Over-policed streets, overbooked courts, overstuffed prisons and overtaxed citizens has made the drug war a miserable failure. Governments can see little choice but to decriminalize marijuana, and several have recently changed their country’s laws. Yet decriminalization isn’t always what it seems. Sometimes it is an attempt to make the drug war more efficient, and make it easier to punish pot-people.
A renewed, worldwide call for drug war reform started in 2000, when the President of Uruguay, Jorge Batlle, caused a sensation by calling for outright legalization. One year later, he was backed by Mexican President Vincente Fox. Yet instead of true legalization, something else took shape; that something was decriminalization.
In January 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez led the way by decriminalizing the possession of any “euphoric substance” for personal use. Local reporters of the US-friendly anti-Chavez camp were stunned, and reacted vehemently against the move.
In March 2004, Brazilian President Lula de la Silva followed suit, decriminalizing all possession. Although Brazilian users will no longer go to jail, they will be subject to mandatory treatment. Lula’s political opponents, and even his own drug czar, were enraged at the proposed new law. Observers believe that it only passed because the president threatened to reveal the names of high-ranking Brazilian officials and businessmen who profited from the drug trade.
On May 14, 2004 the Moscow Times announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed into law an amendment to that country’s criminal code that made possession of less than 11 times the amount of one dose of any drug punishable by a fine of up to 40,000 rubles or community service. Russia’s State Drug Control Commission criticized the move in the state newspaper, Pravda as a foreign idea inappropriate for its country.
Meanwhile, in Canada a decriminalization bill was batted around for over a year. Finally, in May 2004, after endless debate, Canada’s decriminalization bill failed, along with another bill that would have criminalized “drugged driving,” when the country called an election and Parliament dissolved. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin promised to bring back both bills should his party win the next election, but most pot advocates are skeptical of such promises.
Canada’s proposed decriminalization law was unpopular with anti-pot people and pot activists alike. Activists opposed it because although “decriminalization” sounds good and seems to imply that pot will no longer be criminal, the term has been morphed into something much more sinister.
Pseudo-decrim and grassroots decrim
Let’s start with a look at decriminalization’s original face. Since 1973, 12 US states have decriminalized marijuana including Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon. Cannabis Culture went to Keith Stroup, founder and Executive Director of America’s oldest pot activist group, NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), to explain what decriminalization is like in most of these states.
“In some cases, decriminalization has been modified so much that you might have trouble recognizing it,” Stroup said. “But basically, you are given a ticket for possession in 12 states. In Ohio, you can have 3.5 ounces, and only get a ticket. In most of those states there was no trade off with increased penalties for trafficking and growing. They simply maintained the traditional criminal penalty already in place.”
Unlike Ohio, countries like Venezuela and Brazil are increasing penalties and jail time for traffickers while they decriminalize possession. Because it actually increases the criminality of some marijuana laws, we might call Venezuela and Brazil’s style of drug reform “pseudo-decrim.”
Alternately, the drug reform of most US states could be called “grassroots decrim,” as it accurately represented the changing attitudes and interests of the people, despite how it may have changed over the years.
Ohio’s case demonstrates how even grassroots decriminalization can be perverted by pot haters. Since the punishment for 3.5 ounces or less is only $100 in Ohio, cops are now using paraphernalia laws to punish pot users, nailing them with 30 days behind bars and a $750 fine for possession of rollies or a bong!
Canada’s decriminalization would have been wrong from the start ? the pseudo kind, with more jail for traffickers and growers and harsh ticket fines for users. The ultimate result for Canadians? A cash cow ticket scheme that would have ensured more punishment for users, using the revenues from fines to help fund busts of traffickers and growers. By the law of supply and demand, more busted growers and traffickers would mean an increase in the price of pot.
The combination of increased jail terms, more busts and higher pot prices would have ensured a more violent, dangerous and profitable underground industry. So, paradoxically, although the US federal government hosts the globe’s drug-war command central, Canada has something to learn from US state governments, which continue to push the drug war reform envelope.
States of change
Grassroots decriminalization found favor again in Alaska last year, when the State Court of Appeals ruled that some aspects of marijuana laws were unconstitutional (CC#46, Legal pot in Alaska).
Marijuana was originally decriminalized for personal use “in the home” in Alaska in 1975, after a court ruled that outright prohibition violated the state’s constitution. Rather than split hairs over whether the offender had baggies and scales, the court then decided that anything under four ounces was a personal amount!
Then came two twists. In 1990, federal pot haters organized a state ballot initiative and referendum that recriminalized the herb. Then, in February 2004, cannabis case defendant David Noy successfully argued that the 1990 anti-pot initiative was invalid, because a referendum can’t override the state constitution. The prosecution has appealed the case to the state’s Supreme Court.
In 2001, a New Mexico grassroots decriminalization bill that would have rendered the same pot-friendly environment as Alaska almost passed with the help of New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and NORML’s Keith Stroup. New Mexico’s proposed law would have lightened the load on users, but wouldn’t have increased penalties for growers and traffickers. The bill unfortunately died, like Canada’s pseudo-decrim, on the eve of an election.
Ultimately, grassroots decriminalization walks a different path than pseudo-decrim. The grassroots version is a small step toward a sane pot policy, while pseudo-decrim is an attempt to mislead the public and punish pot-people more efficiently.