Is 2010 the Turning Point in the Failed War on Marijuana?

Before a single vote tally is reported, it should be noted that -- regardless of any results next week -- 2010 might already go down in history as a major turning point in the government's failed war on marijuana.
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Unless you've been living under a rock, you're probably aware of Proposition 19, the ballot measure Californians will vote on next week that would make marijuana legal for all adults and deliver an unprecedented blow to our nation's wasteful, ineffective, and destructive prohibition on a plant less harmful than alcohol.

But you may not have heard that voters in a handful of other states will have opportunities to advance saner marijuana laws on Election Day, as well. Two states, Arizona and South Dakota, have medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot. A third, Oregon, will consider expanding its existing medical marijuana law by authorizing state-licensed dispensaries.

In Vermont and Connecticut, two prospective governors - Democrats Peter Shumlin and Dan Malloy, respectively - are campaigning as supporters of marijuana decriminalization. And voters in dozens of locales in California, Colorado, and Massachusetts will vote on their own local initiatives on various marijuana-related issues. In all, there may be more at stake for marijuana reform on November 2 than in any previous election.

But before a single vote tally is reported, it should be noted that -- regardless of any results next week -- 2010 might already go down in history as a major turning point in the government's failed war on marijuana. It was the year when marijuana prohibition became ingrained as a topic of mainstream public discourse, when political strategists first openly encouraged both major parties to embrace marijuana voters, and when - without much national notice or outrage - a Western state (not California) began to enact the first widespread system of legal, licensed, and regulated marijuana stores anywhere in the nation.

The unprecedented levels of mainstream media coverage generated by Prop. 19 and other marijuana issues cannot be overlooked. When virtually every TV news outlet and major print or online publication in the country gives prominent coverage to marijuana policy, it compels millions of Americans to think seriously about this issue for perhaps the first time in their lives. People who for years may have thought regulating marijuana was a "fringe" idea unlikely to ever come to fruition will inevitably reconsider as they see mothers, former police officers, and a former U.S. surgeon general renouncing our current policies live on television.

Perhaps the most interesting detail in all that coverage was the conspicuous decline of the prohibitionist pundit. In years past, spokespeople for the Marijuana Policy Project and allied pro-reform organizations have been pitted in debates against representatives of the federal government and other talking heads who were more than willing to go on the air and twist reality in order to uphold the status quo. But this year - as my communications staff can attest - it was not uncommon for TV bookers to find it difficult, if not impossible, to confirm guests who would put themselves on the line to argue in favor of prohibition and defend policies that are being increasingly revealed as factually and morally bankrupt.

Indeed, the man who became the de facto leading voice of the opposition against Prop. 19 in California was a previously unknown recovering drug addict whose best arguments against marijuana legalization included borderline indecipherable rants about cobras, rattlesnakes, and the devil.

This intellectual void on our opponents' side, combined with increasing support for reform among voters, led most naysayers in California to abandon questioning the merits of legalization itself and focus instead on the specific language of Prop. 19. As pointed out by the Los Angeles Times:

About half of [voters] now consistently tell pollsters they want to legalize marijuana, which opponents tacitly acknowledge by aiming their arguments not at legalization but at this particular initiative, ridiculing it as flawed. The argument signed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the voter guide begins: "Even if you support legalization of recreational marijuana, you should vote 'No' on Proposition 19."

It's worth noting that the Los Angeles Times itself, along with almost every other major daily newspaper in California, editorialized against Prop. 19 while also tacitly acknowledging the rationale - and in certain cases, the inevitability - behind regulating marijuana like alcohol.

In fact, this year's most telling statistic about the future of marijuana reform might be this one, from a Rasmussen poll conducted in July: Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) now believe that it is "somewhat likely" that marijuana will become legal in the United States in the next 10 years. "Just 28% do not expect this to happen," according to the poll.

Combine that growing sense of inevitability with the exceptionally high percentage of young and up-and-coming voters who passionately believe marijuana should be legal, and fundamentally changing our nation's broken marijuana laws seems more attainable than ever.

But of course nothing is guaranteed or should be taken for granted. The millions of Americans who want to see these laws change will be looking to voters in places with marijuana initiatives to cast a strong vote against the status quo and in favor of reform on November 2. MPP and others are already planning similar initiatives for future years, but we could use every bit of momentum possible to dismantle the "Berlin Wall" of marijuana prohibition.

So, if you live in one of those aforementioned states, remember to go out and vote for more sensible marijuana laws, while keeping in mind that ending marijuana prohibition in this country is achievable - and may be closer than you think.

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