Pubdate: Sat, 11 Jan 2014
Source: Daily Star, The (Lebanon)
Copyright: 2014 The Daily Star
Author: Bernd Debusmann


WASHINGTON: At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day 2014,
marijuana went on sale at licensed shops in Colorado, the first U.S.
state to treat the drug like alcohol and tobacco. Within the first 24
hours, sales passed the million-dollar mark. Drug policy reformers
hailed the event as the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition
and possibly major shifts in the U.S.-led global war on drugs in
general.They may well be right. In the state of Washington, where the
liquor control board began issuing licenses last year,
over-the-counter sales are scheduled to begin in spring to consumers
aged 21 or older.

What is happening in the two states highlights the bizarre nature of
American drug policy. Under federal law, growing, using and selling
marijuana is banned. The 1970 Controlled Substances Act lists
marijuana as one of four "most dangerous" drugs, alongside heroin,
that have "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted
medical use." Despite that classification, 20 U.S. states and the
District of Columbia have adopted state laws providing for marijuana
to be dispensed for medical reasons. It is prescribed for conditions
ranging from nausea to seizures.

The 1970 federal act stipulates draconian penalties which explain why
the United States has more people behind bars than any other country.
With just under 5 percent of the world's population, it holds 25
percent of the world's prisoners.

Strictly speaking, the licenses issued in Washington and Colorado are
licenses to commit a federal crime. But the Justice Department
announced last September it would allow the state regulations to go
into effect as long as they did not violate a newly issued list of
federal priorities. They include distribution to minors, diversion of
the drug to other states and driving while high.

If marijuana legalization goes well in the two states, several others,
including California, are likely to follow, responding to a remarkable
shift in public opinion over the past decade. Last year, a series of
polls showed that for the first time a majority of Americans favored
legalizing marijuana, thought it had legitimate medical uses and held
that government efforts to enforce marijuana prohibition were not
worth the cost.

Such views are not confined to the United States, by far the world's
leading consumer of illicit drugs. In December, Uruguay became the
first country to legalize the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana
under strict government control and - like in Colorado and Washington
- - subject to taxation.

The move, meant to cut traffickers out of the lucrative business, is
being watched closely across Latin America, where citizens and their
leaders have become increasingly skeptical about the war on drugs and
the staggering violence that goes with it. In Mexico alone, more than
100,000 people have died as the government fought traffickers and drug
cartels fought each other for access to the rich U.S. market.

Not surprisingly, some of the sharpest criticism of the tough
enforcement policies long pushed by Washington has come from Latin
America. In 2011, a global commission that included three former Latin
American presidents and a former U.N. secretary-general issued a
scathing critique that helped spur international debate.

"The global war on drugs has failed," the commission said. "When the
United Nations single convention on narcotics drugs came into being 50
years ago and when President [Richard] Nixon launched the U.S.
government's war on drugs ... policymakers believe that harsh law
enforcement action against those involved in drug production,
distribution and use would lead to an ever diminishing market in drugs
such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis. In practice, the global scale of
illegal drug markets - largely controlled by organized crime - has
grown dramatically over this period."

Last year, the 35-member Organization of American States followed up
with a 400-page report that endorsed looking for new approaches to
stem the illicit drug trade in a region that is home to the world's
top producer of marijuana (Mexico) and of cocaine (Peru). Among the
scenarios listed in the OAS report (the first of its kind by a
multilateral organization) were legalizing marijuana and treating all
drug use as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice.

Both would diminish the profits of criminal organizations whose
operations have driven the murder rate in several countries to levels
normally experienced only in war zones. The violence is driven by
money: If the global drug trade were a country, it would have one of
the top 20 economies in the world, according to one estimate.

The most widely used product of this illicit business is marijuana.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime has estimated the number
of people using the drug at between 160 and 200 million, roughly 5
percent of the world's population. Several medical studies have found
marijuana less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

In the U.S., drug policy reformers see marijuana's new status in
Colorado and Washington as a clear sign that national prohibition is
on the way out. In the words of Mark Kleiman, one of America's leading
drug policy analysts, "we are in 1928." This is a reference to alcohol
prohibition which lasted 13 years and ended in 1933. In its final
stages, polls showed that a large majority of Americans opposed it.

Politicians took notice: Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1932
presidential elections on a platform to repeal prohibition. The ban on
alcohol was lifted four months after his victory.
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MAP posted-by: Matt