5 Burning Questions About Legalizing Pot
Three experts explain everything you need to know about the battle to legalize marijuana
By Paul Armentano, Neill Franklin, Mason Tvert | Published in AlterNet.org
PBS recently ran a Need to Know segment on marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado. The episode featured interviews with three prominent marijuana policy reform activists: Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML;Major Stanford “Neill” Franklin, a 34-year law enforcement veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department and the Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP); and Mason Tvert, co-founder of SAFER in 2005 and the SAFER Voter Education Fund in 2006. See transcript below:
How does legalization in the U.S. or parts of the U.S. affect our security and law enforcement relationship with Mexico, a country with a history of opposition to such legislation?
Paul Armentano: U.S. drug policy drives international drug policy and not vice-versa. In fact, Mexican lawmakers are ready to pursue alternative approaches to drug prohibition. Former Mexican President Vincente Fox has publicly called the global drug war an ‘absolute failure’ and has called for replacing criminal prohibition with regulatory alternatives — both in Mexico and in the United States. In 2009, Mexico’s Congress approved legislation decriminalizing the possession of personal use of illicit substances, including cannabis. Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, has said that legalizing the marijuana trade is a legitimate option for both the Mexican and U.S. governments. President Felipe Calderon has publically called for ‘market alternatives’ to address the growing level drug prohibition-inspired violence in Mexico and along the U.S. southern border. Just this week, a Mexican lawmaker announced intentions to introduce legislation to legalize the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.
Mexican officials understand that the U.S. demand for cannabis, combined with its illegality, is fueling violence and empowering criminal traffickers. Mexico today has a growing body count ( anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 dead citizens) to attest to this. Yet our own DEA administrator, Michelle Leonhart, has publicly described this bloodshed as “a signpost of success.” Hardly. It is a tragic yet predictable failure of U.S. drug policy. When the U.S. finally begins to address the failure of this policy and embrace alternatives, much of the world, particularly Mexico, will no doubt follow suit.
Neill Franklin: Bringing marijuana aboveground and out of the illegal market can only improve security in our communities both here in the U.S. and in Mexico. As long as marijuana is prohibited, 100% of its profits (and all the decisions about where, how and to whom it is sold) are controlled by gangs and drug cartels. It is clear that Mexican leaders have been waiting for the U.S. to move away from prohibition for some time now. More than 60,000 people have died there over the past six years because drugs are sold only in the illegal, unregulated market.
Outgoing President Felipe Calderon has talked about the need for “market alternatives” if a prohibition approach continues to be unsuccessful in reducing demand for drugs. Mexican ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan has said that those who are pushing for legalization “understand the dynamics of the drug trade.” Former President Vicente Fox has repeatedly said it is time for legalization, and incoming President Enrique Pena Nieto has said he’s open to considering legalization as a way forward. Now that two U.S. states have voted to legalize marijuana, expect to see more sitting officials talking about the need for policy change even more clearly and frequently. The U.S. can’t credibly bully other countries into maintaining a prohibitionist approach while states within its own borders are recognizing the senselessness of this approach and embracing legalization.
Mason Tvert: Marijuana prohibition in the U.S. is steering profits from marijuana sales toward cartels and gangs instead of legitimate, tax-paying businesses. In doing so, it is propping up these criminal enterprises and subsidizing their other illegal activities, including human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and the sale of other drugs. Much of the violence escalating on the Mexican border revolves around the actions of Mexican drug cartels who fight over profits from marijuana sales. Whether they are large-scale drug cartels or small-town street gangs, the vast supply and demand surrounding marijuana will ensure they have a constant stream of profits to subsidize other illegal activities. Regulating marijuana like alcohol would eliminate this income source and, in turn, eliminate the violence and turf battles associated with the illegal marijuana market.
Millions of Americans use marijuana. They should be able to do so without being made criminals and without supporting violent criminals.
Why is legalization a more effective step in curbing drug related violence or dependence than simply decriminalizing?
NF: Decriminalization is a step in the right direction because it prevents people from the shackling of criminal records for simply possessing marijuana and also allows the criminal justice system to focus more of its limited resources on stopping and solving violent crimes. However, it does nothing to reduce the violent underground drug trade. Only legalized regulation of the market can do that. Let’s remember that during alcohol prohibition, personal possession and use of booze was essentially decriminalized. It wasn’t until the prohibition on manufacture and sales was lifted that gangsters stopped killing each other and the police over black market alcohol profits. This is because legalizing and regulating a product means people will purchase it through the proper channels and therefore the lucrative illegal market all but disappears.
MT: Simply removing the criminal penalties for marijuana does nothing to eliminate the underground market, which produces the only real violence associated with marijuana. By keeping marijuana illegal, we are forcing those who seek it into an underground market where it is sold exclusively by individuals who are willing to break the law. Naturally, some of these individuals will have other illegal products available, including drugs that are far more harmful than marijuana. Amendment 64 would regulate marijuana and restrict its sale to licensed stores, as we currently do with alcohol. In doing so, it will dramatically reduce consumers’ exposure to harder drugs and the temptation to experiment with them. Regulating marijuana will also ensure that consumers know what they are getting when they purchase marijuana. Illegal marijuana dealers are not subject to quality standards, and are not testing or labeling their products.
Is this the beginning of a multi-state reformation process on the legality of marijuana much like the state by state roll back of Prohibition in the early 20th century?
PA: I believe that it is. The parallels are obvious. Like alcohol prohibition before it, the criminalization of cannabis is a failed federal policy that delegates the burden of enforcement to the state and local police. How did America’s ‘Nobel Experiment’ with alcohol prohibition come to an end? When a sufficient number of states, led by New York in 1923 and ultimately joined by nearly a dozen others, enacted legislation repealing the state’s alcohol laws, prohibition effectively discontinued. With state police and prosecutors no longer enforcing the Federal government’s unpopular law, politicians eventually had no choice but to abandon the policy altogether. History now repeats itself.
NF: Absolutely. It wasn’t considered possible to repeal federal alcohol prohibition until states ramped up the pressure by repealing their own prohibition laws from the books. Now that polls consistently show nationwide majority support for marijuana legalization and that voters in two states have actually passed legalization measures, expect to see more states jumping on board quickly. We can also expect to see more members of Congress and elected officials who heretofore have only supported us silently, behind closed doors start to speak out and take action publicly. The politicians have been behind the people on this one, but more savvy leaders are starting to realize that there’s political opportunity in getting in front of this issue.
What can we expect the Obama administration’s response will be to the passage of these amendments?
PA: In Colorado 55 percent of voters (four percent more than voted for President Barack Obama) decided in favor of Amendment 64. In Washington, roughly 56 percent of voters similarly decided in favor of Initiative 502. These provisions will take effect early next month and I expect these provisions to go into effect without incident. States are not mandated to criminalize marijuana or arrest adult cannabis consumers and the Federal government cannot compel prosecutors in Colorado or Washington to do otherwise. Theoretically, of course, the Justice Department and the DEA (which continues to define cannabis as an illegal commodity equally dangerous as heroin) could choose to prosecute those individuals in Colorado and Washington who possess personal amounts of cannabis in Washington and Colorado. Such a scenario is hardly plausible. Right now, the federal government lacks the manpower, political will, and public support to engage in such behavior. So, in the short-term, I see no reason why these states cannot repeal their longstanding state criminal prohibitions on the personal use of cannabis. They can do so without running afoul of federal.
Longer-term, both of these laws also seek to establish a statewide regulatory framework that also allows for the licensed, commercial production, sale, and taxation of cannabis for adult consumers. If the Administration were to try and interfere with any aspect of these laws (and undermine the will of the majority of voters by doing so) it would be in this arena. Such federal opposition is hardly assured.
To date, the Obama Administration has done little if anything to interfere with the state-approved production and licensed distribution of medical marijuana in several states where it is legal — specifically in Colorado, Maine, and New Mexico. By contrast, at the behest of its U.S. Attorneys, the Obama administration has cracked down on similar activities in other states, particularly in California and Montana. Which direction the Administration pursues in Colorado and Washington remains to be seen. I would hope elected officials will ultimately respect the voice of the voters. I would also hope they would recognize that a pragmatic regulatory framework which allows for the limited, licensed production and sale of cannabis to adults best reduces the risks associated with its use or abuse. This is a far superior policy than that of criminalization and blanket prohibition.
NF: No one really knows, but I am hopeful that the administration may take a wait-and-see approach and give Colorado and Washington the opportunity to successfully implement the law. In advance of 2010′s vote on Prop. 19 to legalize marijuana in California, former DEA officials wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder and asked him to come out in opposition to the initiative prior to election day. He did so. Those same former DEA heads sent a very similar letter to AG Holder this year but he stayed silent. It seems the Obama administration is starting to understand the new political dynamic surrounding this issue. The President has a real opportunity in his second term to finally make good on his previous promises to let states set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
MT: We certainly hope the Obama administration will not use its power to impose marijuana prohibition on a state whose people have declared, through the democratic process, that they want it to end. It has largely respected our state’s current system of state and locally regulated medical marijuana sales, and we hope they will continue to do so as we work to regulate, control, and tax all marijuana sales in Colorado. We hope to see a thoughtful dialogue between our state and federal officials about how to implement the most responsible and effective system possible.
Economists have long proposed that billions of dollars could be reaped from taxation, as well as the savings of criminal enforcement, but is there validity to the ‘social’ cost (ranging from rehabilitation to lost employee revenue) attributed to communities with open access to the drug?
PA: The social costs attributable to cannabis consumption are nominal in comparison to those costs associated with the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. According to a 2009 report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, “In terms of [health-related] costs per user: tobacco-related health costs are over $800 per user, alcohol-related health costs are much lower at $165 per user, and cannabis-related health costs are the lowest at $20 per user.” Further, any social costs that may be attributed to cannabis use are presently not being offset by taxation.
Moreover, the existing policy of cannabis prohibition entails significant costs to taxpayers — both financially and emotionally. Since 1965, the FBI reports that U.S. law enforcement has made over 22 million arrests for marijuana violations. Cannabis prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches on civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, impedes upon legitimate scientific research into the plant’s medicinal properties, and disproportionately impacts communities of color. It’s time to stop stigmatizing and criminalizing tens of millions of Americans for choosing to consume a substance that is safer than both tobacco and alcohol.
Despite more than 70 years of federal prohibition, Americans’ consumption of and demand for cannabis is here to stay. It is time to acknowledge this reality; the American public has spoken. It is clear by the results in Colorado and Washing that the voters want to pursue a new approach to marijuana policy. It is time to stop ceding control of the cannabis market to untaxed criminal enterprises and put forward common-sense regulations governing cannabis’ personal use by adults and licensing its production.
NF: No one on our side is saying that legalization means that drug abuse problems will simply disappear. What we are saying is that when we don’t have to waste so many of our limited resources arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning people for simple possession (and when we generate new tax revenue through legal sales)we will have many more resources available to invest in treatment and prevention programs that actually work.
MT: The social and health costs associated with marijuana use are vastly outweighed by those associated with alcohol and tobacco use. In fact, the costs for alcohol consumers are eight times greater than those for marijuana consumers, according to an assessment recently published in the British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal. More specifically, the annual cost of alcohol consumption is $165 per user, and tobacco-related costs are $800 per user, compared to just $20 per user for marijuana. This should not come as a surprise given the vast amount of research that shows alcohol poses far more – and more significant – health problems than marijuana. Studies have shown that the majority of costs associated with marijuana are specific to enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws. If marijuana is a legal and regulated product, we can expect to generate far, far more in revenues and savings than we will see in costs.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and is the co-author of Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink (2009, Chelsea Green).
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