Reducing Penalties for Crack and Peyote... But When Marijuana?

As California voters prepare to vote on Proposition 19, which would bring a much-needed end to nearly 100 years of failed marijuana prohibition in that state, it's important to pay attention to the arguments that proponents use to persuade the electorate to vote in favor of taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol (T&R). How an issue is framed can make or break it, as seen by efforts to reduce penalties for crack cocaine and peyote.

On August 3, President Obama signed a bill into law that reduced the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. This was done by reducing the penalty for crack cocaine, not by increasing the penalty for powder cocaine.

Years in the making, this law was signed with barely a whimper from the usual prohibitionists. How can it be that Congress and the president reduced the penalty for crack in 2010, but it's inconceivable that they'd do the same for marijuana in 2010? The answer is that the lobbying campaign to reduce the crack disparity appealed to politicians' core values.

The crack penalty wasn't reduced by analogizing important arguments in the marijuana policy debate, such as "crack is safer than alcohol" or "crack has medicinal value." Rather, because people who have been sentenced to five-year, mandatory-minimum prison sentences for crack are overwhelmingly black, the debate was framed as one of racial justice. Then, once that ball got rolling, others joined in by saying that reducing the crack penalty was about fundamental fairness, e.g., let the punishment fit the crime (which meant reducing the crack-cocaine penalty rather than increasing the powder-cocaine penalty).

Regarding peyote -- a drug that can cause hallucinations far exceeding those of the best marijuana in the world -- Congress and President Clinton enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which included an amendment that allowed people who have at least 25% Native-American blood to use peyote legally. The peyote amendment passed with a non-controversial, unanimous voice vote on the floor of the U.S. House, and by a vote of 97-3 on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The peyote vote wasn't won by arguing that "peyote is safer than alcohol" or "peyote has medicinal value" either. Rather, the argument was framed as being about religious freedom, as protected by the First Amendment.

And with medical marijuana, we have won and will continue to win our ballot-initiative campaigns not by running TV ads featuring a budding marijuana plant, but rather by featuring patients and family members of patients. This is because the debate isn't about a plant, but about compassion -- compassion for cancer patients, AIDS patients, MS patients, and chronic-pain patients who are being forced to choose between suffering without marijuana or breaking the law with marijuana.

Because no one has succeeded in enacting a T&R law in the history of the world (including in Holland, where wholesale cultivation of marijuana is still illegal), we don't yet know what "frame" we should be using to win the T&R debate.

Because a disproportionate number of the more than 800,000 people who are arrested for marijuana offenses each year are young men of color, it could be that the T&R issue should be framed as one of racial justice. In June, the Drug Policy Alliance released a report showing that in California's 25 largest counties, blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at double, triple, or even quadruple the rate of whites.

Or, looking at the success of MPP's marijuana-decriminalization initiative in Massachusetts -- which passed with a stunning 65% of the vote in November 2008 -- it could be that the T&R issue should be framed as being about public safety (letting police focus on violent crimes) or fairness (we shouldn't be saddling young people with lifelong criminal records just for marijuana). Both of these arguments resonated with Massachusetts voters, as exemplified by these two TV ads we ran.

There are also people in our movement who believe we'll win the T&R debate by emphasizing that marijuana is safer than alcohol (which it is), and therefore, adults should be able to choose the safer substance.

And while the financial argument has been gaining a lot of traction since the U.S. began its "Great Recession" two years ago, we won't win the T&R debate solely by framing the issue around saving money on enforcement costs and generating new tax dollars. I got a sense of this when I debated Asa Hutchinson, the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, on national TV on March 20, 2009.

In that debate, Hutchinson made an admission that I had never heard before from a leading prohibitionist. He said, "If your motivation is to bring revenue to the government, legalize, regulate it. But if your motivation is to reduce the usage, to save teenage lives, to reduce dependence, to strengthen our culture, then the cost is worth it and the revenue should not be a motivation." In other words, he said that when you're fighting a holy war, the financial cost of the war is irrelevant.

In the months and years ahead, those of us in the marijuana policy reform movement should aim to win the T&R debate by using some combination of the aforementioned five arguments -- racial justice, public safety, fairness, marijuana's relative safety, and the potential to generate tax revenues while reducing costs for law enforcement. As to which of these arguments will prove to be the most salient, perhaps the November 2 election in California will provide guidance.