I don’t often use the words “rationality” and “California” in the same sentence, but American drug laws could take another step toward rationality this fall if California voters legalize personal possession of marijuana.
The “war on drugs” has gone on for 41 unproductive years since President Nixon first used that term. In this country, thousands of people have been killed in turf wars and many more have been incarcerated, often for decades, in the name of keeping our streets free of narcotics. Yet drugs remain readily available, drug money is one of the chief sources of corruption in law enforcement, and prosecution remains capriciously selective.
Abroad, the situation is even worse — far worse. Drug cartels are ripping Mexico apart. Drug profits and the corruption they engender undermine important U.S. objectives from South America to Afghanistan.
If the war on drugs were winnable, we would have won it a long time ago. Instead, the only ones benefiting are the drug merchants. Anti-drug laws guarantee high profits, which in turn provide the cash to recruit an unlimited army of growers, mules and street-level pushers.
So Californians will be deciding whether to simply face reality when they weigh in on a November ballot measure that would allow anyone over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. Possession of an ounce or less has been a misdemeanor in the state since 1975 and currently carries a fine of $100. In addition to eliminating the state misdemeanor, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act would allow municipalities to write their own ordinances regulating the sale and taxation of marijuana.
Californians already are permitted to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, with the recommendation of a physician. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow medical marijuana, but the California initiative would be the first to allow recreational use of the drug. One ounce, the proposed limit, is enough to roll dozens of marijuana cigarettes, according to CBS News. Californians would also be able to plant marijuana in home gardens, limited in size to 25 square feet.
The California initiative is a start, but it does not go far enough. Apartment dwellers and homeowners who lack green thumbs still would have no legal place to purchase recreational pot. Their friendly neighborhood dealers will be only too happy to serve them, which will keep people happy south of the border as well. A 2009 memorandum from Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden notes that “marijuana distribution in the United States remains the single largest source of revenue for the Mexican cartels.” As I have written here before, I think it is senseless to leave these profits freely available to organized crime.
The halfway solution of allowing medical marijuana but prohibiting recreational use is better than nothing, but not much better. Vague laws often leave states and municipalities unable to adequately regulate marijuana growth and sales. Los Angeles recently ordered 439 marijuana dispensaries to close their doors after the proliferation of shops overwhelmed the city. The city now hopes to reduce the number of dispensaries to fewer than 100. “We're trying to achieve some order out of what has essentially been a very chaotic situation,” Assistant City Attorney Asha Greenberg said in an interview with Reuters.
In response to similar problems, Colorado recently passed a law requiring dispensaries to obtain state and local licenses.
Montana, which legalized medical marijuana in 2004, has seen its dispensaries enmeshed in violence, including two recent firebombings. Sheriff Chris Hoffman, of Montana’s Ravalli County, commented, “Anyone growing medical marijuana is going to be a target because it is a desirable commodity for illicit purposes.”
Limiting marijuana to medical use also promotes corruption and carelessness. Doctors who believe marijuana poses few health risks may write prescriptions for patients who do not need the drug. Colorado is trying to address this problem with new regulations that require a doctor to have a “bona fide” relationship with a patient before signing off on marijuana treatment.
All of these problems can be eliminated if we decide to treat marijuana the way we handle tobacco or alcohol.
Richard Lee, of Oakland, Calif., who has become the face of California’s pot movement, stresses the economic benefits of legalization. “Amsterdam is our model city. When I go there, I see tourists and jobs and taxes being created from the cannabis industry, and I think we can do that here,” he said. According to some estimates, legalizing and taxing marijuana could bring in up to a billion dollars in revenue for California. If the experiment works, other budget-strapped states will be eager to get into the business as well.
California’s move could also prompt national change by forcing the federal government to reevaluate its stance on marijuana. Possession of marijuana continues to be a federal crime, even when it is permitted by state law. However, the Department of Justice, under President Obama, has urged federal prosecutors not to pursue cases in which federal marijuana laws conflict with state law. This sort of informal policy can be changed at a presidential whim or disregarded by a particular U.S. attorney. This is an example of the capricious, selective enforcement of current laws.
I believe that eventually, perhaps with prodding by the states, the federal government will follow the tide of the times and reform its drug laws as well. It will do this in part to avoid damaging showdowns with state governments and in part because, once states start earning money from marijuana, Uncle Sam will want a piece of the action, too.
Somewhere in the distant future, once marijuana laws are reformed, we will have to confront the question of how to handle harder drugs. The medical issues will be different — such drugs are clearly much more dangerous than marijuana — but many of the practical issues are similar. Backers of the status quo may argue that marijuana reform is the gateway (anti-drug warriors like to call marijuana a “gateway drug”) to dangerous laxity about hard-core narcotics.
In some ways, they have a point. Dealing with reality can be habit-forming, but that does not mean we should avoid it. Our drug policies need a big dose of reform.