Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Scuttling toward a plan to legalize drugs
Whether to end drug prohibition was not an issue at the King County Bar Association's drug-policy conference in Seattle Dec. 1 and 2. The Bar Association agreed...
Whether to end drug prohibition was not an issue at the King County Bar Association's drug-policy conference in Seattle Dec. 1 and 2. The Bar Association agreed on it, and its guests, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper among them, did too.
Prohibition had failed. Drug laws had not stopped Americans from getting drugs; it simply made them get drugs from criminals. But if not from criminals, then from whom? On marijuana, they could not agree.
Ethan Nadelmann, the nation's most prominent legalizer, advised them to figure it out later. First convince people to end prohibition. That's how our great-grandparents had done it with liquor. Then "fight it out."
But marijuana prohibition is not ending the same way — cleanly, with a president's signature. It is crumbling here and there. Washington voters have authorized marijuana use for medical purposes. Seattle voters have voted to make marijuana the lowest police priority. We scuttle toward legalization but cannot arrive at it.
In the Netherlands, they have gone further. There, adults may buy 5 grams per person in private cafes. Retailing is legal and wholesaling is illegal, with the product supplied openly by smugglers. That is, the system is legal and not legal — a contradiction that may bother Netherlanders but does not move them.
The Seattle conferees yearned for a system that made more sense, that was progressive and therapeutic as well. There was an urge to keep corporations out.
"The idea of any corporate control is troubling to me," said Deborah Small, a New York activist who proposed to give marijuana distribution to the government.
Jeff Haley, of the Drug Policy Foundation in Bellevue, said, "People who are selling need to have no incentive to sell." How to remove the incentive? "The only way we could think of," he said, "is to make these people state employees."
With hard drugs, there was a case for that. But with marijuana? Some thought so. Roger Goodman, who heads the King County Bar Association's efforts, agreed that corporations should be kept out. He said they should have been kept out of liquor, wine and beer.
An image flashed in my mind: "Beer" brand generic beer. I remembered drinking it in my college days. It had not been brewed by the government, but it had tasted as if it had. Kris Nyrop, executive director of Street Outreach Services, had a similar vision of no-brand cigarettes. "I like having choice in brands," he said. "I'm afraid we're heading too close to paternalism in our conversation here."
Much of the crowd was tolerant of intoxication but not of profit. They would replace police and jailers with doctors and social workers. The Dutch scene, with private-branded marijuana in private-sector cafes, was too commercial for them. Too fun. They would give marijuana oversight to the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
Merrit Long, chairman of that august monopoly, told the conference the state's profit was $200 million on $600 million of sales. One might work out from those numbers what the state's profit margin is, and compare it, for example, to Wal-Mart's. The state's is 33 percent, Wal-Mart's 3 percent.
I thought Rick Steves, the travel guy, had the most-sensible idea. Maybe it was because he was a businessman in a crowd of social reformers. For Americans, he said, "The viable thing will be capitalistic, with some regulatory stuff."
But I, too, fall into the trap of looking for a system that would align the rules with what Americans actually do. Americans don't want that. Drug prohibition reflects our ideal of a sober America, and it is politically impossible to abandon that.
Yet life continues. We legislate nationally and ignore locally. We have our own version of Holland, really, except that ours is harsher than theirs, and does not attract tourists.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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