Pubdate: Thu, 09 Jul 2009
Source: Willamette Week (Portland, OR)
Copyright: 2009 Willamette Week Newspaper
Author: Mike Miliard


The Fight To Legalize Marijuana Is Burning Up Like Never Before—But
Some Advocates Are Claiming If It Doesn't Happen Soon, It May Never
Happen At All.

The Obama administration, already overtaxed with two foreign wars,
made headlines in May 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!"

Kerlikowske's speech may have been a subtle testing of the political
landscape surrounding the marijuana question as we find ourselves 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 moving across our Southwestern borders. The
budget meltdown in California has led state pols—even GOP Gov. 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 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 earlier this year found that 52 percent felt pot
should be regulated and taxed. So far, the president—who supported
decriminalization when running for U.S. Senate in 2004, but not when
running for president in 2008—hasn't exactly been a profile in
courage. But that may not matter all that much. "Obama is against gay
marriage, at least nominally, yet that issue is moving forward, too,"
said statistician Nate Silver, founder of "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.

None of which is to say the trend is inexorable. But this may be the
moment. If we don't see an end to marijuana prohibition in the next
decade or so, it's reasonable to say there's a fair chance it'll never
happen. And that, as some are wont to say, would be an enormous
harshing of one's mellow.

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, as a U.S. congressman, he co-sponsored, with Rep. Ron Paul
(R-Texas), 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. Recently,
though, Frank (D-Mass.) 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 nonpsychoactive 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

"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. Mirken, too, is cautiously optimistic that
the groundwork for substantial progress is being laid. "We'll know for
sure five years from now," he says. "But there's certainly much more
intense interest in and discussion of whether our marijuana laws make
any sense than I've seen since I was a kid—i.e., when Nixon was president."

Indeed, 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, Mississippi and, of course, Oregon. "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."

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 the National Organization for
the Reform of Marijuana Laws' tally, as many as 15 million people
smoke at least once a month. That's a pretty substantial market, and
one that could bring in a goodly 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 to 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 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 Tucson
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

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 Leon of Mexico,
Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, and Cesar 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."

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

In the past decade and a half, Oregon and 12 other 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

"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.

"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. Most people know this. Yet still the
caricature persists of the feckless stoner, slack-jawed and speckled
with Pringles crumbs.

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."

However many encouraging signs there have been in recent months, there
are still more people who will fight hard to maintain the federal pot
ban. Marijuana abuse does carry some health risks, after all.
Moreover, 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."

In January, before he withdrew his name from consideration for surgeon
general, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta penned 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."

Ultimately, we can take solace in politicians like U.S. Sen. Jim Webb
(D-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."
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr