In light of recent referendums in the Colorado and Washington that have legalized marijuana, could the drug war be headed for a serious meltdown? Such a notion would have been unthinkable just a short while ago, but there is no denying that America is in the midst of cultural change. Even though the federal authorities continue to prohibit marijuana, baby boomers and a more youthful and progressive electorate seems to be headed in the opposite direction and could force a serious rethinking of the authorities' heretofore disastrous and misplaced approach to narcotics, which has resulted in the incarceration of 500,000 people at staggering financial cost. If that was not enough, the drug war has also racked up racially biased arrests, absorbed police time and money, and enriched Mexican drug lords.
On a social and cultural level, the importance of Washington and Colorado's decision to legalize marijuana cannot be overstated. Indeed, no U.S. state, or modern country for that matter, has ever removed prohibition on production and distribution of marijuana for non-medical purposes. For the first time since cannabis prohibition began 75 years ago, people will not be arrested or incarcerated for recreational use of marijuana, and prosecutors in Washington and Colorado have announced that they are dropping cases against people for marijuana possession, effective immediately.
In Washington, state licensed growers will be able to process and sell cannabis in retail stores, with a state liquor board levying a local sales tax on cannabis. Colorado could go much farther, as the state has actually allowed every resident to grow his or her own marijuana and to give away as much as an ounce at a time to others. These developments are symbolically and psychologically important, as they chip away at the underlying logic of the drug war. In the long-term such public pressure could challenge the federal government's longstanding policy toward narcotics which is predicated on a draconian and militaristic approach.
Pressure Mounts From Cities and States
Perhaps most worryingly for drug war hawks, other states could follow Colorado and Washington's lead. Massachusetts voters, for example, have eliminated criminal and civil penalties for those using marijuana for debilitating medical conditions and state law now allows for "non-profit medical marijuana treatment centers." The New England state now joins 16 others and Washington, D.C. which have moved to legalize medical marijuana. In Maryland, meanwhile, there will be a big push for marijuana legalization during the 2013 legislative session. Advocates are looking to California, Oregon, Alaska, Maine and Nevada, states which previously passed medical marijuana initiatives, as the next big political arena in the battle for full legalization.
That Northeastern and Western states would be paving the ground for further action is no surprise, yet even in the south there have been some surprising seeds of change: in Arkansas no less, voters recently came within a whisker of passing medical marijuana. In the western state of Montana, organizers are seeking to capitalize on the momentum from Colorado and Washington and hope to pass recreational use of marijuana. Though Montana is traditionally a red state, voters display a pronounced libertarian streak. In Texas, meanwhile, where many value personal freedoms and resent federal intrusion, campaigners may seek to introduce a motion to legalize marijuana in the state legislature. Though activists will no doubt face a steep uphill climb in the state, local voters are horrified by drug-related violence in nearby Mexico which lies just across the border.
At the municipal level, meanwhile, pressure is also mounting. In New York and other cities, drug busts have taken a huge toll on minority communities and have sapped time and resources from local police forces. Speaking out on behalf of New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently endorsed a plan to curb tens of thousands of marijuana arrests. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has backed efforts to decriminalize marijuana possession offenses, and the local City Council recently voted resoundingly to approve his plan.
Are the Feds prepared to accept the shifting political climate? Hoping to avert future conflict, California governor Jerry Brown recently remarked that the Justice Department should respect states' rights to regulate marijuana use. John Hickenlooper, the governor of Colorado, is against marijuana legalization but seemed to echo his California colleague, declaring that "you can't argue with the will of the voters."
Feds in Denial
As pressure mounts from cities and states, the stage may be set for wider confrontation. It is well established that federal law trumps state law, and the Justice Department has already sent letters to various governors declaring that if they set up a system to license and regulate medical marijuana cultivation and distribution, state employees working in it could confront federal drug trafficking charges. What is more, in the wake of Colorado and Washington's decision, the Justice Department declared that it would continue to enforce the Controlled Substances Act, which would continue the policy of ongoing raids and prosecution of the cannabis trade.
Bizarrely, marijuana is still referred to as a "Schedule I" substance, which is the most restricted and dangerous class of drugs along with heroin. Growing and selling marijuana remain federal felonies, and those caught with a personal stash must be prepared to spend a year in prison. If that was not harsh enough, those who are busted while in the possession of a full marijuana plant can be locked up for a whopping five years. Those who believe that former pot-loving "Choom Gang" President Obama could prove more lenient on marijuana might think again. Indeed, the current White House has racked up more medical marijuana arrests than the former Bush administration.
Nevertheless, the Oval Office might want to pause for a moment before cracking down on the states. According to polling firms Gallup and Rasmussen, a majority of Americans now want to end cannabis prohibition and move toward a system of limited legalization and regulation. Furthermore, a whopping 80 percent of Americans now agree that physician-authorized use of marijuana should be legal. In light of shifting public sentiment, the Obama administration could opt for a more hands off approach. Enforcing federal marijuana law is a matter of prosecutorial discretion, and the Justice Department could simply decline to enforce its ban on marijuana, thereby allowing the states to become a laboratory for future policy.
Such a lenient approach would be more in keeping with the shifting cultural mood of the country. In a novel development, campaigners in both Colorado and Washington were able to attract female support and even mothers by stressing family-friendly values like public safety. Shrewdly, organizers emphasized the need for preventing drug access to children and fixing maximum permitted levels of THC in motorists' blood. In one TV ad, campaigners featured a "Washington mom" who spoke of the benefits of marijuana legalization such as lower drug cartel profits and more time for police to focus on violent crime.
In Colorado, a wide social spectrum of the state supported marijuana legalization including the NAACP, labor unions, physicians and even clergymen. Politically, the measure was backed by local branches of the Democratic Party across the state as well as the Green and Libertarian parties. Perhaps most surprisingly, however, Colorado campaigners also garnered significant support from the socially conservative Latino community which voted 70 percent in favor of legalizing cannabis. Perhaps, Latinos saw the measure as a civil rights issue as members of the community have been disproportionately targeted and arrested for marijuana possession.
Strange Political Bedfellows
In another development which raised eyebrows, 33 percent of Republican voters approved marijuana legalization in Washington. Moreover, though the GOP's Senate candidate in Washington went down to defeat, he too supported lifting the prohibition on cannabis. In addition, political figures such as former Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, who is very right wing on other social issues like immigration, supports liberals when it comes to marijuana legalization.
Perhaps, then, some Republicans may be willing to adopt some sense on U.S. drug policy. The Tea Party crowd, which opposes the encroachments of the federal government, might also be persuaded to break ranks with the more establishment GOP. What is more, liberals might join forces with law enforcement, no less. Recently, a former Baltimore cop remarked on The Rachel Maddow Show that it was time for Obama to scrap the drug war. The policeman heads a group called Law Enforcement against Prohibition, which hails the Washington and Colorado decisions as beneficial for local cops.
A New Economic Lobby
In addition to shifting and scrambling the usual cultural and political divides, marijuana legalization could give rise to a new economic lobby. About half of all marijuana consumed in the U.S. is exported from Mexico, and legalization could significantly impact and undercut the cartels' profit margin, perhaps by as much as 30 percent. Some of the marijuana could leak out into neighboring states, as the "Seattle cartel" gives the Mexicans a run for their money. Since tax rates have yet to be fixed, it's unclear whether Washington state pot would ultimately wind up being cheaper than Mexican marijuana. Whatever the case, however, consumers might opt for American marijuana which is considered to be of better quality.
By legalizing cannabis, Washington state could generate considerable revenue. In time, the public may come to appreciate the economic benefits accruing from marijuana since a portion of drug profits will go toward financing public school construction no less. Moreover, many will certainly flock into Colorado and Washington state to take advantage of burgeoning marijuana tourism. Sensing some serious growth potential, big name entrepreneurs such as former Microsoft executive Jamen Shively say they are interested in marketing marijuana.
The Coming Political Battle
Despite all of the progress at the state and local level, marijuana legalization still faces significant hurdles at the national level. Since 1997, the Medical Marijuana Protection Act has been kicking around the Hill but has never made it to a vote. Though most Democrats are now on board for more liberal drug laws, most of the GOP -- save a few outliers -- still lags. Given such inertia, it seems that change will most likely come from the states.
The coming marijuana debate could give rise to some odd-looking political constellations. If they are shrewd, legalization advocates might continue to pull together diverse constituencies such as doctors who are in favor of medical marijuana, sensible cops, Latinos, mothers, libertarians and rogue Republicans/Tea Party, Democrats, humane clergy, prison/justice reformers, and even ambitious entrepreneurs. In the coming months and years, the pro-legalization crowd will in turn face most of the GOP and conservative Evangelical Christians.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle faced by legalization advocates, however, is the federal government and the military-industrial complex. If the ban on marijuana is lifted, then certain agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration would lose a lot of their budget and overall legitimacy. For years, Washington has used the drug war as a means of militarily intervening in the wider region. However, Latin America is chafing and restive under the drug war and wants to find a way out of the senseless violence. If marijuana is legalized, could other harder drugs such as cocaine follow eventually? The U.S. military, which doesn't want to relinquish any of its power and control, surely fears such a possibility.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.