Pubdate: Fri, 25 Jul 2014
Source: Virgin Islands Daily News, The (VI)
Copyright: 2014 Virgin Islands Daily News
Author: Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau
Page: 10


WASHINGTON- For Bill Piper, there's no doubt that the nation's war on 
drugs has failed, with 666,000 Americans arrested on marijuana 
charges last year alone.

"Should they be arrested or should they not? That is the key 
question," said Piper, director of national affairs for the 
pro-legalization advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance.

Kevin Sabet, a legalization opponent, had a question of his own: Does 
the United States want to create a new multibillion-dollar industry, 
similar to "Big Tobacco," that would create more drug addicts?

"These industries only make money off heavy users - let's be very 
clear. ... We are naive to think that this is about a couple of 
hippies who want to smoke a joint once a week after work in their 
basement," said Sabet, who leads the advocacy group Project SAM ( 
Smart Approaches to Marijuana).

In another sign of its new status in official Washington, marijuana 
got an airing Thursday at the National Press Club, a journalism 
institute that has been visited by every president since Theodore Roosevelt.

Piper and Sabet, two of the most prominent players in the growing 
legalization battle, squared off in a one-hour debate, highlighting 
issues that may soon face Congress and an increasing number of 
lawmakers and voters across the country.

They agreed on little, except for one thing: The issue clearly has momentum.

So far, 23 states have approved laws allowing medical marijuana, and 
Floridians could add their state to the list in November. While only 
Colorado and Washington have fully legalized marijuana, both in 2012, 
they could be joined by Oregon and Alaska, where votes are also set 
this fall. And just last week, the District of Columbia 
decriminalized marijuana, making possession of a small amount a 
misdemeanor with a $25 fine.

Legalization proponents are now targeting voters in states that they 
think will be easy to win this year, Sabet said, hoping it will help 
make the case that national legalization is inevitable, while leaving 
tougher targets such as California for 2016 or later.

"You go for the low-hanging fruit of Oregon and Alaska ... and you 
keep going with this inevitability narrative," said Sabet, who 
participated via Skype because of a family emergency. "If this is so 
great, why isn't California voting?"

He predicted that legalization in Washington state and Colorado will 
backfire, causing voters in more states to reconsider. And he noted 
that more than 60 percent of Washington state localities are without 
marijuana stores, with cities deciding to opt out of their own state's plan.

"You almost needed a couple of states - and you may need some more - 
to show the country this is not exactly what we were promised," Sabet 
said. "I think people are waking up to the idea of let's see what 
happens in Colorado and Washington."

Piper said that polls show a majority of voters in states such as 
Texas and Louisiana now back legalization, "which gives you an 
indication of how far this debate has come." He said that 
legalization backers even have unofficial support from the Obama 
administration, which is allowing Colorado and Washington state to 
conduct their retail sales so long as they do a good job policing themselves.

"The White House's official position is still in opposition to 
legalization, but I think it's pretty clear to everyone that they're 
allowing legalization to move forward," Piper said.

With public support eroding for a get-tough approach on drugs, Piper 
said, more Americans must decide whether it makes more sense to treat 
marijuana like alcohol, by taxing and regulating it, or to continue 
to allow drug cartels to conduct the business.

"We already have 'Big Marijuana,' they're called drug cartels, and 
they cut people's heads off. ... Why let these thugs keep billions of 
dollars a year if we don't have to?" Piper asked.

The nation's war on drugs has unfairly targeted poor minorities, who 
are much more likely to get arrested than whites, Piper said. And he 
said legalization is the only way to prevent people "from entering 
this punitive, unjust, racist system," calling it a struggle between 
social justice advocates and "drug war profiteers."

"I think we're winning that battle slowly. ... Eventually, Congress 
is going to have to deal with this by changing federal law," Piper said.

Sabet agreed that far too many Americans are incarcerated, but he 
said that less than 1 percent of the U.S. prison population is 
serving time for marijuana offenses. But he said legalization backers 
are still trying to sell their plan as "a shiny new object" that 
would somehow dramatically reduce prison costs.

"The idea that marijuana legalization is an answer is completely 
divorced from reality," Sabet said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom