Voices Urging For Reform of American Marijuana Laws Getting Louder

Amid a devastating economic meltdown, the issue of marijuana decriminalization hasn’t exactly hounded U.S. President Barack Obama, but the calls to legalize weed are nonetheless getting louder and more persistent every day.

The issue has brought together a diverse mix of advocates, including state legislators, political pundits, a famous musician, a high-profile blogger and even White House correspondents.

Most of them point out what they see as the hypocrisy of marijuana laws in a country where alcohol, junk food and mood-altering prescription drugs are not only readily available, but marketed aggressively.

They also point out what a potential cash cow legalizing marijuana could prove to be while also potentially snuffing out urban gang violence and cutting incarceration rates and costs. The Drug Enforcement Agency spends an estimated US$10 billion a year enforcing marijuana laws.

“Why not do it?” Joe Klein argues in the current issue of Time magazine.

“One could argue that the abuse of McDonald’s has a greater potential health-care cost than the abuse of marijuana … but the costs of criminalization have proved to be enormous, perhaps unsustainable. Would legalization be any worse?”

Obama has himself acknowledged the issue is a popular subject of debate. At a recent town hall meeting at the White House, the president said questions from his online audience about legalizing marijuana to stimulate the economy were among the most common.

He dismissed the notion of dope-fuelled economic rejuvenation with a laugh, but the White House press corps pointedly peppered his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, during a briefing soon after the event.

“When the president said he doesn’t think that legalizing marijuana would give the economy a boost, was he giving a political answer or an economic answer? Does he have numbers to back (his position) up?” one reporter asked.

Gibbs stammered painfully through a series of follow-up queries before shutting down the line of questioning.

Musician Carlos Santana joined the fray last week, offering advice to the president: “Legalize marijuana and take all that money and invest it in teachers and in education. You will see a transformation in America.”

Obama has confessed to smoking dope in his youth – “And I inhaled frequently … that was the point,” he said – and suggested five years ago that he favoured decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Yet he’s largely avoided the issue since then – although Gibbs was asked why he mentioned it, unprompted, during the town hall meeting. Some suspected Obama might have been testing the waters of public opinion on the issue.

There’s no need to be nervous, says Scott Morgan of the website StopTheDrugWar.org.

“It’s 2009 and reforming marijuana policy is the most popular idea on the president’s own website,” he says.

“Voters are passing state marijuana reform initiatives by incredible margins. Polls show that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans agree that the drug war is a failure.”

Indeed, state legislatures are quietly enacting various forms of marijuana decriminalization.

Drug laws in New York are up for review, while a California assemblyman, Tom Ammiano, is pushing for full-out legalization and a cannabis tax in his state. Such a measure could raise billions of dollars in revenue for cash-strapped California, he says, where marijuana is estimated to be the state’s largest cash crop.

In Congress, Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter have proposed a major prison-reform package, which would directly address drug-sentencing policy. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, with many serving time for marijuana-related crimes.

Canada, too, flirted briefly with the idea in 2003 when then-prime minister Jean Chretien’s Liberals introduced a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. The bill was never brought to a final vote; the Conservatives killed the bill when Stephen Harper was elected prime minister in January 2006.

The parallels between today’s calls to legalize marijuana and Prohibition in the 1930s, meanwhile, remain obvious.
Franklin D. Roosevelt ended liquor prohibition in 1933 because it was too expensive to enforce and it demoralized citizens already beaten down by the Great Depression. Prohibition also deprived the cash-strapped federal government of a potential taxation bonanza.

Obama, for his part, has taken some small steps away from the draconian anti-marijuana approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

His attorney general, Eric Holder, recently announced that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration would stop raiding and arresting users or dispensers of medicinal marijuana unless they violated both state and federal laws.
Holder said DEA resources were too valuable in the war against dangerous drug lords to be raiding residents otherwise in compliance with state and local laws and standards. That’s a reversal of the Bush administration’s scorched-earth policy of ignoring the rights of states to govern themselves on medicinal weed.

Those opposed to decriminalization, however, fear it will boost the market for marijuana and help its dealers.

“If we make this change, I think what we’re essentially saying is possession of marijuana is like a speeding ticket, (and) this is in effect taking away the speed traps,” John Kissel, a state senator in Connecticut, said this week.
Connecticut lawmakers will soon debate a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults.

“This is, in effect, throwing up one’s hands and saying, ‘It’s all over, we’re not going to enforce this anymore,”‘ Kissel said.

The senator appears to be swimming against the tide.

A dozen legislatures since 1973 have enacted various versions of marijuana decriminalization, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The list includes Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon. Last year, Massachusetts passed by referendum a measure decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

In each of the states, marijuana users do not face jail time – and in some cases arrest or criminal records – for the possession or use of small amounts.

If those flooding the inbox of blogger Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic website are any indication, there’s a large and articulate underground of American dope-smokers.

Sullivan has become an online crusader with his recurring “The Cannabis Closet” posts, featuring e-mails from educated professionals confessing their secret weed-smoking habits and urging the drug’s legalization.

“My husband and I often muse, while smoking pot, that the only thing we are doing wrong is breaking the law,” wrote one reader.

“If that is the only wrong you are committing, it seems clear that it’s not your behaviour that needs to be re-evaluated, but the law itself. I have been slowly coming out of the pot closet over the past few years and it has been a nice surprise to see how many people give that knowing little smile and say: ‘Me too.”‘

– Article from The Canadian Press on April 5, 2009.