In November, Washington and Colorado became the first two states to legalize the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. While medical use of cannabis is now legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, the herb remains highly illegal under federal law, and the response of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) remains to be seen.
The November 2012 election results “have forever changed the playing field regarding cannabis prohibition laws in America (and probably in large parts of the world, too),” wrote Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws after the results of the referendums was announced.
Washington and Colorado not only decriminalized marijuana, but put into law the regulation and taxation of sales, a policy which is a first anywhere in the world. State government in Washington is projecting more than $80 million a year in additional tax revenue (some supporters say it could be as much as $500 million) by mid-2013 due to cannabis sales, while Colorado expects between $4 and $20 million.
Marijuana legalization advocates have been working for decades to legalize recreational use for adults, but have faced stiff opposition from drug warriors. Now, they will have to work with the state governments nervously waiting for reactions from the DEA.
For their part, the DEA has stated that it is reviewing these referendums, and that they still intend to enforce the Controlled Substances Act, which defines Marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Schedule 1 substances are those that have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and is even unsafe to use even under medical supervision. Other drugs falling into the same classification include heroin, LSD, PCP or Angel Dust, and crack cocaine.
NORML and other proponents of legalization say that such categorizations have no basis in scientific fact and only distort the truth. That truth, they claim, is that nearly 100 million Americans have used Marijuana, making it the third most popular recreational drug in the United States, behind alcohol and tobacco – both of which are far more dangerous than marijuana.
Alcohol poisoning kills some 50,000 people per year in the United States, while tobacco smoking may lead to more than 400,000 deaths per year. Marijuana, on the other hand, has never been implicated as the cause of a death; overdosing is literally impossible.
Authoritative medical studies have shown little to no adverse health affect from marijuana consumption, but have demonstrated many different medical applications of the herb. Cannabis is widely used in other regions of the world to treat pain and other medical issues, which makes it all the more confusing to advocates that this beneficial herb is classified alongside some of the most dangerous and addictive drugs on the planet.
While massive tax revenues are one reason that some states are beginning to consider similar measures, another reason is the large savings that could be realized from not prosecuting and imprisoning marijuana smokers, growers, and distributors. It is estimated that enforcing marijuana laws costs more than $10 billion per year to US taxpayers – a number that reflects the costs of arresting more than three quarters of a million people every year.
Marijuana arrests, like the war on drugs in general, has a racial component. Government studies have consistently shown that whites use marijuana at a higher rate than people of color, yet arrests disproportionately target people of color.
Public opinion has charted an opposite course to public policy: a Gallup survey in 2011 found that half of all Americans were in favor of full marijuana legalization, and over 70% supported the legalization of medical cannabis use.
It remains to be seen if federal policy will change to reflect the mood of the electorate. As of last year, the Obama Administration has authorized at least 170 raids on medical marijuana dispensaries across the country. The administration has claimed that many dispensaries are operated by criminal elements and operate illegally.
More than 61 federal indictments have been issued, charging operators of these dispensaries with violating federal law. But supporters of the legalization campaigns are optimistic. They believe that the political will and material resources do not exist in Washington DC to clamp down on Colorado and “the other Washington.”
They note that the prohibition of alcohol was toppled using a similar strategy – one state at a time began to contravene the federal statutes and repeal their own laws, until the entire system collapsed.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Colorado and Washington, marijuana sales could be legally occurring within months. Both laws include regulations similar to those on alcohol. Sales and possession are only legal for people 21 years or older, and driving with more than a certain amount of marijuana in your system will result in DUI – Driving Under the Influence – charges.
All eyes are on Washington and Colorado now, to see what will happen next. But the dust remains unsettled.
As Colorado governor John Hickenlooper said after the historic measure passed, “don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”