It was hard not to feel some dÃ©jÃ vu last month when President Obama mocked the idea of ending marijuana prohibition during an online town hall meeting, even though the issue was by far the most popular of those brought up. I mean, would Bush have handled the situation any differently?
And only the day before, DEA agents raided a San Francisco medical marijuana facility, just like the good old days. Although federal officials claim not to have violated the new administration's more hands-off policy, they refuse to give any details justifying what appeared to be business as usual for these culture warriors in public servants' clothing.
Given these events, one could forgive marijuana policy reform activists for wondering just what exactly has changed under this new, science-and-reason-based regime.
Even so, progress on other, perhaps even more important fronts continues in ways that were unthinkable just months ago. This isn't to minimize Obama's ill-advised slight to pretty much the same audience that helped elect him. And I don't know how much clearer the Bush holdovers in the DEA can make it that they will need to be pushed to end their mischief in medical marijuana states and respect the president's policies and priorities.
But meanwhile economic, international, political and cultural events are converging to focus attention on marijuana prohibition's many failures in ways not seen in years â€“ if ever.
You know folks must be scared about the economy when they start seriously considering whether hunting down marijuana users and forfeiting profits from marijuana sales to drug cartels is just too expensive to afford. But that appears to be what's happening.
The most dramatic and encouraging sign that maybe people didn't completely forget the lessons of alcohol Prohibition might be in California, where state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano recently introduced a bill to tax and regulate the sale of marijuana in the state. Ammiano presents the proposal as a way of addressing California's $42 billion budget shortfall.
Under the bill, the state could generate $1 billion by moving the lucrative marijuana market above ground. Nobody expects the bill to become law this year, but the response in the press and the public has at least been serious, and at times even enthusiastic.
Then there's the terrible violence in Mexico over the illegal drug trade that has claimed 8,000 lives since the beginning of 2008. It's gotten so bad that even our most high-level officials are facing up to some obvious truths about it. So it was big news when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week explicitly acknowledged that Americans' "insatiable appetite" for illicit drugs drives the violence in the Mexican drug war.
Hmm, so what to do about that? Well, considering that an estimated 60% of that illicit drug trade involves marijuana, maybe we could decrease the violence associated with that trade by removing marijuana from the illegal market and regulating its sale in the U.S.
Ok, baby steps. We only just acknowledged that our demand for illegal drugs even has a role in the problem.
Things have gotten bad enough to arouse attention in Congress as well, if only a little. Though it will take time to bear any tangible results, Sen. Jim Webb's recently introduced bill to form a commission to reassess our entire prison system, including the role our war on drugs plays, could provide the data-driven, non-ideological blueprint for eventually ending federal obstacles to marijuana policy reform.
But like that tree falling in the woods, none of these developments would matter as much if it weren't for the attention they've received in the press and among the public recently.
Not only are these stories dominating the headlines, but pundits and columnists from both the left and right seem to be falling over each other to express support for reform. Syndicated columnists Clarence Page, Kathleen Parker and David Sirota all have written recently on the failures of marijuana prohibition, as has Time's Joe Klein, San Francisco Chronicle's Debra Saunders ... even Pat Buchanan's American Conservative wrote favorably on the issue recently.
Of course, we can't just quietly accept the setbacks to reform as they occur. Just as we have for years under more hostile conditions, we must respond when progress for reform is threatened. But we shouldn't become distracted from the many opportunities circumstances are offering right now for making sensible marijuana policy reform a reality.Â