded prisons and overstretched law enforcement. So I think things are moving. But the basic thing is that Americans are better understanding now of personal freedoms.”
“A lot of things are being put on the table that people couldn’t imagine until just recently,” says Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks an end to the worldwide war on drugs. Mirken, too, is cautiously optimistic that the groundwork for substantial progress is being laid. “We’ll know for sure five years from now,” he says. “But there’s certainly much more intense interest in and discussion of whether our marijuana laws make any sense than I’ve seen since I was a kid—i.e., when Nixon was president.”
Indeed, back in the heydaze of Cheech and Chong, the prospects for legalization looked promising. “There were a bunch of states that passed decriminalization statutes in the ’70s,” says Mirken, including New York, Colorado, Mississippi and, of course, Oregon. “Then basically everything ground to a halt in the Reagan era. The pendulum had swung in one direction in the ’60s and ’70s and then swung back.”
It may have swung back yet again—perhaps for good this time. “Back then [in the ’70s, pro-legalization] public opinion never topped more than 30 percent,” says Nadelmann. “And there was a whole generation that didn’t know the difference between marijuana and heroin. Now, support is topping 30 percent nationally.”
Rock Band enthusiasts with bongs aren’t the only ones taking note. More than 40 percent of Americans have tried marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. By the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ tally, as many as 15 million people smoke at least once a month. That’s a pretty substantial market, and one that could bring in a goodly amount of tax revenue—a fact that hasn’t been lost on those seeking rational solutions to our nation’s financial woes.
“When you’re staring at the sort of budget deficits that governments at all levels are looking at right now, that clarifies the mind a great deal,” says Mirken. “And it does, I think, begin to strike people as pretty absurd that we have this huge industry that is effectively tax exempt!”
California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano made news in February when he introduced a bill that would essentially treat pot like alcohol: legalize it, tax it, and allow adults 21 and over to purchase and use it. Soon after, the state’s Board of Equalization announced that the bill’s proposed levy of $50 per ounce could put as much as $1.3 billion a year into government coffers.
“I think it’s not time for that,” Schwarzenegger said in response. “But I think it’s time for a debate.”
“He’s far and away the highest-placed politician in recent memory who’s dared to broach the subject at all,” says Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron of Schwarzenegger. “He said, ‘I’m not in favor of it, but let’s discuss it.’ Well, why are you gonna discuss it when you’re so sure it’s a bad idea? He clearly does think it might be a good idea.”
Miron is the author of a 2005 study titled “The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition.” In it, he looks at the money that could be saved by local, state, and federal governments by the cessation of prohibition, and that could be gained by taxing pot at rates comparable to those levied on other vices.
“Overall, my numbers are something like $12 billion would be saved from not enforcing marijuana laws,” says Miron, “and $7 billion could be collected in revenue, assuming it’s taxed at something like the rates on alcohol and tobacco.”
The numbers are “not totally trivial,” he concedes. “But when we’re looking at a $1.84 trillion deficit, a net of $15 to $20 billion seems like a rounding error.”
If dollar signs don’t convince the anti-pot lobby, then how about the fact Mexican drug cartels are appropriating public land in Western states to grow bushels of marijuana? Or the fact that ever more U.S. officials, from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, are fearing spillover of the cartels’ grisly violence—more than 6,000 murders last year—into Tucson and El Paso?
“If drugs were legal, that would not be happening,” says Dan Baum, whose 1997 book, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (Back Bay), is considered one of the best chronicles of the drug war’s litany of failures. “It’s a misapprehension of the truth to say that the violence in Mexico is because of American appetite for drugs. It’s not the appetite for drugs—it’s the prohibition that’s causing the violence.”
Certainly, these cartels traffic in some very bad stuff: heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine. But, says Nadelmann, “half of the Mexican drug gangs’ revenue comes from marijuana. Legalizing marijuana is a pretty powerful way of depriving these gangsters of revenue—the same way we took Al Capone and those guys out.”
Prohibitionists are at a loss for a coherent argument when it comes to the cartels, argues Mirken. “They’ll say really dumb things like, ‘Legalizing marijuana isn’t going to make these gangs turn into law-abiding citizens.’ No, of course not! It will make them irrelevant! Just like you don’t need bootleggers when you have Anheuser-Busch.”
More and more credible people are echoing the sentiment. In January, Arizona Attorney General Goddard opined that legalization “could certainly cut the legs out of some of these criminal activities.” In February, former presidents Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, and César Gaviria of Colombia gathered at the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and called for decriminalization, decrying the fact that “current policies are based on prejudices and fears and not on results.”
And recently, former Mexican president Vicente Fox put it plainly: “I believe it’s time to open the debate over legalizing drugs.”
In the past decade and a half, Oregon and 12 other states have legalized medical marijuana, a steady drip that is somewhat analogous—in its suddenness and once-seeming-improbability—to the snowballing momentum of gay-marriage rulings over the past several months.
“There’s a powerful analogy between the gay-rights movement and the marijuana law reform movement,” says Nadelmann. “Part of it is about a principle—that people should not be punished for what they do in their own home or their own personal lives. The other point is that there’s an element of ‘coming out’ that is pivotal to the whole process of decriminalizing and ultimately legalizing the behavior.
“I truly believe that if marijuana users felt as emboldened to come out as gay and lesbian people did some years ago,” says Nadelmann, “marijuana prohibition would come crashing down very quickly.” The problem is that “it’s hard to get people to come out of the closet about something that does remain a crime.”
There are “millions of Americans who smoke marijuana for whom it’s not a problem, who are part of the middle class, who are well off, who are role models,” says Mirken. Most people know this. Yet still the caricature persists of the feckless stoner, slack-jawed and speckled with Pringles crumbs.
Whether our representatives in Washington will be brave enough to embrace this emerging political sentiment remains to be seen. “While in general I don’t think the criticism that ‘Politicians are lagging the public in enlightenment’ is accurate,” says Frank, “I do think it’s true in this case.”
Does he wish his colleagues in the House and Senate would be more outspoken? “Oh, of course. But I wish I could eat more and not gain weight. I wish a lot of things.”
However many encouraging signs there have been in recent months, there are still more people who will fight hard to maintain the federal pot ban. Marijuana abuse does carry some health risks, after all. Moreover, there are plenty of law-and-order types out there who simply believe, as South Park’s Mr. Mackey says, that “drugs are bad, mmkay?”
“Marijuana prohibition is a powerful drug in and of itself, and one to which we are heavily addicted,” says Baum. “Marijuana [illegality] has tremendous political power, and I think we’re going to give that up very reluctantly.
“Cops love [pot prohibition],” he continues. “Pot smokers and pot dealers don’t shoot back; they’re easy to bust and you get all this money from the feds for drug prohibition. Schools like it because it gives a concrete bit of evidence you can use to get rid of and isolate and punish a troublesome or rebellious kid. When you start peeling it back, marijuana prohibition serves a great many powerful interests.”
In January, before he withdrew his name from consideration for surgeon general, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta penned an op-ed for Time titled “Why I Would Vote No on Pot.” In it, the neurosurgeon argued that the damage marijuana might do to one’s lungs or short-term memory essentially outweighed the fact that “permissive legalization, accompanied by stringent regulations and penalties, can cut down on illegal-drug trafficking and make communities safer.”
Even liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias (yglesias.thinkprogress.org), while receptive to decriminalization, confessed to fearing “the creation of a legal marijuana industry with lobbyists and advertising aimed at creating as many problem pot smokers as possible.”
Ultimately, we can take solace in politicians like U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Virginia), whose bold and sweeping prison-reform bill, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, was introduced in March. Calling our jails a “disgrace”—and noting that the number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased 1,200 percent since 1980—Webb has in the process become one of the highest-profile politicians to signal his openness to marijuana legalization. “Nothing,” he’s said, “should be off the table.”
Adds Frank: “I guess it’s better to be on the table than under the table.”
This story was originally published in the Boston Phoenix.
See what Oregon lawmakers have to say about the issue here.