An unwanted item on President Obama’s second term agenda was contributed by voters in Colorado and Washington State who, by impressive margins on November 6, passed ballot measures making it legal to smoke pot recreationally, without any prescription or medical justification.
The outcomes in these two states are being described as a historic moment, one that draws comparisons to the end of Prohibition. More broadly, these votes may signal a change in the way citizens think about drugs and drug policy in the United States, a trend revealed in recent public opinion polls.
Legalization and de-criminalization of marijuana and, perhaps, other drugs is a subject for serious national discussion that may or may not lead to changes in public attitudes and public policy. At the moment, such a conversation does not have the urgency of other issues, including the rising public demand that the president and congress do something to control gun violence and make our schools safer. Events like the brutal slaying of 20 first graders in Newtown, Connecticut, can quickly alter any list of priorities for a re-elected president and a new Congress.
As Colorado and Washington State work to implement the wishes of the voters, a clash looms with the federal government, which still views marijuana as a Schedule I prohibited substance and has cracked down on citizens in states, like California and Montana that have voted to allow medical marijuana.
In a statement the day after the election, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency said the Justice Department was reviewing the ballot measures and declined to comment directly on how officials would respond to them. But he said the agency’s enforcement of federal drug laws “remains unchanged.”
The US attorneys in Denver and Seattle responded with nearly identical statements, offering no clue on whether they would sue to block the measures from being put into effect.
In Colorado, the federal government has largely allowed the state-regulated medical-marijuana industry to operate, and supporters said they hoped the government would take a similar laissez-faire stance as the new more open laws took effect.
Although elected officials, parents’ groups and top law enforcement figures were opposed, the measures in both states had strong support among voters who saw little harm with regulating marijuana in ways similar to alcohol. Colorado’s marijuana law passed with 54 percent support, and Washington’s with 55 percent.
Colorado and Washington are among 18 states with medical marijuana laws, but they become the first in the nation to approve the use for recreational purposes. A similar measure in Oregon failed, but is expected to be back on the ballot.
Supporters say the laws will end thousands of small-scale drug arrests while freeing law enforcement to focus on larger crimes. They estimate that taxing marijuana will bring in millions of dollars of new revenue for governments, and will save court systems and police departments additional millions.
Opponents warned that the law — despite its 21-year age minimum — would set Colorado and Washington on a course that would encourage teenagers to use marijuana.
Those favoring recreational use of marijuana point to the American experience with Prohibition as a historical marker.
It was a slightly hysterical atmosphere created by World War I that generated support for national prohibition. Under the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, which provided for enforcement; the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol was prohibited. One result was the growth of a black market to serve Americans who would not be deterred from drinking. Prohibition drove prices up because suppliers risked legal punishments. It removed an important source of government revenue and added costs of enforcement. By the late 1920s support for Prohibition began to erode and in 1933 the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th.
Although the US government has battled drugs for decades, the term "War on Drugs" was not widely used until President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973 to announce "an all-out global war on the drug menace."
Over the past 40 years, the US government has spent more than $2.5 trillion dollars fighting the War on Drugs. Despite the ad campaigns, increased incarceration rates and a crackdown on smuggling, the number of illicit drug users in America has risen over the years and now counts 19.9 million American users. A large portion of their supply makes its way into the country through Mexico.
In 2009, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by three former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia stating that “the war on drugs has failed.” They were referring to the central message of a report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. The presidents proposed a paradigm shift in drug policies based on three guiding principles:
Reduce the harm caused by drugs, decrease drug consumption through education and aggressively combat organized crime. They also proposed, as a public health measure, the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use.
This past June in Cartagena, Colombia, hemispheric leaders barely mentioned addiction. Instead, according to Alma Guillermoprieto writing in The New York Review of Books, for the first time in 40 years “the leaders of the summit openly debated whether the best way to stop the rolling disaster was an end of the US-sponsored and -dictated war on drugs, and at least partial legalization, or regulation, of the drug trade.”
The official US response was made clear by President Obama, himself. “The United States is not going to legalize or de-criminalize drugs” the president told a group of Latin newspapers the day before the summit, “Because doing so would have serious negative consequences, in all our countries, in terms of health and public safety. Moreover, legalizing and decriminalizing drugs would not eliminate the danger posed by transnational organized crime.”
As the first states to treat small amounts of marijuana like alcohol, Colorado and Washington are sure to become national test cases. While we wait for direction from the federal government, there are many questions to consider.
• Has the drug war truly failed?
• If marijuana is broadly legalized in the US, what might be the impact on violence in Mexico and other countries over control of production, transport and sale of illegal drugs?
• In shaping a drug policy for the future, how important is the cost of the drug war ($51 billion annually), the critical overcrowding of prisons (2.4 million Americans were incarcerated in local, state and federal prisons on drug law violations in 2009), and the heavy burden on poor families when a parent is imprisoned on drug convictions?
• Prohibition and the war on drugs have demonstrated that vice-control efforts are susceptible to corruption because the financial temptations are so enormous. Would legalization lessen corruption that is tied to illegal distribution and sale of pot?
• Taxing marijuana sales is seen as a potential source of revenue. Should this tax revenue be earmarked for important state and local services: public safety, education, infrastructure repairs, and health care, including funding treatment programs?
• How might legalization influence the use of cocaine, heroine and methamphetamines in the US?
• What can we learn from the long campaign to discourage the use of cigarettes? It is legal but the product is heavily taxed, and extensive publicity campaigns and news coverage have been persuasive in persuading the public that smoking poses a serious health risk.
• Is the use of drugs a moral issue? Is there a moral distinction between the use of drugs and alcohol or tobacco?
Bob Giles is commentary editor for GlobalPost. He was a newspaper journalist for more than 40 years and recently retired as curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.