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October 21, 2009

A potent pitch for decriminalizing marijuana

Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, has this new Politico commentary titled "Now, let’s decriminalize marijuana."  The piece praises the new US Justice Department guidelines that discourage federal prosecution of persons complying with state medical marijuana laws (basics here), and the piece concludes with these notable insights, predictions and pitches:

A new Gallup Poll out Monday found that the proportion of Americans who favor making marijuana legal is now 44 percent — almost double what it was in the mid-1980s.  Among Democrats, support for legalizing marijuana jumped from 41 percent in 2005 to 54 percent now.  Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, thinks he’s protecting the president by repeatedly insisting that “marijuana legalization is not part of my vocabulary or the administration’s,” but it’s going to be increasingly difficult for him to maintain that posture if support for making marijuana legal continues to increase.

I don’t expect Obama to provide any sort of bold leadership on the marijuana issue, mostly because presidents rarely provide any sort of leadership on hot-button issues involving cultural conflict, personal behavior and morality.  Both the new guidelines, and the drug czar’s stated desire to avoid the marijuana issue as much as possible, suggest that the Obama administration prefers to let this issue play out at the state and local level, with little in the way of federal support or interference.

Neither the administration nor Congress is ready for a serious debate on medical marijuana, much less on ending marijuana prohibition, at this time.  The only members of Congress who have been willing to introduce marijuana decriminalization legislation are Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).  Both know that many of their colleagues agree in principle, but no Republicans and only a handful of Democrats are ready to say so publicly.

It’s only a matter of time before marijuana is taxed, controlled and regulated in the United States. The tragedy is that tens of billions of dollars will continue to be wasted, and millions of people arrested and otherwise harmed by the marijuana laws, until that time . It’s up to us — as responsible citizens who care about freedom, justice and compassion — to ensure that this day comes sooner, not later.

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October 21, 2009 at 11:00 AM | Permalink


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Let's see support get up around 60% first. I figure we'll get there but that it will take time. Just because something is likely a good idea doesn't make it a good idea to implement right now.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 21, 2009 11:41:11 AM

The only way marijuana will be legalized is if prominent Republicans start agitating for it. No sensible Democrat will lead this program, when Republicans can use it to accuse them of being soft on crime.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Oct 21, 2009 11:49:37 AM

Marc and Soronel --

I would be interested in knowing if you also favor the legalization of cocaine. How about heroin? LSD? Methamphetamine?

The fact that in your personal opinion (and mine)these other drugs are more dangerous than pot cannot be the reason for refusing to legalize them, since the core rationale for legalization is that, in a free country, everyone gets to decide for himself.

If that is true, they should all be legal; the particular drug involved wouldn't matter.

If it's not true, the main principled support for legalizing pot just went up in smoke (as it were).

I just don't see how the libertarian argument goes as far as pot but no farther. If one believes that the dangerousness of Drug X tells the tale on whether it should be legalized, then SOMEONE has to decide whether the danger is sufficient to invoke criminal sanctions. In a democracy, there is simply no alternative (other than legal solipsism) to allowing the legislature to decide that question.

The CSA was passed by one of the most liberal, Democratic Congresses of the last 50 years. We have a similar Congress now. Are you saying that the leadership in Congress is simply cowardly? Do you allow any possibility that congressmen entertain the more principled belief -- as the AMA does -- that pot is too dangerous to legalize? And for that matter, why is the AMA wrong and the legalizers right?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 21, 2009 12:58:23 PM

Alcohol and tobacco are provably far more dangerous than marijuana. What we should do is make both alcohol and tobacco illegal as well. And Tylenol, which can cause liver failure in high dosages. And marathon running, which just recently caused the deaths of three people in Detroit.

Posted by: AC | Oct 21, 2009 1:14:46 PM

AC --

I would be interested in your answer to the questions I posed to Marc and Soronel. Thanks.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 21, 2009 1:43:41 PM

Bill, I can't give you exact counts. But yes, I think some members of Congress are cowardly. There is legislation they would privately favor, but they do not say so publicly because they fear it would hurt them at the ballot box.

There is also pragmatism involved. If you feel that something has zero chance of passing, what is there to gain by coming out in favor of it? Now, I do realize that some lawmakers value principle over expediency, but there are many pragmatists in Congress, in both parties.

...the core rationale for legalization is that, in a free country, everyone gets to decide for himself.

That is the libertarian rationale, and I agree that by that argument there should be no illegal drugs at all. But some proponents of legalization take a more nuanced view, namely, that marijuana is more akin to alcohol and tobacco (regulated, but legal) than it is to cocaine and heroin (illegal). I have not studied the science, but there is a legitimate argument for not treating all drugs alike.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Oct 21, 2009 2:26:13 PM

I will join Bill on this one.

The idea that marijuana should be legalized is stupid. I actually agree AC that both alcohol and tobacco should be banned as well. They are public health menaces. As for Tylenol and marathon running, now you are just being silly. No one ever killed a person running a marathon or taking aspirin. The same can't be said of any of the others.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 21, 2009 2:27:18 PM


Who says that the "core rationale" for marijuana legalization is that "in a free country...yada yada yada?" Seems like you just decided that.

There are many rationales for decriminalizing marijuana. There are also some rationales for decriminalizing all drugs (look at the surprising success when Portugal decriminalized a few years ago). And there are also rationales for drawing the line at marijuana.

Basically, marijuana is different than the other drugs you listed. It is the most common illicit drug, it is already used a medicine in many states, and its less harmful than aspirin. It is probably better to concede the legality of marijuana and focus on harder drugs and renew respect for the law than continue to spend billions of dollars prosecuting and jailing marijuana users. Tax them instead!

Posted by: Shawn | Oct 21, 2009 2:31:13 PM

“I would be interested in knowing if you also favor the legalization of cocaine. How about heroin? LSD? Methamphetamine?

“The fact that in your personal opinion (and mine)these other drugs are more dangerous than pot cannot be the reason for refusing to legalize them, since the core rationale for legalization is that, in a free country, everyone gets to decide for himself.”

We make decisions all the time about what to legalize based on perceived risk. It’s illegal, for example, for a 12-year-old to drive, because we perceive that to be riskier than a 16-year-old driving. We, as a society, could similarly make the decision that marijuana and/or cocaine could be safely legalized, but not meth or angel dust. Do you really not see the difference?

As my (admittedly sarcastic) previous post alluded to, alcohol causes far more deaths than marijuana (and will probably continue to, even if marijuana is legal), but we decided as a society that the benefits of legal alcohol outweigh the risks. If you maintain that marijuana should be illegal, how do you justify legal alcohol? Or do you favor a return to Prohibition? If so, then we probably don’t have much to talk about.

“The CSA was passed by one of the most liberal, Democratic Congresses of the last 50 years. We have a similar Congress now. Are you saying that the leadership in Congress is simply cowardly?”

Yes, I’m saying that the leadership (and the followership) in Congress is cowardly. They’re also fond of re-election, which may become difficult if painted as a pot-smoking hippie.

“Do you allow any possibility that congressmen entertain the more principled belief -- as the AMA does -- that pot is too dangerous to legalize?”

I’m not sure that the AMA’s position is that “pot is too dangerous to legalize.” As far as I know, the AMA has called for further studies and recommended that marijuana be maintained on Schedule I pending the outcome of those studies. If the AMA has stated that marijuana is too dangerous to legalize, then I’m wrong. Do you have a link to that language?

Posted by: AC | Oct 21, 2009 2:38:02 PM

"and its less harmful than aspirin"

In what way, in the department of making stuff up. Maybe it's less harmful in terms of curing headaches, IDK but it's a lot more harmful in terms of it impact on attention spans.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 21, 2009 2:40:57 PM


So...impact on attention spans is now the standard measurement for drug toxicity? On what floor is your office at the Department of Making Stuff Up?

Basically, THC is non-toxic and there are no reported cases of anyone dying of an overdose. We know aspirin can be toxic. Some people are allergic. Everyone is limited in the amount they can take during a specific period. It even says so on the bottle. Some people even die of overdoes.

A 5 second internet search yielded this: http://www.nunya.com/index.cfm/2008/11/18/Aspirin-vs-Marijuana

I don't know why I had to give you a link, since you obviously take time to research these things yourself.

Posted by: Shawn | Oct 21, 2009 3:07:57 PM

No one ever killed a person running a marathon or taking aspirin. The same can't be said of any of the others.

But that's the rub, isn't it? No one is knocking over liquor stores or banks to get money to fuel their marijuana habits. As a public safety matter, marijuana is fairly innocuous (there are real concerns about its pulmonary and psychiatric risks). And it seems to me perhaps that's one reasonable argument why criminalizing marijuana doesn't make sense while it does for drugs like cocaine.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 21, 2009 3:17:15 PM

http://www.nunya.com doesn't seem, for a second, to be a reliable source. Jess, the internet has made everyone so lazy...

Any drug is toxic at a certain dose.

Posted by: i | Oct 21, 2009 3:22:44 PM

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 21, 2009 12:58:23 PM

I am in fact in favor of complete legalization for all substances. I would end the pharmacological monopoly. I do not believe in protecting people from themselves. I would however make the penalties for acts committed under the influence extremely severe. I'm in favor of the possibility of the death penalty for hunting violations, I see no reason that chemical misuse should be different. All of this despite the fact that I do not consume such drugs myself nor have any desire to do so.

Just because this view is not going to win does not preclude me from supporting something less dramatic that might in fact succeed.

I simply see our enforcement efforts as a huge waste and would much rather see them put towards more productive uses. Look at how quickly the criminal gangs got out of big alcohol after Prohibition ended (I realize there are still moonshiners opposed to government for their own reasons but afaik they are not generally violent in the manner of organized crime fighting over territory). I see those turf fights as a much greater problem and far less manageable than the acts of problem users, no matter what the substance.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 21, 2009 4:11:34 PM


Yes, any drug can be toxic at a certain dose. My point is that that marijuana is far less toxic than aspirin, a drug that even children can probably buy over the counter. And I agree that the link I posted: http://www.nunya.com/index.cfm/2008/11/18/Aspirin-vs-Marijuana
isn't exactly Encyclopedia Britanica. But it links to better sites, and honestly, I don't have time to thoroughly research every minor point. If you do, that's great. I love a good objective article. I just wanted something to show I didn't make this stuff up. I wish I had the citation of a book I used for a marijuana research paper I wrote. It calculated the amount of joints someone would have to smoke to kill them. It was something in the hundreds--basically impossible because you would either pass out or your lungs would give out before you could do it. Ingesting is different, but someone would have to be a true Darwin Award Winner to add 12 pounds of marijuana to a single batch of brownies.

Unfortunately, I don't have the citation, but if anyone wants to try an experiment with me: For every joint I smoke, they have to take a dose of aspirin. We can finally see which is more toxic based on who dies first.

Posted by: Shawn | Oct 21, 2009 4:55:38 PM

It is beyond the imagination why our Gov't continues to criminalize marijuana. The US Gov't Waste billions of dollars waging a war on marijuana. Can anyone say with a straight face that the war on marijuana has been successful? It is time for the US Gov't to tax and regulate marijuana. Imagine we could fix social security in about oh say one year by doing so. California will be leading the way when hopefully they vote on decriminalizing next year.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 21, 2009 5:56:00 PM

Ethan Nadelmann has an article featured in Newsweek on legalization. Criminalizing drugs creates crime eg. prohibition. The drug war has not failed, it has just increased crime and the size of our prison population. I suppose if failure means citizens disregard and disrespect the law, then it has failed

Posted by: beth | Oct 21, 2009 7:03:51 PM

Soronel Haetir --

Thank you for your typically candid and thoughtful response. Not that I agree with it, since I sure don't.

"I am in fact in favor of complete legalization for all substances. I would end the pharmacological monopoly."

So much for the notion that no one actually favors no-holds-barred legalization.

"I do not believe in protecting people from themselves."

In general I agree. But a person who is a true addict (as opposed to a defendant who wants to use supposed addiction as an excuse) needs protection -- as do the rest of us from his behavior -- because he is overpowered by forces he can't handle.

Drug pushers exploit addiction and all the misery and danger that comes with it. To my way of thinking, society is both justified and well-advised to send the pushers to jail.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 21, 2009 8:53:43 PM

On October 7th the Iowa Pharmacy Board held a hearing at the University of Iowa Medical School specifically about the value of cannabis/marijuana for medicinal purposes. I thought this is a rare opportunity to hear medical practitioners and researchers talk about medical marijuana instead of the normal "It works for me." testimony so I spent about two hours at the hearing that was very well attended.

I was interested to find that the newer clinical studies give results that are nearly the same as clinical studies done prior to 1900 when cannabis was frequently used as a medicinal plant. Essentially the results are mixed and in general are somewhat better than a placebo however some patients discontinue treatment because of an unpleasant side-effect. Virtually every doctor that spoke said that cannabis is not as dangerous as drug they prescribe on a regular basis and that the side-effects of some of the drugs they use are much worse than those of cannabis. My impression was they were trying to answer a scientific question posed by the Pharmacy Board and they did not feel strongly compelled to use cannabis in treating their own patients.

There was also "It works for me." testimony which is normally discounted by doctors and medical researchers and I think they we put off by that. One of the users was beaten and robbed by people he though were drug dealers and in a separate incident a cop pointed his gun at his brother so there was some testimony about problems associated with purchasing drugs from criminals. What they were asking for was immunity from prosecution for MJ possession and a legal source of supply.

If MJ were legal the necessary testing needed to determine it's medicinal value would be completed very quickly and my guess it that it will be found to have limited value under special circumstances.

As far as full legalization is concerned I agree with a local judge who said "If it is not working try something else."

Posted by: John Neff | Oct 21, 2009 9:18:34 PM

Bill Otis,

The problem I see is that right now we have the worst of both worlds. We have addicts, who often commit crimes to sustain their lifestyle. We have gangs who commit all manner of crime to maintain and expand business.

While prices have come down due to competition I believe they would sink much more if the products were legal. The figure I've seen with cocaine as an example is that there is something like a 17000x markup between the grower and street. That leaves plenty of room for the price to come down if the entire channel were to become legal. With lower prices the addicts would be able to get their fix with much lower levels of criminality.

We are always going to have problem users. Even near police states like Singapore where drug traffickers routinely receive death sentences have not witnessed zero trafficking. Our own courts, while not that extreme, continue to devise ever more lax rules for police operations in the never ending search for drugs.

My default position is pro-liberty and simply deal with the consequences. If anything I would almost prefer to see the distribution side be the first to become legal, backwards as that may sound.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 21, 2009 10:08:44 PM

Leave aside the policy debate for a moment. Is there anyone here that does not see Example One of Lawyer Dumbass Effect the inconsistency of having legal substances that kill millions, and prohibition of substances that kill hundreds? Even mentally retarded people would say, that is wrong and stupid.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 21, 2009 10:18:15 PM

Legalization of drugs could actually fund universal health care, as well as other social programs that are so absent in our country.

In his 2008 study, Jeffrey Miron, director of undergraduate studies in econ at Harvard, pointed out in his 2008 study, "Legalizing drugs would save roughly $44.1 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. $30.3 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, while $13.8 billion would accrue to the federal government. Approximately $12.9 billion of the savings would results from legalization of marijuana, $19.3 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $11.6 from legalization of other drugs...drug legalization would yield tax revenue of $32.7 billion annually, assuming legal drugs are taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. Approximately $6.7 of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana, $22.5 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $3.5 froml egalization of other drugs."

That's alot of cash that could fund much needed social and health programs in this country. Some addiction might actually be prevented with the right programs in the right places.

Clearly, prohibition does not work. But we already learned that lesson - right?

Posted by: Juana | Oct 21, 2009 10:55:05 PM

"Clearly, prohibition does not work. But we already learned that lesson - right?"

Actually, it was never really tried. It was passed as a constitutional matter but it was never seriously enforced, that's why it was repealed.

I agree with SH that we don't need to protect people from themselves. I want to prohibit drugs to protect myself from those people.

I could care less about toxicity. I worry about reaction times and attention spans, which a tremendous body of research shows is negatively affected by drugs like booze and marijuana. If people drank themselves to death in their own home I could care less as a public health matter. But as soon as they get behind the wheel of a car or the cockpit of a jet its a different story.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 21, 2009 11:08:47 PM

I am more of an advocate of the harm principle for determining what should be legal or illegal. If there is little harm, the thing or activity should be legal and regulated to mitigate damages.

"Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial" (1 Co 10:23). "Be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt 10:16). You can do anything you want, just don't be an idiot about it.

How many people die from marijuana related causes each year? Probably close to zero. How many people murder another person in a reefer induced daze? Again, I'm bettin' zero. Not that someone hasn't killed another while high on pot but the weed probably wasn't the cause. How many people overdose on the bud each year? Well, you can't OD on ganja; so, zero. Hmm, I see very little harm there.

Later, we can talk about the harm resulting from marijuana being illegal as cartels and gangs fight over control of the illegal substance, somewhat like alcohol prohibition.

How many people die in auto accidents each year? About 40,000. Hmm, cars are dangerous so we restrict driving to those who prove competency to drive; yet, we see 40,000 deaths each year as an acceptable trade off for the benefits. How many of those deaths are drunk driving deaths? About 15,000. Hmm, mixing alcohol and cars is a problem so we regulate that activity too. How many gun deaths do we have each year? About 30,000. Guns must be dangerous too. How many non-fatal gun injuries are there each year? About 200,000. Hmmmmm. How many tobacco related deaths are there each year? About 440,000. Well, most of us know the dangers of tobacco. How many people die of obesity related deaths each year? 112,000 per CDC. "Step away from the cheeseburger. Drop the potato chips!" Now add financial costs to all of those deaths--law enforcement to clean up wrecks, dwi's, jails, rehab, judicial system, health care, etc.

Ok, now compare those tens and hundreds of thousands to the near zero of the mary jane. Heck, I'll even give you some deaths if you can prove them but the harm is much less from the green. What's the worst that can happen? Someone with the munchies might choke on some cheetos while laughing?

The slippery slope or gateway argument doesn't work because at some point people stop--usually at the point where there is harm. Most people eventually find their limit. Heck, if you're honest then you must admit that alcohol and tobacco are the gateway drugs. They are drugs ya know.

Oh, I'd love to address every point made here but ... one other thing is that if we legalize drugs then instead of spending billions on a drug war we would be raising money with tax revenue. You can't control things that you keep in the closet. Legalize it! Regulate it! and Tax the crap out of it!

Posted by: Raphael Hythloday | Oct 22, 2009 10:43:48 AM


The fundamental problem with your cry of legalize and regulate is every regulation is a limitation on my freedom. Regulation is the problem, not the solution. Why should I have to pay the price of being subject to sobriety checks just so that another person can get wasted. Why do my lungs have to pay the price of second hand smoke. I don't do any of those things, yet I have to accept limitations on my freedom to go where I please unmolested and without suspicion just so that you can drug yourself. I think that is unmitigated bullshit. And I resent it.

I don't want to tax it and regulate it. I want it to stop.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 22, 2009 11:40:53 AM

I don't understand your response. A criminal prohibition is the ultimate form of regulation. A civil regulatory structure imposes less limits on freedom. Sobriety checkpoints, due to the prevalence of alcohol in daily lives, would exist regardless of whether or not Prohibition would be in effect. Second hand smoke? Seriously? The fact that you can avoid second hand smoke in most indoor, public places is precisely because of regulation.

Posted by: Buffalo Bill | Oct 22, 2009 12:01:23 PM

I understand your frustration, Daniel, and I want all kinds of things myself, but the fact is that neither criminalization nor wishing it were so is going to make drug use go away. Ever. So maybe a more nuanced approach is called for. If you think that making drugs (and alcohol and tobacco, as you also called for) illegal will make drugs disappear, you're living in a fantasy world.

It's kind of ironic that you rail against "limitations on your freedom" while advocating the banning of substances that many people enjoy without ill effect.

Posted by: Anton | Oct 22, 2009 1:53:32 PM

Bill. Are you dense? Of course a criminal prohibition is the ultimate form of regulation...on the person whose using the drug. It has no impact on me, a non-user. If I freely chose not to use drugs, where's the regulation; it doesn't exist.

Anton. There's nothing ironic about my position. In this respect I see it as a zero sum game. Either you get your way or I get mine. Our positions are incompossible.

There will be a great deal of pain if all drugs are banned. Tough shit. I suffer a great deal of pain now. Maybe it's time the druggies felt some of that pain for once.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 22, 2009 2:27:12 PM

Daniel -

I'm really at a loss to understand your position. You know drugs are banned NOW, right? And yet the "pain" they cause you (however that happens) persists. So what next? Ban them even more?

The reality is that people have always wanted, and will always want, to get high. A double-super-secret ban on drugs won't end drugs. It'll make drug dealers richer, though.

And of course your position is ironic. You don't get to decide what "freedom" means.

Posted by: Anton | Oct 22, 2009 3:37:22 PM

Daniel how much longer do you want our tax dollars being spent to stop marijuana? Its time to face the truth marijuana is never going away. Thats reality in its simplist form!!

Posted by: Anon | Oct 22, 2009 7:53:38 PM

I would appreciate Dan's explanation of the anomaly of his being a left wing ideologue and his opposition to the legalization of marijuana.

In the case of cigarettes, which kill 400 times the people as marijuana, only 1 in 7 people who smoke 2 packs a day for 50 years gets lung cancer. The other 6 should be left alone.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 23, 2009 5:12:43 AM

I realized after my other posts that there are in fact drugs that I believe should be controlled in their dispensation. Antibiotics are perhaps the best example. This difference comes from the fact that how such drugs are used effects how well they work for the entire population. It doesn't matter how much one person takes in the way of narcotics or chemotherapy, or even erectile dysfunction meds, it will not change how those drugs work on the next patient in line. The same is not true for antibiotics. I do not know whether there are other classes of drugs with similar properties where the more they are used the less effective they become for the entire population.

Also, thank you for lifting the 25 post limit, I had not realized until this post that you had done so.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 23, 2009 2:40:51 PM

If my position is so dense, then why are ranting about regulations, that by your own words, don't affect you? Your inconsistent, odd, and histrionic posts are difficult to unravel, so don't start throwing around insults when it's quite clear you're the one not making sense. Anyway, as I have illustrated, such civil regulations do affect you - in a positive way. Local non-smoking regulations for public places were designed specifically to protect non-smokers. You may not like getting stopped at a sobriety checkpoint (which happens how often - once every five years?), but they protect both irresponsible and responsible motorists alike by keeping drunks off the road.

The gravamen of your complaint is the following: "I don't do any of those things, yet I have to accept limitations on my freedom to go where I please unmolested and without suspicion just so that you can drug yourself," and this beauty, "There will be a great deal of pain if all drugs are banned. Tough shit. I suffer a great deal of pain now. Maybe it's time the druggies felt some of that pain for once." The "great deal of pain" that you "suffer" is either rare/trivial (sobriety checkpoint) or in fact beneficial (second hand smoke regulations), your hyperbolic complaints of "limits on your freedoms," aside. You know most druggies are going to experience pain sooner or later. So just laugh from your pulpit when they all suffer and die.

Posted by: Buffalo Bill | Oct 23, 2009 3:10:18 PM

Cocaine IS legal. Although it's Schedule II. Only Schedule I drugs are what all the uproar is about. And it all boils down to policy or science, fact or fiction.

Posted by: Bud | Nov 3, 2009 6:15:32 PM

Taxpayers annually spend between $7.5 billion and $10 billion arresting and prosecuting individuals for marijuana violations. Almost 90 percent of these arrests are for marijuana possession only.

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