More are asking: Is it time to legalize pot?

By chillinwill · Jun 16, 2009 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    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
    Seattle Times

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  1. chillinwill
    Is now the time to legalize pot?

    The Obama administration, already overtaxed with two foreign campaigns, made headlines when it waved a white flag in a fight much closer to home. Gil Kerlikowske, the White House's newly minted director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — the so-called drug czar — called for an end to the "War on Drugs."
    Granted, Kerlikowske wasn't signaling an intention to lay down arms and pick up a pack of E-Z Widers. His was a semantic shift — a pledge to abandon gung-ho fighting words and imprisonment in favor of treatment. But it was newsworthy nonetheless. As Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project — the biggest pot-policy-reform group in the country — puts it: "Can you imagine [Bush administration czar] John Walters saying that? The Earth would open up!"

    It wouldn't be surprising if Kerlikowske's speech was actually a subtle test of the political landscape surrounding the marijuana question as we find ourselves, quite suddenly, at a pivotal moment in the push for pot legalization. The horrific violence of Mexican cartels, which make perhaps as much as 75 percent of their money from marijuana (in Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard's estimation), has started ebbing across our Southwestern borders.

    The budget meltdown in California has led state pols — even, once unthinkably, GOP governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — to reconsider the tax revenues ($14 billion, according to Time) that could be harvested from the Golden State's biggest cash crop. Politicians, no longer confined to the left and libertarian right, are increasingly willing to say that legalization makes sense.

    Nearly every day offers another object lesson in the merits of marijuana reform and the American people seem to be noticing. At least four polls in the past three months have shown a greater uptick in the public's receptiveness to legalization than ever before. One Zogby poll released last month found that 52 percent thought pot should be regulated and taxed. Among the more than 13,000 questions submitted to President Barack Obama's online town hall in March, the Los Angeles Times reported, the top six questions in the "budget" category had to do with legalizing and taxing pot (thanks in part to prodding from groups such as NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

    So far, the president — who supported decriminalization when running for Senate in 2004, but not when running for president in 2008 — hasn't exactly been a profile in courage. (His answer, at that town hall, to the question of taxing marijuana was wincingly flippant.) But that may not matter all that much. "Obama is against gay marriage, at least nominally, yet that issue is moving forward, too," statistician Nate Silver, founder of, told me. "Once one state does something, then other states start to think about it."

    Even if Obama isn't yet bumping Pineapple Express to the top of his Netflix queue, then, this much seems clear: The thoughtfulness he's brought to Washington — zealots out, pragmatists in — is evident. And suddenly, whether his fingerprints are on it directly or not, "change" may be more than just a buzzword.

    As seen in a steady spate of headlines over the past six months, we're talking about the failed drug war and the ever-widening patchwork of individual state laws with a measure of honesty and common sense that's not been heard since the 1970s.


    In the '70s as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives Barney Frank filed a bill that sought to allow possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. It went nowhere.

    Then last April, as a U.S. congressman, he co-sponsored, with Ron Paul, the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008, which would have lifted federal penalties for possessing 3.5 ounces or less. That bill never made it to committee. This past month, though, Frank and Paul introduced another bill that did reach the committee stage, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009, which would end the ban on cultivation of non-psychoactive hemp.

    "I think people have gotten more skeptical of government intervention," says Frank. "And I think people have seen the ineffectiveness of the all-out-war approach to all this. Third, we have concerns about the costs, about overcrowded prisons and overstretched law enforcement. So I think things are moving. But the basic thing is that Americans are better understanding now of personal freedoms."

    "A lot of things are being put on the table that people couldn't imagine until just recently," says Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks an end to the worldwide war on drugs. "I would not have predicted five months ago that we'd have this explosion of sentiment. I'm stunned."

    Back in the heydaze of Cheech and Chong, the prospects for legalization looked promising. "There were a bunch of states that passed decriminalization statutes in the '70s," says Mirken, including New York, Colorado, and even Mississippi. "Then basically everything ground to a halt in the Reagan era. The pendulum had swung in one direction in the '60s and '70s and then swung back."

    It may have swung back yet again — perhaps for good this time. "Back then [in the '70s, pro-legalization] public opinion never topped more than 30 percent," says Nadelmann. "And there was a whole generation that didn't know the difference between marijuana and heroin. Now, support is topping 30 percent nationally."

    "We're not yet there, but look at the number of states who voted for medical marijuana," says Frank. "Then you had the referendum in Massachusetts last year over the objection of almost all law-enforcement people. There is movement."


    Rock Band" enthusiasts with bongs aren't the only ones taking note. More than 40 percent of Americans have tried marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. By NORML's tally, as many as 15 million people smoke at least once a month. That's a pretty substantial market, one that could bring in a good amount of tax revenue — a fact that hasn't been lost on those seeking rational solutions to our nation's financial woes.

    "When you're staring at the sort of budget deficits that governments at all levels are looking at right now, that clarifies the mind a great deal," says Mirken. "And it does, I think, begin to strike people as pretty absurd that we have this huge industry that is effectively tax exempt!"

    California assemblyman Tom Ammiano made news in February when he introduced a bill that would essentially treat pot like alcohol: legalize it, tax it and allow adults 21 and over to purchase and use it. Soon after, the state's Board of Equalization announced that the bill's proposed levy of $50 per ounce could put as much as $1.3 billion a year into government coffers.

    "I think it's not time for that," Schwarzenegger said in response. "But I think it's time for a debate."

    "He's far and away the highest-placed politician in recent memory who's dared to broach the subject at all," says Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron of Schwarzenegger. "He said, 'I'm not in favor of it, but let's discuss it.' Well, why are you gonna discuss it when you're so sure it's a bad idea? He clearly does think it might be a good idea."

    Miron is the author of a 2005 study titled "The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition." In it, he looks at the money that could be saved by local, state and federal governments by the cessation of prohibition, and that could be gained by taxing pot at rates comparable with those levied on other vices.

    "Overall, my numbers are something like $12 billion would be saved from not enforcing marijuana laws," says Miron, "and $7 billion could be collected in revenue, assuming it's taxed at something like the rates on alcohol and tobacco."

    The numbers are "not totally trivial," he concedes. "But when we're looking at a $1.84 trillion deficit, a net of $15 to $20 billion seems like a rounding error."


    If dollar signs don't convince the anti-pot lobby, then how about the fact that Mexican drug cartels are appropriating public land in western states to grow bushels of marijuana? Or the fact that ever more U.S. officials, from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, are fearing spillover of the cartels' grisly violence — more than 6,000 murders last year — into Tuscon and El Paso?

    "If drugs were legal, that would not be happening," says Dan Baum, whose 1997 book, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (Back Bay), is considered one of the best chronicles of the drug war's litany of failures. "It's a misapprehension of the truth to say that the violence in Mexico is because of American appetite for drugs. It's not the appetite for drugs — it's the prohibition that's causing the violence."

    Certainly, these cartels traffic in some very bad stuff: heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine. But, says Nadelmann, "half of the Mexican drug gangs' revenue comes from marijuana. Legalizing marijuana is a pretty powerful way of depriving these gangsters of revenue — the same way we took Al Capone and those guys out."

    Prohibitionists are at a loss for a coherent argument when it comes to the cartels, argues Mirken. "They'll say really dumb things like 'Legalizing marijuana isn't going to make these gangs turn into law-abiding citizens.' No, of course not! It will make them irrelevant! Just like you don't need bootleggers when you have Anheuser-Busch."

    More and more credible people are echoing the sentiment. In January, Arizona Attorney General Goddard opined that legalization "could certainly cut the legs out of some of these criminal activities." In February, former presidents Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, and César Gaviria of Colombia gathered at the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and called for decriminalization, decrying the fact that "current policies are based on prejudices and fears and not on results."

    Former Mexican president Vicente Fox put it plainly: "I believe it's time to open the debate over legalizing drugs."

    That debate, at least, is happening in earnest. What it leads to is another matter. In the meantime, says Mirken, "We are effectively subsidizing these horrible Mexican gangs by handing them the marijuana market."


    Of course, it's not just Mexican presidents who are honest about drugs. American ones can also be pretty, er, blunt. "I inhaled frequently," then-candidate Obama admitted last year when asked if he had ever smoked pot. "That was the point."

    To see how far we've come, consider the fact that, just 17 years ago, candidate Bill Clinton felt compelled to fudge his answer to that same question with his own infamous equivocation. Or that, 22 years ago, Douglas Ginsburg's admission to smoking pot cost him a Supreme Court seat.

    People are much more comfortable with the idea of smoking marijuana than they once were. The media brewed up a tempest in a teapot when Michael Phelps was photographed with a bong held to his lips, and cereal giant Kellogg's may have voided his sponsorship deal in a panic, but most Americans couldn't give a fig.

    "I do think it's begun to sink in for people now that the last three presidents have smoked marijuana," says Mirken. "As has the governor of California, the mayor of New York City, the guy [Phelps] who's won more Olympic gold medals than anyone on the planet."

    In February, Silver looked at the results of three polls (Rasmussen, CBS, Zogby) on, each of which found 40 percent or more of respondents supporting legalization. That "may be significant" he allowed, but cautioned against over-exuberance. None of this promises upward movement.

    "On issues like this, yes, there are trends, but they're not necessarily inevitable," he says now. "If you were looking at the world in the 1960s, you may well have guessed that, by 2009, you'd be able to smoke pot legally."

    But that didn't happen. After the '70s came the '80s. A crack epidemic. A crime wave. Nancy Reagan and "Just Say No." Moods can change. And if the pot issue moves unduly forward, wonders Silver, "Will the Republicans try to create a backlash on that and say, 'We've gone too far?' I think it's not totally out of the question, if the economy stays in the dumps for a period of months or years," he adds, "that the crime rate may increase again and that may work against legalization and harm that momentum a bit."

    But generational shifts happen. And now, with most people under the age of 65 probably at least familiar with the pungent smoky odor, the trend should continue toward increased acceptance. Writing on, Silver predicted that "we'll need to see a supermajority of Americans" favoring legalization before politicians would be emboldened enough to press the issue.

    He crunched the numbers and figured that, assuming the trend kept heading northward, we could reach 60 percent or so sometime in the next 13 years. "I feel comfortable with 2022."


    In the past decade and a half, 13 states have legalized medical marijuana, a steady drip that is somewhat analogous — in its suddenness and once-seeming-improbability — to the snowballing momentum of gay-marriage rulings over the past several months.

    "There's a powerful analogy between the gay-rights movement and the marijuana-law-reform movement," says Nadelmann. "Part of it is about a principle — that people should not be punished for what they do in their own home or their own personal lives. The other point is that there's an element of 'coming out' that is pivotal to the whole process of decriminalizing and ultimately legalizing the behavior."

    Atlantic writer Andrew Sullivan has done a fine job of hammering this point again and again over the past couple months on his blog The Daily Dish (, both with his own thoughtful analysis and in a series of posts tagged "The Cannabis Closet," in which he publishes mostly anonymous responses from his readers. "Contract manager with a government agency [and] Treasurer for the PTA" one describes himself. "If I got busted, I'd lose a lot," writes another.

    "I truly believe that if marijuana users felt as emboldened to come out as gay and lesbian people did some years ago," says Nadelmann, "marijuana prohibition would come crashing down very quickly." The problem is that "it's hard to get people to come out of the closet about something that does remain a crime."

    There are "millions of Americans who smoke marijuana for whom it's not a problem, who are part of the middle class, who are well-off, who are role models," says Mirken. Yet still the caricature persists of the feckless stoner, slack-jawed and speckled with Pringles crumbs.

    As long as the sorts of people who write into Sullivan's blog can't come out and correct that stereotype — as Mirken says, "The only people who end up coming out are the ones who show up at the hemp fests and get in trouble" — the battle for wider acceptance will be a hard slog.

    Slowly, state by state, that may be changing. One Massachusetts reader e-mailed the Daily Dish to say that the Bay State's recent decriminalization "has also allowed me to 'come out' publicly as a smoker. When I go out for drinks with co-workers and they comment on my lack of drinks, I simply say that I prefer marijuana because it's less debilitating (at least for me). This still takes people aback a bit, but they'll get used to it."


    Whether our representatives in Washington will be brave enough to embrace this emerging political sentiment remains to be seen. "While in general I don't think the criticism that 'Politicians are lagging the public in enlightenment' is accurate," says Frank, "I do think it's true in this case."

    Does he wish his colleagues in the House and Senate would be more outspoken? "Oh, of course. But I wish I could eat more and not gain weight. I wish a lot of things."

    Because of their clear majority and Obama's abiding popularity, the Democrats may now be encouraged to move swiftly on everything from health care to the environment. But it seems true, so far, that few are inclined to start singing Peter Tosh songs. "They're in power now, and they feel like they have a lot to lose," says Silver. "The Democrats are gonna be reluctant to spend a lot of political capital on it — especially at a national level."

    Nonetheless, Nadelmann reports of his private meetings on Capitol Hill, "in frank conversation, the willingness of members of Congress to say, 'Of course you're right, of course this makes sense,' is growing. Before, they'd be scared to say it."

    "I think partly it needs a term-limited president," says Miron, who believes the only reason Schwarzenegger feels intrepid enough to broach the subject in California is that he's a lame duck. He says he could envision Obama taking the reins on the issue "at a minimum, in the middle or at the end of [his] second term, assuming he gets re-elected."

    Until then, we can take solace in politicians like Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, whose bold and sweeping prison-reform bill, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, was introduced in March. Calling our jails a "disgrace" — and noting that the number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased 1,200 percent since 1980 — Webb has in the process become one of the highest-profile politicians to signal his openness to marijuana legalization. "Nothing," he's said, "should be off the table."

    Adds Frank: "I guess it's better to be on the table than under the table."


    However many encouraging signs there have been recently, there are still more people who will fight hard to maintain the federal pot ban. Marijuana abuse does carry some health risks, after all. And there are plenty of law-and-order types out there who simply believe, as "South Park"'s Mr. Mackey says, that "drugs are bad, mmkay?"

    "Marijuana prohibition is a powerful drug in and of itself, and one to which we are heavily addicted," says Baum. "Marijuana [illegality] has tremendous political power, and I think we're going to give that up very reluctantly.

    "Cops love [pot prohibition]," he continues. "Pot smokers and pot dealers don't shoot back; they're easy to bust and you get all this money from the Feds for drug prohibition. Schools like it because it gives a concrete bit of evidence you can use to get rid of and isolate and punish a troublesome or rebellious kid. When you start peeling it back, marijuana prohibition serves a great many powerful interests."

    Indeed, the "drug-war industrial complex is not to be sneezed at," says Mirken, who points out that the pushback has already started. "Marijuana potency surpasses 10 percent," the headline of an alarmist article warned a few weeks ago.

    In January, before he withdrew his name from consideration for surgeon general, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta wrote an op-ed for Time titled "Why I Would Vote No On Pot." In it, the neurosurgeon argued that the damage marijuana might do to one's lungs or short-term memory essentially outweighed the fact that "permissive legalization, accompanied by stringent regulations and penalties, can cut down on illegal-drug trafficking and make communities safer."

    Even liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias (, while receptive to decriminalization, confessed to fearing "the creation of a legal marijuana industry with lobbyists and advertising aimed at creating as many problem pot smokers as possible."


    Certainly, some of these fears have merit. Just as certainly, the pro-pot side has plenty of valid points of its own. So let's hash it out.

    "One of the most hideous things about the drug war is not only the imprisonment, and not only the civil-liberties [violations]," says Baum. "It's the way it shut down debate. It created forbidden speech in the U.S. And I am delighted to see that changing."

    Nadelmann's well aware that "it's a little like surfing: we're riding a wave right now like we've never seen before. That wave's gonna crash, things will quiet down, we'll be way ahead, and then we'll have to ride the next wave."

    Ultimately, whether it's in 2016 or 2022 or even sooner the endgame of pot advocates is to abolish federal prohibition, just as was done with alcohol in 1933, and to allow states to draft their own laws.

    "That may mean that Mississippi stays dry for another 30 years, as was the case with alcohol," explains Nadelmann. "It may mean that California or Nevada allow marijuana to be sold around the clock in corner stores. And it may mean that some other state allows marijuana to be sold legally, but only in the equivalent of the New Hampshire or Utah state-licensed liquor outlets."

    "I think in five years, more states will be doing what Massachusetts is doing," says Frank.

    Meanwhile, it's hard not to feel like we're heading in the right direction. But it's important to keep pressing the issue. Crawford notes that he and his fellow activists have been redoubling their efforts lately. Otherwise, he says, there's no telling when "this window may be gone."

    As anyone forced by prohibition to smoke on the sly knows, it's best to keep the window open.

    By Mike Milliard
    June 16, 2009
    New Haven Advocate
  2. Motorhead
    There is a lot of stuff in the media these days about the legalization of weed in the States. This is great news. I just think it is very ironic that we seem to be heading in the opposite direction here in Canada(Bill C-15), a country that has always been considered pot friendly. The next few years should be interesting in terms of Pot Culture.
  3. Euthanatos93420 lets say marijuana does get legalized. What happens to Marc Emery & Crew?
  4. Matthijs85
    The same can be said about the Netherlands :confused:
  5. Motorhead
    Not just Emery, but anyone convicted of a marijuana related 'crime', be it possession or trafficking, will be looking for a walk and a pardon. We are talking about thousands upon thousands of people.
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