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February 27, 2014

Seeking a (much?) broader perspective on the modern marijuana reform movement

Today's New York Times has this notable new front-page article headlined "Pivotal Point Is Seen as More States Consider Legalizing Marijuana."  Here are some excerpts:

A little over a year after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, more than half the states, including some in the conservative South, are considering decriminalizing the drug or legalizing it for medical or recreational use. That has set up a watershed year in the battle over whether marijuana should be as available as alcohol.

Demonstrating how marijuana is no longer a strictly partisan issue, the two states considered likeliest this year to follow Colorado and Washington in outright legalization of the drug are Oregon, dominated by liberal Democrats, and Alaska, where libertarian Republicans hold sway.

Advocates of more lenient marijuana laws say they intend to maintain the momentum from their successes, heartened by national and statewide polls showing greater public acceptance of legalizing marijuana, President Obama’s recent musings on the discriminatory effect of marijuana prosecutions and the release of guidelines by his Treasury Department intended to make it easier for banks to do business with legal marijuana businesses.

Their opponents, though, who also see this as a crucial year, are just as keen to slow the legalization drives. They are aided by a wait-and-see attitude among many governors and legislators, who seem wary of pushing ahead too quickly without seeing how the rollout of legal marijuana works in Colorado and Washington. “We feel that if Oregon or Alaska could be stopped, it would disrupt the whole narrative these groups have that legalization is inevitable,” said Kevin A. Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which is spearheading much of the effort to stop these initiatives. “We could stop that momentum.”...

At least 14 states — including Florida, where an initiative has already qualified for the ballot — are considering new medical marijuana laws this year, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports legalization, and 12 states and the District of Columbia are contemplating decriminalization, in which the drug remains illegal, but the penalties are softened or reduced to fines. Medical marijuana use is already legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

An even larger number of states, at least 17, have seen bills introduced or initiatives begun to legalize the drug for adult use along the lines of alcohol, the same approach used in Colorado and Washington, but most of those efforts are considered unlikely of success this year.

The allure of tax revenues is also becoming a powerful selling point in some states, particularly after Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said last week that taxes from legal marijuana sales would be $134 million in the coming fiscal year, much higher than had been predicted when the measure was passed in 2012....

Opponents of legalization, meanwhile, are mobilizing across the country to slow the momentum, keeping a sharp eye on Colorado for any problems in the rollout of the new law there. “Legalization almost had to happen in order for people to wake up and realize they don’t want it,” Mr. Sabet said. “In a strange way, we feel legalization in a few states could be a blessing.”...

While much of the recent attention has focused on these legalization efforts, medical marijuana may also cross what its backers consider an important threshold this year — most notably in the South where Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are among the states considering such laws....

Election data, compiled by Just Say Now, a pro-marijuana group, showed that the percentage of the vote that came from people under 30 increased significantly from 2008 to 2012 in states that had marijuana initiatives. This youth vote, predominantly Democratic, rose to 20 percent from 14 percent in Colorado, and to 22 percent from 10 percent in Washington, both far above the 1 percent rise in the national youth vote....

A narrow majority of Americans — 51 percent — believe marijuana should be legal, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week, matching the result in a CBS News poll the previous month. In 1979, when The Times and CBS first asked the question, only 27 percent wanted cannabis legalized. There were stark differences in the new poll, though. While 72 percent of people under 30 favored legalization, only 29 percent of those over 65 agreed.  And while about a third of Republicans now favored legalization, this was far below the 60 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents who did so....

Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a leading advocate for legalizing marijuana, said campaigns were already underway to stage aggressive legalization drives in several states over the next couple of years, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and possibly Montana. “It is certainly important to maintain the momentum,” Mr. Tvert said,  “But I don’t think we can look at any one election cycle and see what the future holds. This is going to be a multiyear effort.”

I do not disagree with the general view that 2014 is a "watershed year" concerning discussion and debate over marijuana reform (and this was one big reason I developed a taught a seminar on the topic at my law school last Fall). But, as the title of this post highlights, I have come to believe that a much broader set of social and political forces help account for modern marijuana reform movement. The forces include, inter alia, a growing distrust of all government among both left-leaning and right-leaning opinion leaders over the last 15 years, growing evidence that the many aspects of the drug war may do more harm than some drugs, the failure of Big Pharma to provide effective pain relief (without too many side effects) to many who suffer from a range of serious medial problems, and changing labor and economic realities that change to cost/benefit realities of pot prohibition versus pot regulation.

I am happy to see the front-page of the NY Times discuss the various 2014 short-term realities that may impact marijuana reform over the next few years. But I would be especially eager to hear from readers concerning what they think are broader social and political forces that will shape these stories over the next few decades.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 27, 2014 at 11:31 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Over the period of decades I believe the US is facing a financial collapse that will make the great depression appear tame in comparison. When that time comes around worrying about what substances people are consuming simply won't be much of a concern.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 27, 2014 11:58:21 AM

Soronel --

I agree in part. The country needs to start worrying about the staggering debt that, sooner or later, is going to result in a precipitous drop in the standard of living. The government has no way to pay it off except by inflating the currency, reducing the real value of incomes and savings. And even that won't do the job, so the push will be on for confiscatory taxation.

On the other hand, personal use of pot is already de facto legal and has been for decades. That is one reason it doesn't even register when pollsters ask about what issues people most care about.

About the only people who get prison sentences for pot are big-time traffickers, and none of the so-called "reform" legislation, in Colorado, Washington or elsewhere, decriminalizes that.

The whole subject it a bee in the libertarian bonnet, but that's about it. That's the reason it doesn't register as a subject of even minor concern in the polls.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 27, 2014 12:31:55 PM

Errata: The whole subject IS a bee in the libertarian bonnet...

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 27, 2014 1:13:59 PM

Iam going to give Bill a free argument for his side.

The legalization of marijuana represents an unauthorized experiment on humans at a grnd scale, a crime against humanity, propelled by governmental greed.

Such legalization should be tested in small jurisdictions with careful, validated data collection. Prove the safety and efficacy of the law, the tolerability of the unintended consequences. Example, evryone young gets amotivational syndrome, going to bed, refusing to do anything, not sex, not bathing, not eating, let alone go to work.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 27, 2014 4:52:38 PM

Nearly 80 years ago, the feature film "Reefer Madness" hit theaters, projecting demonstrably false anti-marijuana propaganda all over the big screen. In today's era of legal medical and recreational cannabis, the tone of this movie is often mocked. But drug warriors are still employing many of the same hysterical arguments to prop up their campaign against weed.

When it comes to public opinion, it's becoming clear that anti-pot crusaders are losing the battle. Recreational marijuana is for sale in Colorado, it’s coming to Washington in just a few months and over a dozen more states are considering legalization measures right now. In all, 20 states have passed laws allowing the medical or recreational use of marijuana, and with a majority of Americans now in favor of legal weed for the first time in U.S. history, the momentum is on marijuana's side.

As more states move toward reforming pot laws, many anti-weed groups have clung to the same tired rhetoric, a decision that has only served to further marginalize them. Greater public acceptance and access to the drug mean that many of marijuana's stigmas, once accepted as fact, now appear increasingly out of touch with reality.

While there may be more reasonable arguments to make when considering the issue of legal marijuana, these overused statements are not among them:

1. "Marijuana is addictive."

Like pretty much any substance (or activity, for that matter), marijuana can be abused, and frequent use can lead to dependency. But if we're going to keep something illegal just because it has the potential to be addictive, we'll also have to reconsider our approaches to a number of other substances. Studies have found cannabis to be less addictive than nicotine, alcohol and even caffeine, according to research by one scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

It's believed that somewhere between four and nine percent of regular marijuana users are likely to develop dependency problems, and it's true that a good number of marijuana users later avail themselves of professional help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 957,000 people age 12 and over sought treatment for marijuana in 2012. But while drug warriors have touted this as evidence of a marijuana abuse epidemic, pot policy reformers have noted that the large majority of these patients have been referred by the criminal justice system, which has expanded options for treatment over jail time or other penalties. While it's a clear step up from imprisonment, many of the people who end up in treatment are still forced there for minor marijuana charges.

Furthermore, "not all abuse and dependency is created equal," as the authors of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know put it. The authors point out that while some heavy marijuana users do experience symptoms of clinical dependency and feel discomfort or withdrawal when trying to quit, kicking a pot addiction doesn't lead to the same type of intense, dangerous physical and psychological pain that often accompanies alcohol, nicotine or heroin dependency.

Etc.

Posted by: From Huff Po | Feb 28, 2014 7:24:09 PM

Drug treatment needs to be separated from the criminal justice system. The number of individuals who receive treatment for marijuana does not speak to addiction potential of marijuana.

It would be interesting to know how many citizens would seek treatment for alcohol if everyone caught drinking a glass of wine or having a six pack in the refrigerator had the choice of going to jail or mental health treatment.

Posted by: beth | Feb 28, 2014 8:12:34 PM

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