Drug liberalization’s time has arrived
The top drug news of 2012, writes Neal Peirce, was the Election Day decision of voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana, not just for medicinal but for recreational sales and use as well.
In the midst of fierce winter storms, dire budget crises and a tragedy as deep and disturbing as Newtown, it’s possible to discern at least one glimmer of positive news. It’s a new openness to drug-law reform.
No, the United States isn’t quite ready to abandon its concerted “war on drugs.” It’s “as vicious as ever,” notes Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance. More than 750,000 people a year are arrested for marijuana possession. More than 500,000 are behind bars for some type of drug-law violation. No other nation even begins to equal these figures. The cumulative negative impact on human lives is nothing less than breathtaking.
Still, change is brewing. A first dramatic finding was a Gallup poll, released late in 2011, showing 50 percent of Americans now favor legalized marijuana use — up from 36 percent just six years ago.
But the top drug news of 2012 was the Election Day decision of voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana, not just for medicinal but for recreational sales and use as well.
The Obama administration could have spoiled the outcome by insisting on prosecuting marijuana sale and use in those states. Marijuana remains — quite preposterously — classified under the Controlled Substances Act as a substance with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical application.
But President Obama, who’s been mostly silent on drug issues, has now made a clear decision. Asked about the Colorado and Washington referendums, he told ABC News’ Barbara Walters: “We’ve got bigger fish to fry. ... It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law, that’s legal.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean the administration — with a record of repeated crackdowns on the medical-marijuana industry in California — might not still go after producers in Colorado and Washington.
But liberalization’s time seems finally to have arrived. The cause just received its first truly powerful congressional boost. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote in December to the White House drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, suggesting federal legislation might legalize up to an ounce of marijuana, at least in the states that permit it. Leahy also sought assurance that Colorado and Washington officials would not be prosecuted for implementing their new laws.
Leahy’s move, including his suggestion of Senate hearings, is “really significant,” a “shot fired across the bow” of standard “war on drugs” practice, suggests Drug Policy Alliance leader Ethan Nadelmann. Eighteen states have legalized medical-marijuana use, Nadelmann notes, but before Leahy, not one of those states’ 36 senators had spoken up to defend their own states’ legalization laws.
Other key signs of new and open debate: endorsement of marijuana decriminalization both by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who has known presidential ambitions, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, a former Obama White House chief of staff.
Plus, two powerful new films may generate rising popular support for drug-reform action.
Noted producer Eugene Jarecki’s image-packed “The House I Live In” depicts America’s drug war as little less than “a holocaust in slow motion.”
Wherever he went on a 25-state investigative journey, Jarecki wrote recently to The Nation magazine: “Everyone involved — prisoners, cops, judges, jailers, wardens, medical experts, senators — all described to me a system out of control, a predatory monster that sustains itself upon the mass incarceration of fellow human beings. Their crimes, most often the nonviolent use and sale of drugs in petty quantities, have become such a warping fixation for our prison-industrial complex that they are often punished more severely than violent crime.”
Jarecki’s film doesn’t get into specific drug-use-reform possibilities. But the other new film, “Breaking the Taboo,” does precisely that. Reviewing the horrors of the oppressive and often bloody drug wars both in the United States’ and worldwide — from Colombia to Afghanistan to Mexico — the film raises the image of more peaceful solutions, legalization of marijuana and, for more serious drugs, individual counseling of addicts to reconstruct their lives rather than sentencing them to years or decades of incarceration.
Several ex-presidents of nations are featured in the film, lamenting drug-war costs and suggesting humane alternatives — among them Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton of the United States, Fernando H. Cardoso of Brazil, and Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland.
And there’s an appearance by Colombian President Manuel Santos, whose nation has been ravaged by drug wars (with heavy U.S. support). Santos recently became the first sitting national leader to join the chorus to “break the taboo,” insisting it’s time to replace the futile “wars” against drugs and drug cartels, even to consider forms of drug legalization.
Before its box-office debut, “Breaking the Taboo” can be seen free online, at www.breakingthetaboo.info.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group
Neal Peirce’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org