The U.S. is far behind when it comes to drug laws that actually make sense.
By April M. Short / AlterNet
Some Americans, stuck in the Nixon-era “war on drugs” mentality, are panicking about the “unknown dangers” and “potential risks” of loosening marijuana policy in the U.S. Those people have failed to look outside of the U.S. bubble and see that many nations have already implemented health-based, sensible marijuana laws and practices with overwhelming success.
In the U.S. today, 23 states have legalized medical marijuana (New York just this month) and two (Colorado and Washington) have legalized pot for recreational use (although it’s worth noting that in many states medical marijuana laws are severely restricted). The majority of American medical doctors think medical marijuana should be legal and the majority of American voters think it should be legal and regulated like alcohol. However, it remains safe to say the U.S. is not at the global forefront of progressive, sensible marijuana policy.
The federal government continues its stubborn prohibition of the herb, and law enforcement continues to arrest people for mere possession of the plant, targeting low-income minorities at alarming rates. Our prisons are overflowing with nonviolent drug law violators, and American tax dollars, which pay to house, feed and clothe those unnecessary prisoners, are filling the pockets of private prison tycoons who profit from keeping the prisons and jails filled to capacity.
Our current president laughs when he’s offered a hit of marijuana and told the New Yorker the stuff is less dangerous than alcohol. He said, in reference to pot use, “We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” However, his administration has overseen more marijuana-related arrests than any before. He has the worst reputation of any U.S. president in history when it comes to prisoner clemency, which includes pardons and commutation of sentences. To date, he’s only issued 39 pardons, while more than 100,000 people remain behind bars in the U.S. due to drug war policies.
The U.S. houses a quarter of the world’s inmates, though we only account for 5 percent of the world’s population. Nonviolent drug offenders make up more than a quarter of all inmates in the U.S., up from less than 10 percent in 1980.
In 2011, drug offenders accounted for 48 percent of the federal prisoner population and 16 percent of the state prisoner population. Half of all of those people are incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes, according to the Sentencing Project. More than 3,200 of these prisoners are serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses.
While the US has made some great strides toward better drug policy—in the form of medical marijuana and the socio-economic miracle that is Colorado and Washington’s pot legalization—it’s we are far behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to drug laws that actually make sense. While our representatives twiddle their thumbs over pot, and prohibitionists act like health-based drug regulations are the Boogeyman, some other parts of the world enjoy the enormous benefits of more tolerant policies and attitudes.
Here is a list of countries where drug policies make a lot more sense than they do in the US:
While the US’s officials and media continue to pretend like pot legalization is an unprecedented, far-fetched dream, in Spain, personal marijuana has been legal for decades. Today Barcelona is en route to challenge Amsterdam as the world center of pot tourism. In Spain anyone is allowed to grow the herb for personal use, and—echoing California’s rules for medical marijuana use—growers can form collective, nonprofit, members-only cannabis clubs. However, due to lax enforcement of the members-only rule, Barcelona has been filling up with cannabis clubs in recent years. As theNew York Times’ Suzanne Daley reported in a July 10 article, “Barcelona officials have given their blessing to this new phenomenon. … The number of cannabis clubs that have opened in Barcelona recently has some experts saying this city will soon challenge Amsterdam as the go-to destination for vacationers who want to get high in peace.”
Daley reported that the pot clubs provide an economic boost, according to advocates.
“Though they are nonprofits, advocates say the clubs are generating thousands of jobs and tax revenues for the state. In addition to selling a wide array of cannabis products and hashish, many of the clubs also sell food and drinks and offer extras to their members, like live music nights and Pilates classes.”
Right now our Congress is attempting to block our nation’s capitol from treating pot like a parking violation rather than a criminal offense, despite the local D.C. government’s vote to do so. Meanwhile, Portugal has enjoyed the benefits of all-out drug decriminalization for over a decade. Portugal became the first nation in Europe to decriminalized personal possession of drugs–including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine–in 2001. Decriminalization means those drugs remain illegal, but instead of throwing people in jail for their use, the country imposes a fine similar to a traffic ticket and provides addiction treatment options. By removing criminal penalties for drug use, the nation was able to fund the resources necessary to treat drug addiction as the health crisis that it is. Today in Portugal if you’re convicted of possessing small amounts of drugs, you visit a psychologist, social worker and legal advisor who determine what kind of treatment you need. Prior to decriminalization, Portugal had a serious drug problem, but over the last decade the nation has seen a decline in drug use. João Castel-Branco Goulão, Portugal’s national drug coordinator and the chairman of the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction, wrote in the New York Times:
“While critics of the law warned that drug use would swell, it has not risen. We have seen significant reductions in H.I.V. infections and in overdoses, as well as a substantial increase in new patients seeking drug treatment.”
The amount of money and resources the nation has saved on law enforcement and housing prisoners due to decriminalization is also significant.
While the Great White North does not allow marijuana for recreational purposes anywhere, it has a nationwide, heavily corporatized, government-sanctioned medical marijuana program. About 20 companies are licenced to mass-produce cannabis in Canada for medical purposes. As the New York Times reported, one large cannabis grow operation calls a former Hershey’s candy factory its home. In April, a change in the nation’s marijuana laws made it so that any licensed company can grow and ship medical pot to patients. (However, it is still illegal in Canada for patients to grow their own pot.)
In addition to the substantial economic boost that comes from the new market, the Canadian government probably took the stacks of convincing research on cannabis’s potential health benefits into account in its decision to allow large scale medical marijuana production and distribution. South of the border, the U.S. government both refuses to officially acknowledge the medical efficacy of marijuana and actively works to block research into the plant’s potential medical uses.
While medical marijuana has been approved in 23 U.S. states, and recreational use in two, U.S. federal law still criminalizes the drug, and its future remains uncertain. In Israel, however, a $40-million-per-year medical-marijuana industry is thriving. And, while research efforts have been continually hindered in the states by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the DEA, the Israeli government is funding and supporting breakthrough research on the many healing potentials of the cannabis plant–from cancer, to addiction, to psychological traumas. Israel’s federal government sanctions their national medical marijuana program and does not get in the way of scientific research like the US government does.
According to a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Iceland (of all places) smokes the most weed in the world, on average. The report, which included a breakdown of illegal drug use per country, found that 18.3% of the Icelandic population (meaning 55,000 out of 320,000 people) smokes weed—more than anywhere else. The United States ranked fourth in the report, with 14.8 percent of the population using pot.
The reasons for Iceland’s toking tendencies are up for speculation, as Iceland still outlaws pot. It could be that, since the Nordic nation prohibited beer until 1989, everyone turned to bud instead (easier to produce, maybe?). Whatever the reasons for its infatuation, Icelanders’ underwraps cannabis use (mixed with its vast and beautiful landscapes) is probably the reason they were found to be one of the happiest populations on the planet. That means in Iceland, approximately 55,000 out of of 320,000 people smoke weed.
Surprisingly, cannabis remains illegal in the Netherlands. It might as well be legal the way people openly smoke pot on the streets. The Dutch government and law enforcement are extremely tolerant of the herb and possession small amounts is decriminalized nationwide. Two million tourists per year visit the city of Amsterdam for its legendary “coffee shops,” which are licensed to sell weed. You’re not allowed, however, to buy your bud on the streets, and coffee shops do card. Purchases are also supposed to be limited to five grams a day (though enforcement of this rule is iffy) and smoking tobacco is banned in coffee shops, so spliffs are rare.
Sure beats risking jail time just to light up or access your doctor-recommended cannabis medicine, which is the reality for many in the US.
The violence illegal drug cartels inflict in Latin America is a humanitarian crisis so horrendous that it has driven millions of child refugees to the US-Mexico border in recent months. And, since it is the most popular illicit drug in the world, marijuana means big profits for those cartels. In response to increasing drug trafficking activity and violence, Uruguay became the first nation to legalize marijuana across the board, in December 2013. It did so in an effort to undermine the powerful cartels that have ravished much of the rest of Latin America. While Uruguay is relatively safe compared with the rest of the region—especially Mexico, where it is estimated that more than 60,000 people were killed in just six years (between 2007 and 2013) and gruesome intimidation, like public beheadings, is commonplace—its government decided to nip the problem in the bud, so to speak. The plan in Uruguay is to set government weed prices extremely low so that cartels will be forced out of business. While many had hoped to see Uruguay’s pot sales start this year, President Jose Mujica announced this month that complications in implementing the law have delayed sales until 2015.
While Uruguay’s reasons for legalization might seem more immediate than those of the US, the issues are actually one. Latin American cartels rely on American buyers for a huge portion of their business, so legalization of pot in the US would (among many other benefits) directly combat the brutality that is the Central and South American drug trade (and ultimately reduce the influx of migrant refugees in the US).
The Majority of Nations in Central and South America
In Central America, Mexico and Costa Rica have decriminalized marijuana, and—other than Bolivia, Argentina, Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana—all of South America has also decriminalized. The Latin American decriminalization trend emerged out of frustration over the failure of harsh drug laws to crack down on cartels or slow the drug trade whatsoever. The decision also stems from a need to reduce over-crowded, increasingly expensive prison populations, which were becoming unsustainable in the region.
The issue of prison overcrowding is one the US is all too familiar with, seeing as how we have a quarter of the world’s total inmates but just five percent of of the world’s population. As in Latin America, most US prisoners are serving time for drug-related crimes. While private prison companies in the US rake in massive profits from keeping prisons brimming over with nonviolent inmates, Americans lose billions in tax dollars to unnecessary incarceration.
However, while Americans fuel the powerful Latin American drug cartels by purchasing their products, we are kept relatively sheltered from the violence and destruction the drug trade inflicts. The lack of immediacy is probably part of the reason we’ve been so slow to catch onto the decriminalization–and legalization–trends.
North Korea (maybe)
While it is not officially confirmed, according to a report by Open Radio North Korea, as well as other news outlets and visitor reports, marijuana (along with opium) has never been controlled in the country and is not considered to be a drug. While the North Korean penalty for hard drugs like meth is severe, people are allowed to smoke pot without regulation–it even grows freely on the side of the street.
As Vice reported,
“NK NEWS receives regular reports from visitors returning from North Korea, who tell us of marijuana plants growing freely along the roadsides, from the northern port town of Chongjin, right down to the streets of Pyongyang, where it is smoked freely and its sweet scent often catches your nostrils unannounced. Our sources are people we know who work inside North Korea and make regular trips in and out of the country.
There is no taboo around pot smoking in the country—many residents know the drug exists and have smoked it. In North Korea, the drug goes by the name of ip tambae, or ‘leaf tobacco.’ It is reported to be especially popular amongst young soldiers in the North Korean military. Rather than getting hooked on tar and nicotine like servicemen in the West, they are able to unwind by lighting up a king-sized bone during down time on the military beat.”
April M. Short is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort.