The savage drug war in Mexico. Crumbling state budgets. Weariness with current drug policy. The election of a president who said, "I inhaled."
These are reasons why many proponents of legalized marijuana have unprecedented optimism.
"This is the first time I feel like the wind is at my back and not in my face," said the Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann, a veteran of the legalize-marijuana movement.
Considered one of the least harmful illegal drugs, marijuana accounts for more than 40 percent of drug arrests nationally and consumes a vast amount of law enforcement's time and money.
According to Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron, legalization could save the nation at least $7.7 billion in law-enforcement costs and generate more than $6 billion in revenue if taxed like cigarettes and alcohol.
The latest federal data show more than 100 million Americans have tried the drug and that more than 14 million used it in the previous month.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard says that U.S. demand is a key factor in the Mexican drug war.
"The violence that we see in Mexico is fueled 65 percent to 70 percent by the trade in one drug: marijuana," he said. "I've called for at least a rational discussion as to what our country can do to take the profit out of that."
Marijuana activists doubt nationwide decriminalization is imminent, but they anticipate fast-paced change on the state level.
"For the most part, what we've seen over the past 20 years has been incremental," said Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief now active with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "What we've seen in the past six months is an explosion of activity, fresh thinking, bold statements and penetrating questions."
• Numerous political leaders, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Mexican presidents, have suggested the time is right for open debate on legalization.
• Lawmakers in at least three states are considering joining Washington and 12 other states that have legalized pot for medical purposes. Massachusetts last fall decriminalized possession of an ounce or less of pot, becoming the latest of a dozen states that have taken such action. (Seattle voters in 2003 approved a ballot measure making marijuana possession the lowest law-enforcement priority.)
• In Congress, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., are among several lawmakers contending that decriminalization should be studied as part of an examination of what they deem to be failed U.S. drug policy. "Nothing should be off the table," Webb said.
• A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 46 percent of Americans favor legalizing small amounts of pot for personal use, up from 22 percent in 1997. In California last month, a statewide Field Poll for the first time found 56 percent of voters supporting legalization.
"I've never seen a ... phone survey that showed more than half of adults favoring legalization. I've certainly never seen a governor putting forth the idea of debating the issue, much less an actual bill," said Robert MacCoun, a University of California, Berkeley, public-policy professor. "It's a comfort zone for politicians we didn't have 10 years ago."
The Field Poll — and California's ever-more-desperate search for revenue to address its $24.3 billion budget deficit — is fueling a drive to put the first major statewide initiative to legalize marijuana for personal use on the November 2010 ballot. The initiative calls for legalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal possession for adults 21 and older and would allow individual cities and counties the option of regulating sales and cultivation of the drug.
Other legislative efforts in California also are beginning to gain traction, including a special July election in Oakland to create a category for cannabis taxes and hearings this fall on an Assembly bill to legalize marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol — taxing sales to adults while barring possession by anyone younger than 21.
In Oakland, Measure F would make the city the first to establish a new business tax rate for "cannabis businesses," instead of the general tax rate now used.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano contends his bill would generate up to $1.3 billion in revenue.
"People who initially were very skeptical — as the polls come in, as the budget situation gets worse — are having a second look," the San Francisco Democrat said. "Maybe these issues that have been treated as wedge issues aren't anymore. People know the drug war has failed."
A new tone also has sounded more frequently in Congress.
Kucinich has noted that both President Obama and former President Clinton acknowledged trying marijuana.
"Apparently that didn't stop them from achieving their goals in life," Kucinich said. "We need to come at this from a point of science and research and not from mythologies or fears."
Gil Kerlikowske, former Seattle police chief and now head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has suggested scrapping the "war on drugs" label and placing more emphasis on treatment and prevention. Attorney General Eric Holder has said federal authorities no longer will raid medical-marijuana facilities.
As for Obama, activists don't expect him to embrace legalization at this point.
"Obama's got two wars, an economic disaster. We have to realize they're not going to put this on the front burner right now," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "But every measurable metric out there is swinging our way."
Nonetheless, many opponents of legalization remain firm in their convictions.
"We're opposed to legalization or decriminalization of marijuana. We think it's the wrong message to send our youth," said Russell Laine, police chief in Algonquin, Ill., and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The Drug Enforcement Agency also remains on record against legalization and medical marijuana, which it contends has no scientific justification.
Legalization proponents acknowledge that pot use by adolescents is a major problem, but contend that decriminalizing and regulating the drug would improve matters by shifting efforts away from criminal gangs.
"The notion that we have to keep something completely banned for adults to keep it away from kids doesn't hold up," said Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project.
By Seattle Times news services
Originally published Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM