2011: The Year the Drug Warriors Struck Back

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they Fight you, then you win.” 
—Mahatma Gandhi
It should be obvious to marijuana-law reform advocates that 2011 was the year the government decided to fight back – and fight back with a vengeance. By year’s end, it was apparent that President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to respect state medical-marijuana laws had become ancient history. Instead, that now-empty promise was replaced by a multi-agency, full-court press intended to create a climate of fear and prosecution regarding the use, production and distribution of marijuana, particularly medical cannabis.
Obama’s role reversal from cannabis sympathizer to White House weed whacker took many in the reform community by surprise, but it shouldn’t have: In many ways, the administration’s anti-pot efforts were as predictable as they are disheartening.
Keep in mind that, as a movement, we’ve been here before. In the late 1970s, following the passage of legislation decriminalizing pot possession in a dozen states, many drug-law reformers predicted that the full-scale legalization of cannabis for adults was just around the corner. It wasn’t. Instead, advocates experienced a decade-long political backlash in the 1980s, during which time years of cannabis progress were wiped out by the launch of a renewed, all-out War on Drugs.
The seeds for the 2011 medical-marijuana pushback were planted in the November 2010 elections. Specifically, the defeat of three highly publicized statewide reform measures – California’s Proposition 19 to legalize, tax and regulate adult cannabis use; Oregon’s Measure 74 to authorize state-licensed medical-pot dispensaries; and South Dakota’s Measure 13 to allow the herb’s limited medicinal use – represented a smackdown at the ballot box the likes of which our movement has rarely experienced in recent years, and one that doubtlessly emboldened our prohibitionist opponents. In addition, the GOP wave that swept through Congress and several state legislatures – in particular, those of formerly med-pot-friendly states like Montana, Michigan and New Mexico – elevated to high office anti-pot crusaders such as Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and Texas Congressman Lamar Smith (a longtime Drug War hawk who became the Judiciary Committee’s chairman following the Republicans’ 2010 takeover of the House of Representatives). Having gained newfound power in the fall of 2010, it’s hardly surprising that these pot prohibitionists sought to engage in a show of force in 2011.
Unlike past years, however, the drug warriors in 2011 had an array of new and unconventional targets to choose from. Why? Because of the unparalleled gains that marijuana advocates had achieved to legitimize the use of medical cannabis and the industry surrounding it. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of state-authorized marijuana consumers had swelled to well over one million nationally. The total number of locally licensed dispensaries also grew exponentially, with more than 1,000 state- authorized facilities in Colorado alone. As a result, the Obama administration, unlike the Bush and Clinton administrations, chose to target the institutions that enabled this nascent industry to thrive – such as med-pot-friendly banks and dispensary landlords as well as the proprietors themselves – rather than the individual patients they served. By late 2011, even the IRS had joined the battle, auditing several large taxpaying dispensaries, denying their operators the use of standard business deductions, and then demanding millions of dollars in allegedly unpaid taxes.
And that wasn’t all. In October, representatives from the four US Attorney’s offices in California publicly threatened to prosecute any medical marijuana grower or dispensary operator who profited financially from their activities. Speaking to the Huffington Post, a spokesperson for US Attorney Andre Birotte alleged that the president himself hadn’t instigated this latest round of Justice Department threats, claiming instead that it was the “collective decision” of federal prosecutors themselves.
The claim may have some legitimacy: By the fall of 2011, a sagging economy had severely weakened Obama’s power, even within his own administration. With a reelection battle on the horizon, it likely became obvious to Drug War hardliners within the federal government that the president would not be spending a shred of political capital to halt a federally initiated cannabis crackdown.
Meanwhile, US Attorney General Eric Holder, who had previously echoed his boss’s sentiments not to interfere with state marijuana laws, was fighting for his own political survival, embroiled in a scandal over the Justice Department’s failed “Fast and Furious” gun-running sting in Mexico. If ever there was an ideal time for the reefer madmen to take over the asylum, this was it.
“Holder has lost control of the Justice Department,” asserts Eric Sterling, the president of the Criminal Justice Policy Institute in Washington, DC. “And Obama has concluded that with crime down generally, he needs to pay little attention to [what] the Justice Depart- ment [is doing].”
But while it may be convenient to parallel the present federal crackdown with that of the 1980s, there are two core differences between now and then. First, the climate of public tolerance for or even outright approval of marijuana these days is far beyond what it was three decades ago. Whereas reducing minor marijuana possession to a fine-only offense in a handful of states highlighted the extent of movement’s gains in the 1970s, today’s victories include legitimizing the public sale and state-sanctioned use of cannabis by over a million legal consumers. And while it’s possible that federal sanctions and threats may temporarily succeed in contracting the size and presence of the industry, it is much harder to believe that any government efforts - no matter how severe - will ever succeed in delegitimizing cannabis as a mainstay of modern society. The ganja genie is out of the bottle, and it isn’t going back in.
Secondly, the public’s support for the broader legalization of cannabis for all adults is now more than twice what it was at the height of the 1970s. And that support is growing. Fact: In 1979, only one in four Americans supported the notion of legalizing pot, while a daunting 70 percent at the time still favored the policy of criminal prohibition. Today, public opinion data tell a much different story. Gallup polls indicate that 2011 marked the first time in our nation’s history when the percentage of Americans in favor of legalizing pot (50 percent) was greater than those who favor keeping it illegal (46 percent).
This change in public opinion has been a rapid one, increasing 14 percentage points from 2005 alone. More importantly, cannabis’s growing public support is widespread: More Americans of every age, political persuasion and region of the country back legalizing weed today than they did just six years ago. If the present polling trends continue - and there’s no reason to believe they won’t - Americans’ enthusiasm for outright legalization will reach super-majority status in less than a decade.
Says NORML founder Keith Stroup: “As the Gallup poll confirms, we are continuing to win the hearts and minds of the American people. The federal government’s sudden intervention has virtually no public support.”
Even so, Stroup issues a note of caution: “Political winds can change quickly. We have to make our progress while we have that political support, and not presume it will get easier down the road.”
Despite the government’s recent anti-pot efforts, it’s easy to overlook the fact that advocates in 2011 achieved several significant victories, most of which pertained to the personal use of cannabis for all adults, not just patients. Arkansas, California, Connecticut and Kentucky enacted new laws in 2011 significantly lowering penalties for pot use and possession. In California and Connecticut, lawmakers made such activities noncriminal, non-arrestable offenses - the first time since 1977 that lawmakers in any state moved to fully decriminalize marijuana possession.
And therein lies the rub: Public and political support for full legalization is rapidly moving forward. Statewide initiative efforts to legalize and regulate the use of cannabis may qualify for the ballot in Colorado and Washington, and regional polling data show that majorities of the voting public back them. More nascent statewide legalization efforts in California, Nebraska, Oregon and elsewhere are ongoing, suggesting that 2012 may prove to be one of the most landmark years for cannabis liberation ever. So where do we go from here? Forward. And then we win.

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