The nation has a split personality when it comes to pot.
By Don Hazen, April M. Short, Jan Frel, Steve Rosenfeld, and Tana Ganeva / AlterNet
In the robust efforts to legalize and decriminalize cannabis in the U.S., a slightly modified line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities applies: “These are the best of times, these are the worst of times.”
Despite huge success on many fronts, including legalization in two states with boffo success in Colorado (and two more states likely on the way), pot arrests remain astronomically high across the country.
More than 750,000 were recorded in 2012, with pot arrests actually increasing in some states and the District of Columbia. The blue state of New York led the way with 125,000 arrests out of more than a million estimated users, or roughly 6% (the second highest percentage of pot smoker arrests next to Louisiana.)
It is ironic that in New York, progressive mayor Bill de Blasio was elected on a “Tale of Two Cities” theme, but police chief Bill Bratton’s NYPD continues to arrest pot users in high numbers. Those users are mostly black and Puerto Rican youth, which contributes to the massive inequality in the Big Apple that de Blasio says he wants to change. To illustrate the schizoid nature of our country’s relationship to pot, Brooklyn district attorney Kenneth Thompson has said he would not waste time and resources to prosecute everyday pot smokers, but Bratton says we are going to keep arresting them anyway.
The New York Times has impressively stepped in to try to do something about all the arrests with an aggressive, detailed and highly unusual effort not only to advocate for legal pot, but to answer every conceivable argument against it. So, the public wants pot to be legal and regulated, doctors want pot to be legal, but hardcore Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Dianne Feinstein are trafficking in disinformation and trying to keep the fear quotient in play in the pot debate.
Basically, the U.S. has a long way to go to be in tune with some other countries around the world which have already implemented health-based, sensible marijuana laws and practices with excellent success. Uruguay has legalized pot and the government will be in charge of distributing it; Spain’s recreational pot culture, where pot is smoked in local clubs, has overtaken Amsterdam as the place for pot tourists to go; Portugal decriminalized all drugs years ago; and Israel’s pot research continues to confirm the plant’s incredible medical potential.
It seems that sane, pro-pot policy advocates are winning the struggle against the anti-pot warriors. But the battle continues, and as we so often know, facts don’t often convince recalcitrant law-and-order types, who cling to their positions and repeat falsehoods, despite an avalanche of information to the contrary.
Here are two competing lists of success and failures in the pot wars. Which side do you think is winning?
1. Legalize it, says influential U.S. newspaper.
The times have finally caught up with the Times, America’s newspaper of record. On the last Sunday in July, the New York Times editorial board launched a full-on campaign to repeal federal laws criminalizing marijuana. They cited many of the arguments made by marijuana advocates for years, and went further, demolishing many of the past political rationales given for keeping pot illegal: it isn’t addictive; cigarettes and alcohol are worse for your health; the costs and consequences for criminalizing it are way too high—and racist.
The Times’ only hesitancy was excessive use by teenagers, which could stunt pyschological growth. (However, the argument that pot’s legal status impacts underage use has been more or less debunked at this point, as evidenced by a recent report focused on teen pot use in medical marijuana states.)
“There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use,” the Times said, but “the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization.”
“The New York Times editorial board made history today,” Ethan Nadelman, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “This is of historic consequence—far bigger than most people assume. Some people in the country may perceive the Times editorial page as a liberal organ, but they should know that on this issue they’ve been cautious to a fault, even conservative. For them to write what they did, at this juncture, demonstrated intellectual and moral clarity as well as courage.”
2. Colorado’s “experiment” has been an overwhelming success.
Reduced crime, a huge economic boost and a thriving new tourism industry are the result of marijuana legalization in Colorado thus far. The rollout has proven safe and well-regulated. On top of incalculable savings for law enforcement resources no longer policing pot use, marijuana taxes have brought millions in profits to the state.
In the month of March alone, sales generated nearly $19 million (up from $14 million in February), and the state took in more than $10 million in taxes. The Brookings Institution, an independent think-tank, released a report this week concluding that the state’s regulatory system is a success. The report notes that it addresses “key concerns such as diversion, shirking, communication breakdowns, illegal activity, and the financial challenges facing the marijuana industry.”
3. Alaska and Oregon will probably legalize soon.
There’s a good chance Alaska and Oregon will soon follow in Colorado and Washington’s historic footsteps and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Alaska is almost a shoe-in to legalize. More than half its voters already supported legalization in early 2013, according to a Public Policy poll and that number has likely only increased since the successful opening of regulated Colorado pot shops. Initially in Alaska a referendum legalizing pot was planned for the primary ballot in August, but following a legislative technicality it was bumped back to the general election in November. Its chances for passing are very good.
In Oregon a petition for a legalization measure turned in last month had gathered more than 145,000 signatures, and it only needed 87,000 to qualify for the November ballot.
As the Huffington Post reported:
“Oregon, like California, has already seen one legalization ballot initiative fail, in 2012. However, this first effort was widely seen as poorly written—and the campaign effort for the measure wasn’t very impressive either. This time around, the proposed law’s draft is a lot better and it includes creating a better taxation system than what Colorado and Washington have implemented (Oregon would levy excise taxes on specific amounts of marijuana, rather than taxing the value when it is sold).”
4. A strong medical pot initiative is about to pass in Florida.
Floridians will vote on a medical marijuana initiative in November and the odds are good. A Quinnipiac University poll last month found overwhelming support for medical marijuana in Florida showing support at 88 percent. As Paul Armentano of NORML wrote for AlterNet:
“Sunshine State voters will decide this November on Amendment 2, which seeks to permit for the physician-authorized possession and state-licensed distribution of cannabis. Because the proposal seeks to amend the state constitution, support from over 60 percent of state voters is necessary for the amendment to become law.
“If passed, the amendment would allow for a physician to recommend cannabis therapy to any patient at his or her discretion. However, neither qualified patients (nor their designated caregivers) would be permitted to cultivate cannabis. Rather, the proposal authorizes the state Department of Health to determine rules within six-months following the act’s passage for the registration of ‘Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers’ (dispensaries), which would be authorized to cultivate, process, and sell medicinal cannabis and other related products. If regulators not begin registering these facilities within this time frame, ‘any Florida citizen shall have standing to seek judicial relief to compel compliance with the Department’s constitutional duties,’ the measure states.
“Despite coordinated opposition by the Florida Sheriff’s Association, former Reagan anti-drug aide Carlton Turner (who once infamously claimed that marijuana smoking leads to homosexuality and ‘therefore to AIDS’), and gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson (who recently donated $2.5 million to defeat the measure), public support for Amendment 2 remains high.”
5. Brooklyn DA will not prosecute pot.
In July, Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson announced that his office would no longer prosecute people arrested for possessing less than 25 grams of pot. Noting that the courts have better things to do than slog through thousands of low-level pot arrest cases, Thompson said in a statement that arresting low-level pot offenders exacts an unnecessary toll on individuals and on the criminal justice system.
“We are pouring money into an endeavor that produces no public safety benefit,” Thompson said in the statement.
There are exceptions: people who are caught smoking in front of children or have shown themselves to pose a danger when smoking pot would still be prosecuted.
6. The majority of Americans want pot to be regulated like alcohol.
A CNN/ORC International survey released this January shows a solid majority of Americans supporting pot legalization. About 55% agreed that marijuana should be legal and 44% disagreed. The survey is in line with a Gallup Poll last October showing American voters’ support for legalization at a record-breaking 58% nationwide.
A number of other polls since the 2012 elections have also showed support either above or just below 50%, depending on the pollster.
7. The majority of medical doctors want medical marijuana to be legal.
Despite the government’s blockade of any research that might show the efficacy of marijuana as a medicine, thousands upon thousands of patients in the 23 states that have legalized medical marijuana (New York just last month) can attest to the miraculous healing potentials of the plant. Clinical studies in other countries, including Israel and Spain, have shown positive results for marijuana’s ability to help with cancer, PTSD and more. It is probably for these reasons that the majority of American medical doctors think medical marijuana should be legal, and more research looking at the possible benefits of pot should be allowed.
In April, the website WebMD published the results of a survey of 1,544 doctors from more than 12 specialties in at least 48 states. Fifty-six percent of respondents thought pot should be legal for medical purposes.
8. House tells the DEA to stop medical use prosecutions.
For the first time in years, people taking marijuana for medical uses don’t have to worry about federal agents ruining their summers. That is because the U.S. House did something notable before this year’s outdoor growing season: a coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans voted 219 to 189 to bar the Drug Enforcement Administration from prosecuting people who use medical marijuana, if a state has made it legal. This was the first successful House vote to liberalize a marijuana law in years. The Senate has not yet voted on the bill, but the vote sent a clear message to the DEA: back off.
That hasn’t cleared up the legal gray zone where states that allow cultivation and use fall under a shadow of unpredictable federal law enforcement. But there are efforts to get that monkey off people’s backs. Last year, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, introduced a bill to eliminate marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, require a federal permit for growing and distributing it, and have it regulated (like alcohol) by the Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
A bill from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-CA, would not remove marijuana from its status as a Schedule I illegal drug, but would end federal enforcement against anyone complying with a state marijuana law. Rohrabacher’s bill is weaker than Polis’ proposal. Neither proposal is expected to pass this year, but Congress is not just saying no, no, no.
1. High-ranking Democratic elected officials continue to repeat long-disproved drug falsehoods.
Elected officials like New York’s Andrew Cuomo still buy into long disproved pot myths like pot is a “gateway drug”. Recently, “Mr. Cuomo said that he was wary of allowing marijuana to become too widely or too easily available” (despite the fact that NY has hundreds of thousands of pot arrests). In recent days “he said he feared that it was ‘a gateway drug,’ and observed that the state was already dealing with a resurgence of heroin use.”
The New York Times underscores how out of touch Cuomo is:
Marijuana “does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse,” the Institute of Medicine study said. The real gateway drugs are tobacco and alcohol, which young people turn to first before trying marijuana.
2. California’s top Democrats just say no.
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, but its top Democrats—U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown—do not want marijuana fully legalized. Both said so when asked by reporters this past winter. Maybe Brown, who has led the state out of a terrible debt crisis, doesn’t want to be the butt of more “moonbeam” jokes, as was the case when he ran for president in 1992. But he’s not budging.
“The problem with anything, a certain amount is okay,” Brown said last March. “But there is a tendency to go to extremes. And all of a sudden, if there’s advertising and legitimacy, how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation? The world’s pretty dangerous, very competitive. I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.”
Brown said he’d watch how legalization worked in Colorado and Washington, before taking any new steps in California. Feinstein, when asked by the Associated Press about his remarks, agreed, voicing other worries about legalizing pot. Ever the conservative Dem, she said that stoned drivers could hurt others, and that users were prone to moving onto harder drugs—a contention the New York Times dispelled in its legalize-pot series.
“The risk of people using marijuana and driving is very substantial,” Feinstein said, citing a crash the previous weekend where the California Highway Patrol said that a stoned and texting driver hit another car, killing a woman and her daughter-in-law. She also cited her experience on the state Parole Board in the 1960s. “I saw a lot of where people began with marijuana and went on to hard drugs,” Feinstein said, demonstrating that her inner compass on the issue hasn’t shifted in decades.
3. San Jose is shutting down its medical marijuana dispensaries; San Diego has yet to allow any to open.
More than 80 medical marijuana dispensaries dot the streets of San Jose, Calif., serving thousands of patients who are dealing with everything from cancer to chronic pain. Now, due to a new set of rules, those patients are losing access to their medicine and the city’s dispensaries face extinction. San Jose’s city council passed the sweeping regulatory ordinance, which has so many specifications it effectively makes it impossible for dispensaries to operate. Almost all of the existing shops will have to close by July 2015 under the regulations. The city’s dispensaries organized to get a measure on the upcoming election ballot to overturn the new ordinance, but failed to gather the required number of petition signatures.
Would-be medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego face a similarly hopeless situation as they continue to fight to be allowed in the city. The city began accepting dispensary applications in April, but has yet to approve any actual shops, so patients are left without access to their medicine.
4. Pot arrests are increasing in many states.
In a recent report that appears on the newly launched website, Regulating Cannabis, police made an estimated 750,000 arrests for marijuana violations in 2012. That is a 110 percent increase in annual arrests since 1991. The report found those arrests failed at reducing marijuana use.
As Paul Armentano wrote,
“In 2012, marijuana arrests accounted for almost half (48.3 percent) of all drug arrests nationwide. Marijuana arrests accounted for two-thirds of more of all drug arrests in five states: Nebraska (74.1 percent), New Hampshire (72 percent), Montana (70.3 percent), Wyoming (68.7 percent) and Wisconsin (67.1 percent).
From 2008 to 2012, 17 state-level jurisdictions experienced an average annual increase in marijuana arrests, the report found. The two states possessing the lowest marijuana arrest rates are California and Massachusetts, the report found. Both states decriminalized marijuana possession offenses in recent years.”
5. Thousands of people are still in jail for pot.
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. Since marijuana arrests accounted for more than half of all US drug arrests in 2012, and they have been increasing in recent years, it’s fair to say a huge number of the nation’s current prisoner are inside for pot.
The Obama administration has overseen more marijuana-related arrests than any previous administration. President Obama 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.
6. Professional sports are still way out of touch.
Professional sports leagues still employ grossly stereotyped rules involving players who smoke pot and their punishment, as Mother Jones reports:
The NFL gave six players harsher punishments for smoking weed than they gave running back Ray Rice for his assault arrest for punching his then fiancée out cold, and dragging her out of an elevator by her hair. The whole idea that cannabis enhances performance is absurd. Imagine playing a game in the NFL stoned?
But pot may help many players heal from the myriad injuries they suffer in the brutal sport. Come out of the Stone Age, NFL.
7. Maureen Dowd wrote an editorial freaking out about edibles.
In June, Maureen Dowd bravely set out to Colorado to see the impact of legal pot for herself. She got as far as her hotel room. In an inadvertently hilarious New York Times column, Dowd describes being felled by a pot candy bar she unwisely over-consumed. Her fear-mongering account reads like a dispatch from war. “As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.”
Vincent Carroll of the Denver Post noted some inconsistencies in her piece. Carroll points out that the candy bar would have had information on the package about the amount of THC it contained and also the suggested serving size.
“This is a most peculiar tale. Does Dowd know how to divide by 10?” he asks.
8. Patrick Kennedy’s anti-pot rile—mixing alcoholism and pot.
Patrick Kennedy, former Rhode Island congressman and member of a Democratic Party political dynasty is as reactionary and ignorant on the facts about marijuana as they come. Alongside noted anti-marijuana propagandists like Kevin Sabet and former Bush II speechwriter David Frum, Kennedy launched Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) which is basically an abstinence organization that urges treatment for marijuana consumers, including mandatory screening for anyone apprehended by police and jail sentences for those who aren’t willing to get on the bandwagon.
Kennedy has been parroting prohibition-era talking points since the launch of Project SAM last year, including unproven assertions such as the notion that marijuana consumption is associated with brain damage, it accelerates psychosis, and most factually disprovable of all, it belongs in the category of gateway drugs.
Kennedy’s long-standing battle with alcohol addiction makes his position all the more bizarre. As Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project put it, “If Mr. Kennedy is truly concerned about public health and safety, I cannot fathom why he would prefer that adults use alcohol instead of making the safer choice of marijuana.”
9. Despite the DA telling them to stop, NYPD continues pot arrests.
After Brooklyn district attorney Kenneth Thompson made his announcement, the NYPD wasted no time in assuring the public that it would continue busting low-level pot offenders. In a statement, NYPD police chief William Bratton said there would be no change in the department’s policy.
“We understand that it is the prerogative of each of the city’s district attorneys to decline to prosecute any criminal offense occurring within their respective jurisdictions,” said Bratton. “However, in order to be effective, our Police Officers must enforce the laws of the State of New York uniformly throughout all five boroughs of the city. Accordingly, the Kings County policy change will not result in any changes in the policies and procedures of the NYPD.”
Despite Bill de Blasio’s campaign promise that his administration would scale back low-level pot arrests, the NYPD under Bratton continues to collar people for marijuana at high rates. A report by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project found that the first four months of 2014 saw an average of 80 arrests per day for small-scale marijuana possession. During Bloomberg’s last year in office the average was 78.
The NYPD also continues to primarily target minorities; a whopping 86 percent of those arrested are black and Latino.