The end of the federal government's War On Weed is approaching fast. No matter how the details work out, that much seems pretty clear at this point. What began roughly 100 years ago as a racist legislative overreaction to Latino workers' preferred method of relaxing -- and was then ramped up (under Richard Nixon) to punish hippies and minorities and college students -- could once again become sane governmental policy, ending almost a century's institutional demonization of a fairly harmless natural substance. When it happens, it will be the most significant governmental shift on a pointless and endless social "war" since the end of Prohibition. The only remaining questions are how the mechanics of the war's end will work out, and how fast it'll happen. But whether it ends with a bang or a whimper, that end is definitely now in sight.
Consider the following developments (some very recent and some ongoing):
DEA about to report
The Drug Enforcement Agency is going to announce any day now their completion of a review of the status of marijuana under federal drug law. They had promised it'd be done by the end of June, so it's already overdue. No matter what their review recommends, it may spur fundamental change in the legal status of marijuana.
Suppose the D.E.A. actually applies common sense and science to the federal classification of marijuana. If they do so, they will recommend a downgrade from Schedule I to at least Schedule II (although a strong case could be made for Schedules III through V just as easily, depending on how you interpret the concept of "abuse" of marijuana). If the D.E.A. leads the way, the process will be fairly smooth and fairly quick. But even if they dig in their heels (they are the nation's drug warriors, after all) and refuse to recommend any change, they might just spark a backlash from other parts of the government.
Obama could act on his own, after the election
One of President Obama's campaign promises was to stop letting politics trump science in federal policy. He has had a very mixed record on this issue, however, as evidenced by the long (and pointless) battle his administration fought against allowing over-the-counter sales of the "Plan B" emergency contraceptive. Obama also consistently treated any suggestion of changes in federal marijuana policy as a joke to be laughed off, for pretty much his entire first term in office. His first attorney general sent some awfully conflicting guidelines out to federal prosecutors on marijuana policy -- first seeming to relax enforcement and then to tighten it back up. This confusion did eventually end, and the Department of Justice has now (mostly) taken a hands-off stance to states with legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana.
This is important, because it is not ultimately the D.E.A.'s decision how marijuana is classified -- it is instead the attorney general's decision. Congress doesn't even need to be involved with any shift in policy, because the attorney general can change the federal government's classification with her signature alone. So even if the D.E.A. review refuses to recognize that "the times they are a changin'," the Justice Department can easily overrule them and go ahead and reschedule marijuana. President Obama might just order this to happen on his way out of office, during the lame-duck period after the election, no matter what the D.E.A. has to say about it. What would a self-described former member of the "Choom Gang" have to lose, at that point?
Congress could act as well
Even if the D.E.A. proves recalcitrant and the Obama administration isn't bold enough to reschedule on their own, Congress may get involved. A bill which will remove all the needless red tape from medical research on marijuana is working its way through the House right now, and it is notable for who has sponsored it -- not just pro-marijuana congressmen, but also some of the most avidly anti-marijuana congressmen as well. It is no longer a politically acceptable stance to deny doctors from even studying marijuana's benefits anymore -- another measure of how the War On Weed is winding down.
For years, marijuana research was only allowed if the hypothesis was some version of: "Marijuana's bad for you... mmm-kay?" No science was permitted with the aim of proving any benefits at all -- and then politicians and the medical establishment could sanctimoniously fight against legalizing medical marijuana with the Catch-22 excuse of "no solid research has been done, therefore marijuana can't be considered a medicine." As Doc Daneeka might have explained to Yossarian: "Doctors say medical marijuana isn't a proven medicine until they see studies scientifically showing the benefits, but research showing any beneficial uses doesn't actually exist -- because any researcher who tries to prove beneficial uses is denied the permission to conduct such research by the government -- so this scientific evidence will never actually be allowed to exist." That was then, but now even the most strident anti-drug congressmen are working to remove this enormous Catch-22 situation, forever.
Democratic Party officially calls for change
This one has a worrisome undertone to it, because of the way it happened. Still, it's a positive development any way you look at it. This weekend, in a showdown between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters, a plank was inserted in the Democratic Party platform document that called for a "path to legalization" for marijuana. This is stunning, because the subject hasn't been addressed by either party in such a direct fashion since at least the 1970s. Sanders, in his campaign, called for "descheduling" marijuana -- treating it like alcohol, essentially, and moving its regulation over to the folks who now oversee tobacco and alcohol (instead of the drug warriors). This was proposed by the Sanders supporters at the platform committee meeting, but the idea was voted down. Compromise language was offered instead (with the "path to legalization" language) which called for at least rescheduling marijuana down from Schedule I. This passed by only one vote (out of over 150 cast). The worrisome aspect was that the Clinton people fought so hard against it -- fighting for timidity rather than leadership, as Democrats have been regularly doing on the issue ever since they were badly spooked by Republican charges of being "soft on crime," back in the 1980s and 1990s.
A platform document fight doesn't guarantee how Hillary Clinton will treat the matter once in the Oval Office, however. Both Clinton and Obama, if you'll remember, were publicly against gay marriage in the 2008 campaign (timidity ruled the day on the issue among Democratic leadership, back then). But look where we are now -- Obama realized that he needed to "evolve" on the issue and politically it has done him a lot of good. He'll go down in history as the boldest president on gay rights of all time, in fact. Clinton could wind up doing the same on marijuana, too, no matter how timidly she's approached the issue so far during this year's campaign.
Even though the federal government states (as part of the Schedule I definition) that marijuana has "no accepted medical use," half of the United States have now legalized such medical use. Half. Depending on how you count, the number of such states is now at least 25 (some states have severe restrictions, red tape, and other hoops such as only allowing CBD oils and other non-euphoric forms, to treat diseases such as epilepsy). The tide on medical use has already turned and nobody will ever force this genie back into the bottle again.
The voters of four states -- and the District of Columbia, the seat of our national government -- have completely thrown in the towel altogether and just legalized adult recreational use of marijuana. The sky has not fallen in any of these jurisdictions. The sun rises, the sun sets, and the hellscape predicted by those against legalization has not materialized at all. This year, California voters will get a chance to vote on recreational legalization in November. California is the biggest market in the entire country -- if the state were its own country, it would have the sixth largest economy in the world. And California won't be alone. Seven other states may also have the opportunity to vote to legalize this November. Which means by the end of this year, marijuana may be fully legal for any adult to buy openly in over 10 states. This isn't quite the tipping point that medical marijuana has already reached, but it may be the biggest step towards such a tipping point yet taken.
Double the budgetary impact
Once other states see how much tax revenue is generated by states who have legalized recreational use, it's going to be pretty hard to argue against allowing such taxes to be collected. But marijuana legalization actually has a two-fold impact on state budgets. First, there's the tax revenue to be collected -- and marijuana smokers are just about the only political group in the country who are currently actually begging to be taxed. Think about that, especially seen through the eyes of a conservative politician. Who else is not going to complain about paying new taxes, after all?
But it gets even better, because the secondary budget impact is that millions of dollars (billions, when all states are added together) in law enforcement funds will be saved by not having to hassle with low-level pot busts anymore. Cops will be freed up to concentrate on other things, and new tax revenue will flow in at the same time. That is a double benefit to any state trying to put together a yearly budget -- and it's going to become more and more irresistible over time, especially to those who profess themselves to be fiscal conservatives.
War On Weed's end
In conclusion, although it is impossible to see precisely which path we'll take at this point, the federal government's War On Weed is almost over. Its days are numbered. The end is in sight.
It won't happen overnight, of course. Even it the D.E.A. gives its approval and Loretta Lynch acts immediately, rescheduling marijuana on the Controlled Substances list isn't going to be the last gasp. The war won't truly be over until the last vestiges of the federal government's wrongheaded policies have been reversed entirely. What would this look like? It would have many facets, because the idiocy behind the policy has become so ingrained in federal law.
First and foremost, federal officials would not be strangled by gag laws which now prevent them from even publicly admitting that marijuana is not as dangerous as heroin. This has got to be the biggest piece of idiocy in the entire misguided War On Weed, but it'll be the easiest to change.
More concretely, marijuana businesses need to stop being persecuted for what they sell. Right now, it is impossible for many of these businesses to use the banking system. The federal penalties for laundering money from drug trafficking are so severe that the banks refuse to allow marijuana businesses -- completely legal ones, in states where they are allowed -- from opening an account. That has got to change. Marijuana businesses should not be forced to operate on a cash basis (what other business is?) and instead should be treated like any other wholesaler or retailer in the country. Tax laws also need to reflect this normalization. As of now, marijuana businesses can't legally claim common business expenses like employee salaries or rent -- again, like every other business in operation is allowed to. This will require a shift in the federal tax code.
Medical research on marijuana should be approved just like research on any other substance. Marijuana supplies for such research should be allowed from anywhere, instead of one government farm being a bottleneck for such research supplies. No extra approvals by a multitude of departments should be necessary any more (the hoops that such research has to jump through are still on the order of Catch-22, even after some recent improvements have been made). Doctors should be able to get solid scientific studies which show effectiveness and which also start to break down the dozens of chemicals in the plant to more accurately prescribe their use for different medical conditions.
Marijuana should really become legal on federal property, so that campers in a National Park aren't at risk of punishments they wouldn't face if they stepped outside the park's boundaries. But this brings up a much wider point -- what I see as the real end of the road for the fight to dismantle the federal War On Weed. Prohibition required a constitutional amendment to end, and at least we won't have that hurdle to get over. But the War On Weed's end is going to look a lot like how Prohibition ended in one enormous way.
The states have to be given full control -- up to a point -- over how marijuana will be treated. The end to the federal War On Weed won't mean marijuana will be legalized in all 50 states the next day, but that's actually OK. Indeed, Prohibition hasn't actually ended yet in many counties across America. "Dry" counties still exist in plenty of states, where the sale of alcohol is absolutely forbidden. Alcohol can't be sold on Sundays in lots of other places (so much for separation of church and state). In some places "near beer" is the only thing you can buy (which is pretty horrendous stuff to drink, it should be mentioned). In other places, Everclear (190-proof grain alcohol) is illegal, but Bacardi 151 can be purchased. Laws still differ everywhere, in other words, concerning the legal purchase of alcohol. But here's the crucial footnote to this patchwork of alcohol laws across America: you can buy a bottle of liquor legally (in a "wet" county, of course) and then get in your car and legally drive to any place in America, wet or dry -- without having to worry about getting busted by the cops for having an unopened bottle of hooch in your car. As long as you consume it in private, mere possession of alcohol is not banned by law anywhere in America.
That is the real end of the road for marijuana, as well. No matter how all the rest of the details are worked out, this is when the war will fully be over. It's a monumental shift in federal policy, so it'll likely happen incrementally, but even so it may happen a lot sooner than you might think. These things have a way of steamrolling, in politics. The first step is taken (boldly or timidly), and then the next steps become easier because the logic supporting the entire War On Weed will begin to fall apart. "Why do we bother to still ban this, when we are now allowing that to take place?" becomes the question with no defensible answer (other than the wholly-inadequate: "Well, because we've always done it that way"). The framework will collapse of its own weight, and sometimes these collapses happen very swiftly. If 40 million Californians can enjoy the same freedom that citizens of Colorado and Oregon now enjoy, then the federal government is going to look pretty silly trying to turn back this tide. To some, the federal War On Weed won't be over until everyone affected receives an apology for all the idiocy (a full presidential pardon for Tommy Chong, perhaps?), but realistically speaking the end will happen when the government does exactly what Bernie Sanders boldly called for during his campaign -- the federal government treating marijuana not the same way it treats heroin or crystal meth, but the same way it treats alcohol and tobacco.
That was once a pipe dream, if you'll excuse the stoner-joke metaphor. For anyone who has lived through the War On Weed era, it seemed at times that the federal government was going so far backwards that such an end could not even realistically be conceived. But times are changing fast. The once-inconceivable hasn't quite become inevitable yet, but even so the end of the War On Weed is definitely now on the political horizon. Politicians should really take note, because they're now at risk of being on the wrong side of history. The old movement slogan has never seemed more appropriate, in fact: "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." Those are really the only choices left for the politicians, as the people in state after state jettison the War On Weed on their own, at the ballot box.
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