Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.


The Top Ten Obstacles to Marijuana Law Reform   


A lot of people think that the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most powerful opponents to marijuana’s legalization. They don’t realize that these companies stand to make billions of dollars off of the chemical compounds contained in marijuana in a legal regulatory climate. The reality is that the current restrictions on marijuana make scientific research on marijuana-related pharmaceuticals too expensive to pursue, and the restrictive regulatory climate concerning anything related to marijuana creates too much uncertainty about future sales and profits to justify developing marijuana related drugs. Even if marijuana were legal and widely available, there would still be a valuable market for a marijuana-based painkiller that was 50 to 100 times more powerful than the herb itself.


Many others think the alcohol industry is another potential opponent to marijuana’s legalization. However, they realize that the popularity of alcohol has withstood the test of time, not to mention marijuana’s immense popularity over the last several decades. Legal marijuana is not a threat to their profits, and if it were, they would just enter the business themselves.


But if not the pharmaceutical and alcohol industries, what are the greatest obstacles to marijuana’s legalization? Here’s a list of the top ten obstacles. They can all be overcome, but they all represent formidable opponents to marijuana reform.


#10 - Conservative opposition to the Obama Administration. A cautionary note – there are many conservatives in favor of legalizing marijuana, and not just dedicated libertarians. For example, Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, wrote a superb article in favor of marijuana reform in 2001. But there aren’t many conservatives who support the Obama Administration. For example, also turn to the National Review, particularly their popular blog, The Corner, for a good sampling of conservative criticism of the President, his agenda and his policies.


Conservatives are looking for issues to both rally their base and reassemble their successful coalitions of years past. Tough anti-drug policies were a staple of the Reagan era, and a return to the policies of this period are advocated by some conservatives as the key to a conservative comeback in American electoral politics. Regardless of the conservative agenda, many Democrats will resist marijuana’s legalization out of concern that it will provide conservatives an easy target to exploit. On the other hand, support for legalization could be a part of a successful strategy by conservatives to appeal to younger voters. There is an ongoing debate in conservative circles about how to rally support to their cause and oppose Obama’s policies. The complexities of this debate, and its effect on their liberal opponents, represent a potential obstacle to marijuana’s legalization.


#9 - Anti-drug crusaders. Drug abuse is a serious issue, and efforts to prevent, reduce, and treat drug abuse attract many serious, sincere, and dedicated individuals whose valuable work is worthy of respect and support. Many people in the prevention profession have mixed feelings about marijuana; while in favor of discouraging its use, especially by teenagers, they also recognize that our current laws often have counter-productive effects, such as making marijuana readily available to all age groups. Nonetheless, there are many individuals and organizations in the anti-drug abuse movement who believe that opposing marijuana’s legalization is integral to their efforts. The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) is a prominent example. Arguments against marijuana’s legalization are a prominent part of their public policy materials, and, for example, they argue that “Medical marijuana [is] being used as wedge issue to legalize drugs by a few wealthy individuals who have otherwise been unable to advance their personal political agendas.”


#8 - Drug War funding benefactors. The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy recently published a summary of the FY 2010 budget for the programs that implement federal drug policy. The entire budget request is for $15.1 billion, an increase of 1.5% over the budget for FY2009. The budget includes $238.6 million for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) National Programs, $90 million for Drug-Free Communities programs and $70 million for the ongoing national Media Campaign. The budget delivers $3.4 billion in funds for domestic law enforcement, which includes many avenues for providing assistance to local law enforcement, such as the ONDCP’s program for providing $220 million for law enforcement activities in High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. These funds are used for all anti-drug programs, not just those focused on marijuana. These funding streams, though, create constituencies that provide political support to preserve and maintain this flow of federal money. CADCA, for example, encouraged its members and supporters to support funding for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program. Many of those individuals and groups that receive federal anti-drug funding oppose marijuana’s legalization. In addition to their policy positions, they believe their work is important and deserves continued financial support from the federal government. 


#7 - State prosecutors. In 2007 there were 97,582 arrests in the United States for marijuana sales, 5.3% of all drug abuse arrests. The sale of marijuana is a felony under state law. Career prosecutors gain professional advancement by accumulating felony convictions. There is nothing sinister about this; it’s their job to convict people arrested by police for felony crimes. From their perspective, anyone arrested with more than a few ounces of marijuana possesses more marijuana than should be allowed for personal possession and should be prosecuted for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute it. Under many circumstances these defendants represent potentially easy convictions for career prosecutors. Prosecutors have a limited view of marijuana use; they come into contact with people charged with serious crimes and they associate marijuana use with criminal behavior – they have little contact with most marijuana users, most of whom do not commit crimes (other than possessing marijuana.)


#6 - The Urine Testing Industry. Do a Google search with the term ‘Urine Testing for Drug Abuse,’ and you’ll get close to 1 million hits. That’s a pretty reliable indicator that there is a lot of information in circulation about urine tests for drugs, whether it concerns companies selling tests, policies about testing at work or in the criminal justice system, or targeted at people just trying to beat the tests. Take a look at the ads on the right hand side of the page. Urine testing for drugs is big business, and marijuana is the most commonly use illegal drug. In 1991 the drug testing industry had estimated revenues of $340 million. Now it brings in nearly $2 billion annually. The Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA) has over 1,300 members, represents more than 1 million companies in the industry, and their members perform more than 60 million drug and alcohol tests per year. Legalization will significantly reduce the revenue for this industry by reducing the justification for marijuana-related urine testing.


#5 - Foreign drug cartels. In late December 2008, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard indicated he would be willing to consider the legalization of marijuana as a way of defunding foreign drug cartels. Goddard spoke at a press conference announcing the breakup of a Mexican drug ring responsible for bringing 400,000 lbs of marijuana into Arizona every year since 2003. According to Goddard, marijuana, was responsible for 75% of the money Mexican cartels use for other operations. While currently opposed to marijuana’s legalization, Goddard believes that all options should be on the table. Despite massive and growing domestic cannabis production capabilities, a large amount of the marijuana consumed in the United States is imported. Legalization will cost foreign operations considerable profits; they aren’t about to give this up without a fight.


#4 - Progressive political priorities. Marijuana’s legalization has never been a priority for political progressives. While many liberals and progressives are sympathetic to drug policy reform in general and supportive of marijuana’s legalization in particular, other goals have usually been more important. Issues such as ending US military involvement Iraq, reducing global warming, reforming the US health care system, equal rights for gays and lesbians, and continued opposition to conservative political priorities have been progressive political objectives over the last decade. Legalization will require political support from legislators and political leaders, and they must be encouraged to support legalization from a wide spectrum of activists and organizations. One of the greatest obstacles to marijuana’s legalization is the low priority it represents for many liberal and progressive activists.


#3 - Ignorance. Scientific research has refuted all of the hysterical claims about marijuana that were circulated during the 20th century, however many people don’t know this. Marijuana use does not lead to addiction to more dangerous drugs, it does not cause an amotivational syndrome that makes people lazy and unproductive, and it does not cause birth defects. Most Americans are fairly ambivalent about adult marijuana use, but for some reason they are still concerned that if marijuana were legal it would be easier for teenagers to acquire it. Data on teenage marijuana use disputes this point. Most teenagers find marijuana is fairly easy to acquire, indeed marijuana is so expensive these days that it is profitable for teens to sell it their friends, making it even easier to get. Ignorance is one of the greatest obstacles to marijuana’s legalization, but it is also one of the easiest to overcome.


#2 - Apathy. Over 25 million Americans use marijuana on annual basis, and there are 14.4 million monthly users. Public support for legalization is at an all time high. And yet many marijuana users are not politically active. Support for reform groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and NORML has been stronger over the last few years than ever, however both have a long way to go before their membership numbers reach hundreds of thousands or millions of members. Many marijuana users are young and politically inexperienced; many others still believe that marijuana will never be legalized and political activity is not worth their time, money, or interest. And yet their involvement is all it will take to overcome the obstacles to legalization listed above. None of these obstacles can prevent legalization once it has earned widespread support from a majority of the American public. Increasing political activism by marijuana users, such as through the activities of MPP, NORML, and The HIGH TIMES 420 Campaign, is a sure way to achieve the legalization of marijuana.


#1 - Overconfidence. Almost as bad as apathy, overconfidence is the single most significant obstacle to marijuana’s legalization. While many marijuana uses think legalization will never occur, it seems that just as many are so convinced it is inevitable they don’t bother to take part in activities to bring it about. These are good times for marijuana reform, but there are no guarantees. This is not a time for over-confidence; it’s a time for action. This is not a time to sit and watch other people get the job done, it’s a good time to get involved. It is crucial for marijuana users to understand that the battle for marijuana’s legalization is now underway. Now is the time to overcome the obstacles to legalization and make history.