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 A decade before Prohibition was repealed in 1933, New York state passed a law eliminating funding for enforcement, which essentially re-legalized alcohol sales there.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).

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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.

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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.