The Cannabis Column
The passage of marijuana legalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado are exciting turning points in the long effort to end marijuana prohibition in the United States.
These initiatives change local laws, place pressure on the federal government, and radically transform the national debate about marijuana and the law.
However significant obstacles remain, and while these great victories create new horizons they also present new challenges for the reform movement. Despite all these initiatives have accomplished – and these accomplishments are both historical and profound – this is no time for reformers to get over confident. Indeed, to deploy a phrase that has become common in political discourse these days, it is time to double down on efforts to reform the marijuana laws in the United States.
State level policies have always been the vulnerable aspect of national prohibition, which requires state and local police agencies to enforce the prohibition against marijuana possession and personal use cultivation.
States have been opting out of harsh and strict federal marijuana policy for decades. The opt-out movement began with decriminalization in the 1970s and lenient probation policies for first offenders. Medical marijuana laws cascaded throughout the country beginning in the 1990s and more recent decriminalization policies were adopted in the wake of the medical marijuana revolution. And now we have the stunning developments in Washington and Colorado.
Marijuana legalization is an innately attractive policy option for several reasons. In general, states have realized over the last several decades that arresting people for marijuana possession in unjust, unwarranted, and very expensive. On the other hand, the public is beginning to realize that legalization is a viable alternative, with public support growing and the need for new revenue sources for state and local governments providing an additional incentive to take a new look at marijuana policy innovations.
The success of the Washington and Colorado initiatives will encourage similar measures in other states, and this will further change local laws, place more pressure on the federal government, and produce even more constructive debate throughout the country.
But this is not a done deal, not by any means. Despite the general trend of states opting out of federal prohibition, arrests have not only continued but substantially increased over the years. Supporters of prohibition have come to believe that the policy can withstand substantial defections at the state and local level as long as national legislation remains intact. In other words, the federal government and supporters of prohibition are not just going to give up. There will be a counter-attack on these new policies, and it will be severe, substantial, and sustained.
The most likely and immediate response may be seeking a federal court injunction against the establishment of a legal marijuana market in Washington and Colorado, or other court action that reaffirms the supremacy of federal law. This would attempt to render the practical result of the legalization initiatives as far-reaching decriminalization policies rather than radical legislation for commercial trade.
The most threatening assault on reform, though, will take place in the social rather than legal and political arenas. This is the area where all the great battles about prohibition have been fought, the realm of public opinion. The issue of Reefer Madness has never gone away, despite its modern manifestations that seek to recast propaganda supporting prohibition as more reasonable and scientific than previous scare stories.
The modern assault is not based on creating hysteria about marijuana’s effects, but instead to lodge doubt in the public’s mind about the wisdom of legalization. The argument today takes two related forms. One, legalization will increase marijuana use. Two, because of this, and despite its costs, we’re better off with marijuana being illegal. A related argument is that teenagers will have less access to marijuana under current policies than under legalization. These arguments are readily challenged; that’s not the point here. Instead of noting that these arguments can be refuted, the reform movement needs to realize the importance of taking vigorous and sustained action to refute them.
A major, aggressive, and well-documented effort must be taken to answer each and every attack on marijuana reform. It’s a widely held rule of politics that an attack unanswered is a successful advance. The battle for public opinion requires as much (or more) attention and resources as the legal and political battles that have produced such success. For example, the issues of juvenile access to marijuana and the idea that prohibition reduces teenage marijuana use have received scant attention from the reform movement. Public concern about juvenile marijuana use is one of the greatest obstacles to marijuana’s legalization in the United States.
Federal efforts, along with those of other supporters of marijuana prohibition, will seek to create and inflame doubts about the costs and benefits of marijuana legalization. This information war remains the crucial challenge for legalization efforts.
The Colorado campaign’s focus on marijuana as a safe alternative to alcohol is a major and impressive development in this longstanding information war. But more needs to be done, and on a national as well as local level. This is the new horizon in marijuana law reform. Reformers must address each and every public doubt and concern about marijuana, its use, and the costs and benefits of various policy options in order to take advantage of the new opportunities created by the Washington and Colorado initiatives.
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.