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January 12, 2014

Notable new data showing pot arrests way down in Colorado after reforms

This new Denver Post article, headlined "Marijuana case filings plummet in Colorado following legalization," spotlights one notable criminal justice metric that has been dramatically impacted by legal developments in the Centennial State. Here are some details:

Charges for all manner of marijuana crimes plummeted in the months after Colorado voters legalized limited possession of cannabis for people over 21.

According to a Denver Post analysis of data provided by the Colorado Judicial Branch, the number of cases filed in state court alleging at least one marijuana offense plunged 77 percent between 2012 and 2013.  The decline is most notable for charges of petty marijuana possession, which dropped from an average of 714 per month during the first nine months of 2012 to 133 per month during the same period in 2013 — a decline of 81 percent.

That may have been expected — after all, people over 21 can now legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana. But The Post's analysis shows state prosecutors also pursued far fewer cases for marijuana crimes that remain illegal in Colorado. For instance, charges for possessing more than 12 ounces of marijuana dropped by 73 percent, and cases alleging possession with intent to distribute fewer than 5 pounds of marijuana dipped by 70 percent. Even charges for public consumption of marijuana fell statewide, by 17 percent, although Denver police have increased their number of citations issued for public consumption.

While marijuana prosecutions against people over 21 declined, so did prosecutions against people under 21, for whom all marijuana possession remains illegal except for medical marijuana patients.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said he thinks the drop in cases may be due to police not wanting to parse the complexities of the state's marijuana law. "I think they've kind of thrown their arms up in the air," he said.

Marijuana advocates, meanwhile, praised the drop in prosecutions — even for things that remain illegal under state law — because it lessens what they say is the racially biased impact of marijuana enforcement. A report last year from the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks in Colorado were arrested for marijuana crimes at a rate nearly double that of whites. Overall, the report found arrests for marijuana possession in 2010 made up more than 60 percent of all drug-offense arrests.

"We're talking about not only saving the state time and money," said Art Way, a policy manager in Colorado for the Drug Policy Alliance, a supporter of legalization, "but we're no longer criminalizing primarily young adults, black and brown males primarily, with the collateral consequences of a drug charge."

The Post's analysis is not a comprehensive look at marijuana prosecutions in Colorado because prosecutors can also file cases in municipal courts, which aren't tracked by the data provided. Even though Colorado voters partially legalized marijuana for adults in 2012, there are still numerous marijuana crimes on the books. Possession of more than an ounce, cultivation of more than six plants and sales without a special state license all remain illegal and can be punished.

But Tom Raynes, the executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, said the state's new marijuana laws are likely making it tougher for police to crack down on the remaining marijuana crimes. Because some marijuana possession and use is now legal, Raynes said that means police are no longer allowed to investigate in depth purely because they smell pot. "Just because your car smells like marijuana doesn't give an officer enough probable cause to initiate an arrest or a search," Raynes said....

[T]here is no evidence so far that Colorado's new laws on marijuana have resulted in a dramatic reduction in caseloads for prosecutors or police. Denver police, for instance, recorded only 3 percent fewer arrests for any crime in the first 11 months of 2013 when compared with the first 11 months of 2012.

What also appears relatively unchanged is the treatment of petty marijuana-possession charges: It is far more likely that those charges will be dismissed by either a judge or a prosecutor than it is the charges will result in a finding of guilty for the defendant, according to the data. For the charges filed in September 2012, 79 percent were ultimately dismissed. In September 2013, it was 84 percent.

But Raynes said those similarities belie the uncertainty police and prosecutors now feel when approaching marijuana cases. "With small quantities especially," he said, "I think law enforcement feels like they don't know which way to turn."

Though I obviously cannot speak for the blue line on the ground in Colorado, it seems to me that these data show law enforcement in the state knows exactly which way to turn: away from wasting time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on low-level marijuana matters and instead focusing more time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on more serious and harmful matters.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

January 12, 2014 at 10:31 AM | Permalink

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"...it seems to me that these data show law enforcement in the state knows exactly which way to turn: away from wasting time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on low-level marijuana matters and instead focusing more time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on more serious and harmful matters."

Of course there's a way to test that, to wit, look at whether arrests and/or prosecutions for "more harmful and serious matters" have, in fact, increased over the same period.

Does anyone have any data on that?

My own guess is that there will be little or no change in the short term. But my guess is worth no more than Doug's guess, which is why I'd like to see the data.

Beyond that, I think Doug overlooks the cultural message of encouraging more pot use: That it's What-Me-Worry Time. Acceptance and complacency are attitudes more than they are theories, and those attitudes will not be so easily contained.

My sense of it is that relaxation of pot laws is the cat's paw of a general relaxation -- some might call it anesthetizing -- of standards of behavior. What is actually likely to happen is not that police enthusiasm will migrate toward "more serious and harmful matters" (such matters being only social constructs of the Ruling Class, dontchaknow) but that it will dissipate generally.

Once an attitude of complacency takes hold, it's hard to dislodge.

We were more tolerant of pot in the Sixties. Was the result that the cops clamped down on "more serious and harmful matters?" Not that you'd guess from the massive upward spike in all other kinds of crime.

But if someone has data from any particular jurisdiction showing that easing up on drugs leads to cracking down on other crime, I'll be eager to see them.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 12, 2014 1:35:20 PM

Well, Bill, isn't alcohol prohibition the obvious historical story here? Do you think the 1930s and 1940s were a time of terrible "acceptance and complacency" as the "greatest generation" came of age. It sure did not seem to hurt our war efforts too much, and my grandparents were all pretty good with respect to their standards of behavior. (Your comments here also remind me a bit of the great sequence in the recent movie Lincoln when those advocating against abolishing slavery warned of the slipperly slope it was to start that might even all former slaves to one day vote!)

Since you were a former prosecutor, I assume you would have a better sense of where to look for data "from any particular jurisdiction showing that easing up on drugs leads to cracking down on other crime." I infered as much from this article itself, because it notes that the decrease in pot arrests has produced "no evidence so far that Colorado's new laws on marijuana have resulted in a dramatic reduction in caseloads for prosecutors or police. Denver police, for instance, recorded only 3 percent fewer arrests for any crime in the first 11 months of 2013 when compared with the first 11 months of 2012."

Beyond my guess, Bill, concerning police reorientation, do you think it is not a great example of big government waste and abuse when, even before recent reform, there were hundreds and hundred of pot arrests and filing for which "79 percent were ultimately dismissed"? I have long feared that there is enormous waste and abuse in our bloated criminal justice systems, and these data tend to confirm my fear that the outskirts of the drug war is where a lot of that big government waste and abuse can be found.

So, I ask you Bill, even without concern for attitudes and police energies, isn't this data some valuable early evidence that marijuana legalization in Colorado has, at the very least, helped ensure a leaner and meaner state criminal justice system and shouldn't Colorado taxpayers feel good that now more money can be kept in their pocket rather than be spent on the paperwork for hundreds of pot busts that end up getting dismissed anyway?

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 12, 2014 2:12:00 PM

Doug --

The notion that the country of the 30's and 40's bears much resemblance to the country that exists now is, uh, quaint. And that's to say nothing of the fact that a country fighting through the Great Depression and girding for WW II is likely to have attitudes markedly different from the country girding for the next round of quantitative easing, infinite unemployment subsidies, and the food stamp explosion. You're right!! How could I have missed these hallmarks of toughness and self-reliance?

Still, it's always the thing to do to say that an adversary's arguments noting the slippery slope of decaying standards are reminiscent of arguments for -- get this -- keeping slavery.

Good grief. That's more like something I'd expect from albeed.

Now that you mention it, however, there is such a thing as a slippery slope, a fact those on your side have been ever so quick to note when talking about the slippery slope of increasing drug punishments in the Eighties.

It's easy and fun for the academic class to ridicule the idea of cultural decay. But neither the source nor the comic value makes the fact of it go away.

Of course it's all diversionary. I was making a discrete point: If you are correct in saying that legalizing pot will result in more rigorous enforcement of laws against greater harms, then that should show up in data (about, say, more arrests for burglary, assault, armed robbery, car theft, etc.). So where are those specific data?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 12, 2014 2:51:10 PM

Doug:

Thank You a thousand times for expressing an opinion that is automatically associated with my way of thinking, especially when I am much more familiar with the pragmatic School of Hardnocks than any Academic Circles.

Your humble, pragmatic, real-conservative engineer who tries hard not to to practive imaginary stereotyping and vigorous self-deception!

albeed

PS: I won't be able to respond to any future posts till Monday Evening, because, I have real people to take care of.

Posted by: albeed | Jan 12, 2014 3:38:06 PM

In and of itself, it is a positive development that fewer people are being arrested. This means fewer people subjected to disrupted lives, fewer people who might lose their job for having to spend several days in jail, fewer people subjected to humiliating strip searches, fewer people who have to pay bail bondsmen, fewer people plagued with anxiety about what might happen to them, having to show up for court dates at inconvenient times, etc. On the other side of the equation, a bunch of people are choosing to smoke marijuana, many of whom smoked it anyway. I fail to see the downside.

This puzzles me: "'Just because your car smells like marijuana doesn't give an officer enough probable cause to initiate an arrest or a search,' Raynes said...." I thought it was illegal in Colorado to drive while impaired, whether the impairment was caused by alcohol, marijuana or some other substance. Seems like a car full of marijuana smoke is at least reasonable suspicion to initiate an investigation, if not actual probable cause to arrest someone. How many cops are dissuaded from performing a sobriety check on a driver who smells of alcohol just because alcohol is legal?

Posted by: C.E. | Jan 12, 2014 4:12:19 PM

C.E. --

As to your second paragraph: spot on.

As to your first paragraph: Would it not also produce these same benefits if we were to decriminalize non-violent bank robbery of less than $100? Or maybe raise that to $500? The money is insured anyway, and would be a mere pittance even if it weren't insured. So why not?

How about decriminalizing domestic assault, too (note that I am not referring to domestic battery). Would that not reduce police costs, and keep the government out of family life?

I think you see the point: We can always reduce the costs of arrest by simply abolishing parts of the criminal code. But that, being a truism, doesn't really advance the ball.

The other point is that anyone who wants to reduce to approximately zero the chances of being arrested for pot has the answer readily at hand: Don't do pot.

It's not that hard.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 12, 2014 4:39:38 PM

You are really straining here Bill when suggesting pot possession is like bank robbery or domestic assault. Is that really your view of relative harms? Just curious.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 12, 2014 5:31:59 PM

Doug --

Actually, I made no suggestion about relative harm. Instead, I asked a question: "Would it not also produce these same benefits [fewer people subjected to disrupted lives, fewer people who might lose their job..., fewer people subjected to humiliating strip searches, fewer people who have to pay bail bondsmen...] if we were also to decriminalize non-violent bank robbery of less than $100?"

Since I have heard here again and again that we send way to many people to prison for "non-violent" crimes, I thought I'd ask about one. I notice that no one seems all that eager to answer. But it's early, so I'm happy to wait.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 12, 2014 9:01:38 PM

The answer is yes, Bill, but there does not seem any interest in Colorado or elsewhere to seek these benefits through the means you suggest. In addition, I assume if/when low level bank robbers get arrested in Colorado, their cases are not dismissed 79% of the time. But in that state, a majority of citizens in 2012 voted to legalize pot possession, and even before this vote the vast majority arrested for this crime had this charge dismissed.

So, the issue is not might the benefits here be achieved some other way. The question for you is whether you acknowledge that these are tangible benefits now flowing from the legal reforms in Colorado. You may assert that the long term harms of cultural decay outweigh these short term smaller government benefits, and you and others can make this case to Colorado voters in an effort to change the law back to make the government bigger. But for now I just want to understand if you concede that these are tangible benefits in terms or reducing government waste (not to mention smaller government no longer thwarting freedom and the free market).

I bring up the history of alcohol prohibition because you and others might reasonably assert that it's repeal has now produced more cultural harm than small government benefits. But at first I want to understand if you are willing to acknowledge that there are some benefits at all from repealing some big government criminal laws.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 12, 2014 10:18:00 PM

I don't know anyone who would categorize robbery as a non-violent crime. Certainly, it's considered violent under the common understanding of the term, but it's also considered one under the law. Off the top of my head, I know of at least two sections of the sentencing guidelines that would classify it as a crime of violence, not to mention sections 16 and 924(e) of Title 18 of the United States Code.

Posted by: C.E. | Jan 12, 2014 10:28:53 PM

Great point C.E. I have a feeling Bill would welcome calling pot possession a violent crime, and possession with intent to distribute even small quantities of crime is still classified as a federal felony even and millions of tax dollars are being collected in Colorado as it licenses business folks to commit this federal felony in Denver and other cities now celebrating a big Broncos win.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 12, 2014 10:34:53 PM

C.E. --

An unarmed man walks up to the teller's window and hands her the following note: "I'm not going to hurt anyone, but I'm desperate and I need money. Hand me $100 in unmarked bills." She complies.

After his conviction for bank robbery, (1) do you argue to the sentencing judge that he used no violence and (2) is that argument truthful?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 12, 2014 11:02:16 PM

Doug --

"...there does not seem any interest in Colorado or elsewhere to seek these benefits through the means you suggest."

To the contrary, there is enormous interest, on this blog, in academia, and throughout the defense bar, in cutting way back on charging and punishing "non-violent, low-level offenders" (for drugs and everything else) -- a phrase I have seen here not fewer that one thousand times. It's a phrase whose ad infinitum repetition is used to pretend that these are the only people the system ever deals with, but it would be impolite to get into that.

The person in my bank hypo is just such an offender. He has done either no or de minimus harm. Why should the system waste scarce resources arresting, charging, prosecuting, and punishing him? Couldn't we better use that money building schools? Hospitals? Roads?

Well, couldn't we?

It shows a distinct lack of curiosity to want to ask these questions about only the subject du jour, but criticize their being asked about anything else, wouldn't you think?

"So, the issue is not might the benefits here be achieved some other way."

Really? Why not? Shouldn't those of thus who teach law (or teach anything, for that matter) be interested in how to achieve public benefits in any rational way?

"I want to understand if you are willing to acknowledge that there are some benefits at all from repealing some big government criminal laws."

I'll do better than that. I'll acknowledge that "there are some benefits" from repealing ALL criminal laws, period. No fascist cops! No (as ever racist) arrests! No evidence-hiding prosecutors! No hanging judges! No draconian mandatory minimums! No medieval prisons! And none of gargantuan expenses for all those things.

I appreciate the window's opening on the true contours of Liberal Utopia.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 12, 2014 11:40:41 PM

Regarding the reference in one of the Doug comments abovc about Prohibition and then nuanced that with the 30s and 40s.
There is a parallel with what will happen in places like Colorado which choose to legalize pot. Some relevant facts though. It was FDR who got Prohibition rescinded. Thereafter, the only folks doing illegal production and sale were moonshiners. So, in the early 30s we had a whole slew of folks out of work who had been bootleggers and bar owners. The bar owners could go forward. The Dago Red makers had to go into some other business and some went into more meaner crime endeavors. In Colorado the pot growers, importers and sellers can just rise to the surface and keep on keepin on.

But on the crime enforcement side the cops are gonna have to focus on real crime and not this pot smokers thing.

An issue not being discussed is the health aspect. Cigarette smoking is dangerous. It is a hazard to your health. The Surgeon General warns. What about all these potheads smoking dope? This will sequey into tobacco. Its all ok. Get cancer, heart disease, and/or dead lungs. The word "dumb" should not have to precede the word "smoker" in our vocabulary.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jan 13, 2014 10:14:02 AM

Fair points, Bill. But I trust you realize and understand that all the talk here about "cutting way back on charging and punishing 'non-violent, low-level offenders' (for drugs and everything else)" is all part of efforts, at least on my part, to encourage lawmakers and voters to consider whether CJ reform could get us to better balance the (taxpayer) costs and benefits of the big government programs of our now-massive criminal justice systems. (Personally, I would be eager to experiment with a lot fewer possession-based crimes because I think a harm-based approach rather than a risk-based approach to criminal law is more effective and efficient.)

Excitingly, Colorado and Washington are now tentatively trying this with pot (and you are right that, if this works well, many libertarians like me will start suggesting we might try this with other drugs and other possession offenses). Thus I think it is especially important to hear from those who oppose these reform --- like you and the other big-government folks who are part of Project SAM --- whether you acknowledge there are real tangible benefits from getting rid of some criminal laws. I trust you and other big-government types will be quick to highlight the harms of reducing the size of government (just like folks on the left are quick to highlight the harms of cutting off unemployment insurance benefits).

The key here, Bill, is that reform advocates have lately been able to convince lawmakers and votes that the costs of mass incarceration and the drug war may not be worth the benefits. But you and others are quick to point to any and all evidence that any reduction in the big govt CJ system could have "costs in blood," as federalist likes to put it. That is an important point, and I am sure one that you and others will stress when extra pot use leads to new costs in Colorado. But again, now that voters have decided to experiment with legal pot in a few states, I want to see if even opponents like you will acknowledge the benefits starting to be reaped.

Your bank robbery hypo is likely better thought of as a kind of shoplifting offense. And I do think it is valuable to subject those who shoplift only $100 to be required to pay back the costs (perhaps with triple damages) and avoid the wasted costs of bringing this person into the CJ system unless and until the harms become more significant. And I suspect most parents agree when they discover their teenager has shoplifted a few DVD. Do you think it misguided that parents would not seek to have their kids prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if/when they see they stole a few DVDs? Or do you think parents reasonably make a sensible decision to see the costs of CJ intervention to be greater than its benefits for a first-offender?

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 13, 2014 11:00:16 AM

Doug --

Just one short note for now. I had not heard of "Project SAM" until you mentioned it just now. So I Googled it to see what it is. Apparently, it's a creation of, or closely allied with, the White House Drug Czar's Office.

I also wanted to see what they had to say. It starts with this:

"NATIONAL HARBOR, MD-The delegates at the 2013 Interim Meeting of the American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegates, in National Harbor, Maryland, today voted to pass a resolution on marijuana, “Council of Science & Public Health Report 2 in Reference Committee K,” explicitly opposing marijuana legalization – fending off a challenge to “neutralize” their position. The report changes H-95.998 AMA Policy Statement on Cannabis to read in part that: “Our AMA believes that (1) cannabis is a dangerous drug and as such is a public health concern; (2) sale of cannabis should not be legalized.”

“The AMA today reiterated the widely held scientific view that marijuana is dangerous and should not be legalized,” commented Dr. Stuart Gitlow, Chair-Elect of the AMA Council on Science and Health and SAM Board Member. “We can only hope that the public will listen to science – not ‘Big Marijuana’ interests who stand to gain millions of dollars from increased addiction rates.” ###

Now that's pretty interesting. For years I have heard from liberals that pot should be treated as a medical problem. Now it turns out that the foremost medical organization in the country, the AMA, has gone on record explicitly stating that "marijuana is dangerous and should not be legalized."

Much of law is about deferring to the authority of those best able to decide. If there is a case that lawyers or activists are better able to decide this question than doctors, I'm open to hearing it, but I must admit to a degree of skepticism.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 13, 2014 2:09:31 PM

Bill, just curious if you also want to defer to the AMA and other doctors about execution protocols? That distraction aside, I wonder if here you fully support this related AMA position issues way back in 2009: "The American Medical Association (AMA) urges that marijuana's status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance be reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines."

So, Bill, if you now think the AMA and doctors as the best to decide, do you support their apparent belief that the feds should make marijuana a federal Schedule II controlled substance? If so and this happens, a whole lot of legal issues become a lot easier and additional research can be done.

I share your affinity to consider medical research and insights here, which is why federal pot prohibition in its current form is so very misguided. Do you agree on this point, at least?

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 13, 2014 6:45:56 PM

Doug --

I don't "defer" to the AMA in anything outside its professional expertise.

But for however that may be, I don't believe the AMA has any position on capital punishment. Nor can the ABA or any of its subsidiaries sanction doctors for participating in executions, see http://onlinemj.luc.edu/nov09/happening-north-carolina-supreme-court-limits-authority.cfm

The reason that medical ethics cannot ban doctors from participating in executions (any more than they can ban doctors from becoming soldiers) is that executions (like war) are not designed to employ the healing arts. They are designed (like combat) to kill.

Doctors DO have expertise in deciding whether marijuana is dangerous and can induce dependency, and that is what the AMA has concluded.

I have no basis for disputing that conclusion. If you have one, you have not yet explained it.

P.S. I support research, sure, as does the DEA and the FDA. This is the same position I held when I was the Counselor at the DEA in the prior administration.

I am not aware of any AMA recommendation that pot be placed on Schedule II, nor would such placement in any way satisfy the libertarian outlook, which holds that the government has no business imposing ANY regulation on what a person can put into his own body.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 13, 2014 8:54:05 PM

As you know, Bill, we tried prohibition of another drug based on health concerns and concluded the cost/benefit balance was better with alcohol liberty despite alcohols many health harm. I just am eager to see if we might now reach the same conclusion with pot. Why are you so afraid what might happen if we try shrinking govt and expanding liberty this way?

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 13, 2014 9:56:42 PM

Doug --

Why do you think I'm "afraid" of pot legalization, as opposed to just concluding, along with the AMA, that it's simply a bad idea? Or is the AMA "afraid" too?

If I were afraid, however, I'd be late coming to my own fear party, since, as I've said here many times, simple possession of pot is de facto legal already, and has been for many years.

P.S. Should I ask you if you're "afraid" of repealing Obamacare, so that millions of people can once again have the liberty to decide for themselves what is "substandard" insurance coverage, rather than have Big Government bureaucrats in Washington decide for them?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 14, 2014 12:21:28 AM

Bill Otis writes: "“The AMA today reiterated the widely held scientific view that marijuana is dangerous and should not be legalized,” May I ask what is the scientific basis of this conclusion? What double-blind tests have been performed.
Dangerous? Number of reported deaths from marijuana use since 1500 B.C. Zero
That's right. Some danger! I've used marijuana on and off for 30 years and I practice law at a prestigious law firm. I know many others who do the same. Dangerous? Give me a break. Its the repetition of this nonsense that undermines the credibility of the proponents of keeping marijuana illegal and only makes it more attractive. Pardon me now while a light up.

Posted by: anon | Jan 14, 2014 1:25:21 AM

anon --

"May I ask what is the scientific basis of this conclusion? What double-blind tests have been performed."

I wouldn't know. I'm sure with a little research, or a letter to the AMA, you could find out for yourself.

By the way, if the AMA had come out saying that pot is super healthy and should be legalized, would you be asking for double-blind tests? Not exactly. What you'd be doing is claiming that anyone still in favor of criminalization is an anti-science Neanderthal.

"Number of reported deaths from marijuana use since 1500 B.C. Zero."

Would you mind filling us in on how you know about the number of reported deaths in the 3000 years between 1500 B.C and 1500 A.D.?

OK, that's a joke. The thing defense lawyers do besides complain is make extravagant assertions they don't really expect people to take seriously.

"Some danger! I've used marijuana on and off for 30 years and I practice law at a prestigious law firm. I know many others who do the same. Dangerous? Give me a break. Its the repetition of this nonsense that undermines the credibility of the proponents of keeping marijuana illegal and only makes it more attractive."

So you and your pals know more about the health consequences of pot than the ABA?

Ummmmmmmmmm, sure. Good grief, what have you been smoking?

"Pardon me now while a light up."

Oh, OK, never mind about the last question.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 14, 2014 3:53:52 AM

Bill: I am not "afraid" of repealing Obamacare, though I do fear it will turn out to be bad public policy in part because it tries to control/regulate what seems to be a hard-to-control health marketplace. (While we are on the topic, I am pretty sure the AMA supported Obamacare --- which would seem to be much more in their arena of expertise than pot policy. Did you decide Obamacare was a good idea once you saw the AMA endorsement?)

Similarly, Bill, pot prohibition keeps trying to squash what is a robust free (black) market in a plant; just as alcohol Prohibition tried to end what was a robust free market in intoxicating liquor. Within a decade, it was clear that the costs of restricting this market and freedom were greater than the benefits of control via legal/reasonable regulation. Joyfully, Washington and Colorado are now seeing if it can likewise prove that pot prohibition is a bad idea.

This thread started because I see early arrest data to suggest one early tangible benefit of what is happening in Colorado is the end of big government waste in the form of (often dismissed) pot possession arrests. I think you agree this is a benefit but worry broader society costs are on the horizon. I look forward to both of us watching this story with an open mind and an affinity for good data in the months and years ahead.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 14, 2014 9:44:09 AM

Doug --

1. I believe that your main point could apply equally to the criminalization of meth, heroin, PCP and a whole bunch of other drugs. Everything that you say about the futility of Prohibition can be said with at least the same force against criminalization of the harder drugs. So why aren't the pro-pot people principled enough to put legalization of ALL drugs on the ballot?

2. "I am pretty sure the AMA supported Obamacare --- which would seem to be much more in their arena of expertise than pot policy. Did you decide Obamacare was a good idea once you saw the AMA endorsement?"

My goodness! I see that the inconvenient truth (to coin a phrase) that the AMA has explicitly come out for continued criminalization gets whistled past in favor of testing whether I'm a hypocrite!!

Tell ya' what. Let's assume (without conceding) that I am indeed a hypocrite. Indeed, let's assume that I'm an axe murderer. Well, heck, let's go the whole nine yards and assume that I'm running al Qaeda.

OK, now that we're past all that, is it, or is it not, a major blow to the legalization movement -- which has been telling us for years that pot is really just a medical issue -- that the AMA has said that pot is a harmful drug that should continue to be illegal?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 14, 2014 3:08:10 PM

Hey Bill:

1. If and when there is great success with pot legalization, I suspect some harder drugs might become part of a broader decriminalization conversation. Some pro-pot folks want to go all the way because they distrust all big government efforts to control freedom, whereas others think pot is special (both as a matter of history and health realities) so that only pot and not other drugs should be treated like alcohol.

Of course, as you know, a lot of much harder drugs are legal (e.g., OxyCodone), but doctors and Big Pharma get to be the gate-keepers. (I have a suspicion that one consequence of ObamaCare may be lots more young and poor people getting their hard drugs legally from local doctors rather than illegally from the local street-corner.)

2. I already assumed you were a hypocrite, Bill, so need for me to do it again. As for pot being a medical issue, that has been the theme of some reform groups like Americans for Safe Access. But most who see reform here, like me, this is a liberty issue as much as a health issue. And, most importantly, I am more than ready to concede that pot can be harmful, especially when misused --- like alcohol, like guns, like cars, like the internet --- but that reality (combined with its wide use despite prohibition) makes a STRONGER argument for legalization and reasonable regulations. The harms of alcohol use and misuse went WAY UP during Prohibition, which was one of many reasons it was repealed. I am hopeful --- though open-minded to see the data as it unfolds --- that harmful use of pot will go down via the end of prohibition.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 14, 2014 4:47:56 PM

Bill Otis, you ask Prof. Berman: "So why aren't the pro-pot people principled enough to put legalization of ALL drugs on the ballot?" Because they don't believe that all drugs should be legalized. Even if some do, they recognize that "the best is the enemy of the good."

Posted by: anon | Jan 15, 2014 11:14:42 AM

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