Viewpoint: How Marijuana Decision Could Signal Turning Point in the U.S. War on Drugs

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The war on drugs may have ended today.

Attorney general Eric Holder announced that the federal government will permit Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize recreational use of marijuana, to regulate marijuana use and sales, despite the fact that federal laws prohibit such activity. The decision ends months of debate over how the Obama administration would resolve the conflict; although Holder reserves the right to reverse course and sue the states later if problems arise, the move signals an acknowledgment by the government that continued criminalization of a drug that half the adult population has tried is unsustainable.

The feds will permit the two states to act as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said they should— as laboratories of democracy, which can “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

That has implications for the rest of the nation as well, not to mention the way legislators may now look at issues related to drug enforcement and regulation.  It reflects the first profound crack in the federal edifice of drug prohibition since President Nixon first declared war on drugs in 1971.

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And as pioneering as it seems, the decision actually has precedent— in the end of alcohol Prohibition back in the 1920s and 1930s. After Prohibition laws were passed, the only legal liquor citizens could obtain came via doctors’ prescriptions, with the loopholes for “medicinal alcohol” echoing those of today’s “medical marijuana.” A decade before Prohibition was repealed in 1933, New York state passed a law eliminating funding for enforcement, which essentially re-legalized alcohol sales there.

The fact that the federal government appears to be backing off— rather than cracking down — on marijuana use and sales could reflect a similar turning point in marijuana prohibition. It’s certainly an about-face for a country that has been steadily increasing drug penalties and spending on drug-enforcement efforts since the early 1970s. Then, the drug budget was in the tens or hundreds of millions per year. Now, it’s $20 billion annually. And the single largest category of arrests reported to the FBI today involve drug law violations— and of these, 82% are for simple possession. Half of those arrests are for marijuana use. The increase in spending and incarceration, however, has not been accompanied by a parallel drop in addiction or even drug use (including marijuana).

MORE: Pot Is Legal in Washington: Q&A with the Man Who Is Making Weed Legit

In fact, a study on global addiction problems published this week in The Lancet found that although there are millions more marijuana users than there are users of other drugs, there are 27% more people addicted to heroin and pain relievers worldwide (15.5 million) than there are addicted to marijuana (13 million) and an even higher number addicted to amphetamines, which, again, are far less frequently used than marijuana.

That’s not to condone marijuana use, but that data does lend more support to the administration’s decision to allow Colorado and Washington to go ahead with their respective efforts to legalize recreational use. Of course, it won’t be easy to create a system of legal sales that will be safer for customers than the illegal market, without leading to higher marijuana use. State officials will need to balance strategies for keeping sales and use under control— with taxes that keep drug prices high enough to deter excess use — and the need to make marijuana accessible enough to discourage the black market for the drug. Their plans will also have to minimize use by teens, for whom the drug remains illegal.

MORE: New Research Questions Marijuana’s Impact in Lowering IQ

They also face the specter of becoming sites of “drug tourism,” where Americans from across the country visit simply to purchase or use marijuana. Some European experiments in local drug legalization— most notoriously, a park in Switzerland that allowed sale and use of heroin— wound up attracting addicts from across the continent and magnifying the problem locally, rather than helping those who were already there and in bad shape.

But Colorado and Washington can take solace in the fact that some efforts to legalize illegal substances have been successful. Quasi-legal sales of marijuana in Holland, where growing remains illegal but sales are tolerated in licensed “coffee shops” and decriminalization of possession of all drugs in Portugal have not led to rampant criminal behavior or increased crime; in fact, those countries have lower rates of youth marijuana use and lower levels of other drug problems than we do.

And Switzerland reduced its heroin problem not by returning to further crackdowns, but by closing the park and opening a legal injection center, with greater supervision that required addicts to register.  At the center, they were provided heroin legally, which wound up lowering rates of disease and increasing employment, as well as helping some to stop using entirely.

The Lancet study, in fact, showed that the countries with the worst drug problems were those with the harshest penalties— including the U.S. It’s clear that regulating recreational drugs will be a big challenge, of course.. But it’s also increasingly obvious that total prohibition has failed. Hopefully, the Obama administration’s decision paves the way for new thinking and better strategies for addressing drug problems— not by waging war, but by offering help to those who need it and leaving in peace those who don’t.

10 comments
herbalmagick
herbalmagick

"there are 27% more people addicted to heroin and pain relievers worldwide (15.5 million) than there are addicted to marijuana (13 million)"

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Comparing marijuana "addiction" to opiate addiction is ludicrous.   Cannabis is less addictive than coffee and the withdrawal symptoms are less severe than going "cold turkey" on a three-cups-a-day habit.

Paulpot
Paulpot

The feds basically just legalized marijuana and pushed UN drug treaties aside like they were waste paper. 

This not only gives states a right to decide for themselves, other nations will take this as a queue to reform their own drug laws without US or UN interference. 

The drug war is dead. 

Death to the drug war.

ElroyJetson
ElroyJetson

If you have a pot business, can you put your money in the bank?

MikeParent
MikeParent

How about having Law Enf. focus on crimes that have actual victims and stop being the heavy handed nanny?  Look at all the unsolved crimes we have and then justify all these marijuana drug task forces and special details. 

MalcolmKyle
MalcolmKyle

Some simple facts:

* Prohibition has been a slow but relentless degradation (death by a zillion cuts) of all our cherished national and international institutions that will leave us crippled for numerous generations.

* The US federal government is now the most dangerous and corrupt corporation on the planet, and is solely comprised of traitorous liars who spy on us.

* In 1989, The Kerry Committee found that the United States Department of State had made payments to drug-traffickers. Concluding, that even members of the U.S. State Department, themselves, were involved in drug trafficking. Some of the payments were made even after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies - or even while these traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies.

* Colombia, Peru, Mexico, or Afghanistan with their coca leaves, marijuana buds or poppy sap are not igniting temptation in the minds of our weak, innocent citizens. These countries are duly responding to the enormous demand that comes from within our own borders. Invading or destroying these countries, thus creating more hate, violence, instability, injustice and corruption, will not fix our problem.

* A rather large majority of people will always feel the need to use drugs such as heroin, opium, nicotine, amphetamines, alcohol, sugar, or caffeine.

* The massive majority of adults who use drugs do so recreationally - getting high at the weekend then up for work on a Monday morning.

* Apart from the huge percentage of people addicted to both sugar and caffeine, a small minority of adults (nearly 5%) will always experience the use of drugs as problematic. Approx. 3% are dependent on alcohol and approx. 1.5% are dependent on other drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, heroine etc.

* Just as it was impossible to prevent alcohol from being produced and used in the U.S. in the 1920s, so too, it is equally impossible to prevent any of the aforementioned drugs from being produced, distributed and widely used by those who so desire.

* Prohibition kills more people and ruins more lives than the drugs it attempts to prohibit.

* Due to Prohibition (historically proven to be an utter failure at every level), the availability of most of these mood-altering drugs has become so universal and unfettered that in any city of the civilized world, any one of us would be able to procure practically any drug we wish within an hour.

* Throughout history, the prohibition of any mind-altering substance has always exploded usage rates, overcrowded jails, fueled organized crime, created rampant corruption of law-enforcement, even whole governments while inducing an incalculable amount of suffering and death.

NormanGooding
NormanGooding

Maria,,we need legislation by congress not legalese spoken by a professional liar,,sorry if I come across  as a skeptic but judging from history of "memos" from the AG plus the fact they built in rules that they have not been able to achieve spending three trillion tax dollars and arresting over 21 million citizens on marijuana crimes since 1972,,making sure no legal marijuana is to leave the state into an illegal state.

Perhaps they should have included a hint on how successful the DEA has been at stopping marijuana,,they sure were effective at spending tax dollars and ramping up violence around the world.

I have hope that the judicial committee has the foresight to end cannabis as a schedule 1 drug in the CSA and end the federal grants and seizure laws for marijuana arrests  that fuels the war on drugs with funding for  every police agency across the land,,otherwise it is still drug war on in the streets.

mimbyus
mimbyus

Very interesting article. As happens with so many good intentions stateside, however, your 2-party, republican political system complicates things.

Here in Canada we have a multi-party, parliamentary system. No vetoes. Clearly-defined powers between the parties of the federal system. We are coming up on a federal election in 2015, and the parties are already moving to advance their causes. We have a young, charismatic leader of the federal Liberal party, Justin Trudeau ( yes, son, of our greatest prime minister ever, Pierre Elliot Trudeau) Young Trudeau is shifting Canadian politics toward full  legalization of marijuana. He makes bold, clear statements in advancing the cause. He's young, smart and charismatic.

The dividing line between our two systems is this:  Mr. Trudeau, if elected prime minister, need not go on bended knee before any court to  get his marijuana platform made into law, as your two legalizing states have had to do. The Canadian federal government writes criminal law. Period. No judges required. No complications between the federal government and provincial governments. Things are clear and straight-forward.

And, since the Canadian federal government is the national government, laws it makes apply all across the land. 

So U.S.A., 2 states/Canada, probable _entire country_ by 2016.

See http://americanotstandingstill.com/2013/08/16/trudeau-liberals-marijuana-stance-is-high-risk-high-reward-2/?preview=true&preview_id=2136&preview_nonce=b096c5f4fe

Comparative political study:  republican system vs. parliamentary system. 

Parliamentary governments Get Things Done; Republics Get Very LIttle Done, and Very Slowly!

Just saying, is all!

Whatanotion
Whatanotion

@MalcolmKyle Your second point is unfair.  It's accurate, but it's unfair.  There are many clueless new and old members who seem to be quite out of  the loop.   I agree with licensure in both distribution and consumption, as a limited legalization, but  that would require thoughtful legislators which are in short supply; as you indicated.