Tag: drug policy

In Marijuana Policy, States Lead the Way

This November’s election could be a decisive turning point in the struggle to end U.S. marijuana prohibition. ​It’s been a long time coming.

As recently as the 90s, every major political faction was squarely in favor of prohibition. Only drug-addled hippies and libertarians thought otherwise. With just a few honorable exceptions, every significant public intellectual supported prohibition too. We libertarians walked a lonely road, patiently pointing out prohibition’s high costs and doubtful benefits. In some ways we’re still alone, because we certainly wouldn’t stop with marijuana. But let’s consider what progress we’ve made.

In November’s election, five states – Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada – may each legalize recreational marijuana for adults. State-level opinion polling is notoriously unreliable, but so far it’s favorable in Maine and Nevada​, and overwhelmingly favorable in California. It’s unfavorable in Arizona and Massachusetts, though the Massachusetts poll only asked a generic marijuana legalization question and did not reference the specific initiative. If recent history is any guide, things look good for this November: Of the seven legalization initiatives offered to voters since 2012, five have passed, in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Washington DC.

Things look especially good in California, which is poised to be a nationwide gamechanger. ​​California’s Proposition 64 is up by almost a 2:1 margin​, and​ the Los Angeles Times predict​s​ passage as well. If ​Prop 64​ does pass, the statewide implementation of a generous recreational pot regime – in the nation’s most populous state – is sure to have some significant economic and regulatory effects.​ It could hardly do otherwise.​

Some nationwide economic effects of legalization have already been seen. Marijuana prices nationwide have flattened or declined as new large-scale suppliers have come online. Seasonal price fluctuations seem to be disappearing as growers increasingly work in the open. And still-illegal Mexican growers have had to abandon marijuana because they can’t compete with the domestic ​free market, small as it​ still​ is.

And again, California is no ordinary state; already it produces more marijuana than Mexico – and by one estimate it​s medical marijuana regime​ grows nearly half the total legal U.S. production. And​ that’s ​before the near-certain growth of the industry in a recreational regime.

All this suggests that when California goes fully legal, the federal ​government ​will ​have to react somehow. ​The DEA has​ been reluctant to reschedule cannabis so far, but already many activists are dismissing the DEA’s Schedule I classification as irrelevant. Rob Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project writes:

State and federal laws are simply two coexistent systems. But 99 percent of all marijuana arrests are made under state and local laws, not federal law. There simply aren’t enough DEA agents and other federal enforcers to wage an inclusive war on marijuana users, and the federal government cannot require states to enforce federal law on behalf of the federal government…

So we don’t really care whether marijuana is in Schedule I or II. In fact, my organization and other advocates of marijuana legalization don’t desire rescheduling, but rather the removal of federal penalties for marijuana and, furthermore, an explicit recognition that states should be able to determine their own policies without federal interference.

As more and more states legalize, that Schedule I classification looks more and more ridiculous.​ Soon the federal government may have to decide whether to follow the states – and the will of the people – or whether to crack down on legalization. But as time goes on, cracking down looks more and more illegitimate, and inaction looks more and more like a joke. Something’s got to give.

10 Years of Drug Decriminalization in Portugal

Ten years ago this month, Portugal rejected the conventional approach to drug policy–more laws, stiffer prison sentences, more police–and went the other way by decriminalizing all drugs, even cocaine and heroin.  The drug warriors predicted a disaster.  They said drug use would spike and there would be a public health crisis.  That did not happen.  As Glenn Greenwald showed in a 2009 Cato report, Portugal is doing better than before and in many respects is doing better than other countries in the European Union that take the hard-line, criminal approach to drug use.  The buzzword in Washington these days is “evidence-based research.”  Well, there you have it.

More here and here.   Thanks to the Huffington Post for the pointer.

Obama Backtracks on Marijuana Policy

President Obama is backing away from his campaign pledge to not interfere with the states that choose to adopt medical marijuana reforms.  Here’s an excerpt from the NORML blog on the new policy memorandum issued by the Department of Justice:

[T]he memorandum states that the recent flurry of intimidating US Attorney letters to state lawmakers are “entirely consistent” with the Obama administration’s position. In other words, the administration is now on record in support of claims made by US Attorneys in Rhode Island, Washington, and other states alleging that state employees could be targeted and federally prosecuted for simply registering and licensing medical cannabis patients or providers — a position that is even more extreme than that of the previous administration. (Notably to date, however, no state employee — or for that matter, no state sanctioned dispensary operator — has ever been prosecuted by the federal government.)

The memo goes on to state that the federal government distinguishes between individual medical cannabis patients and third party providers, indicating that it is a poor use of federal resources (rather than a poor use of judgment) to target the former, while indicating that the latter are fair game for federal prosecution.

Read the whole thing.  Well, at least Obama has ended the wars and got the United States back on a sound financial footing.

For a recent drug policy debate at Cato that went far beyond medical marijuana reform and reduced sentences for crack offenders, go here.

Bolivia Withdraws From UN Drug Convention

I never thought I would say this, but Evo Morales is right (this time). The Bolivian president asked the nation’s Congress to pass a law that would take his country out of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The bill already passed the lower chamber of Congress and is likely to be approved by the Senate where Morales enjoys a two-thirds majority.

Bolivia is withdrawing from the UN Convention over the country’s failed efforts to have the coca leaf removed from the list of international illicit drugs. Chewing coca leaf is an ancestral and common practice in Bolivia and neighboring Andean countries. It helps people cope with fatigue and high altitude (I’ve tried it myself during a visit to the province of Jujuy in Argentina). The Bolivian amendment to the UN Convention was defeated after strong opposition from the United States and other developed countries.

This is precisely the kind of “drug control imperialism” that was recently denounced by the groundbreaking report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. It rightly states that the UN (as a result of pressure from the U.S. government in particular), has “worked strenuously over the past 50 years to ensure that all countries adopt the same rigid approach to drug policy –the same laws, and the same tough approach to their enforcement.”

Given the obstinate resistance of Washington to allow even the most timid and sensible changes in international treaties such as declassifying the coca leaf as an illegal substance, one must applaud the decision of the government in La Paz to denounce the UN Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Report: ‘The Global War on Drugs Has Failed’

“The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” That is the opening sentence of a report released today by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a nineteen-member panel that includes, among others, world figures such as former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana. The report is also signed by the current Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, making him the only sitting head of government to openly denounce global drug prohibition.

The 20-page report says all the right things: prohibition has failed in tackling global consumption of drugs, and has instead led to the creation of black markets and criminal networks that resort to violence and corruption in order to carry out their business. This drug-related violence now threatens the institutional stability of entire nations, particularly in the developing world. Also, prohibition has caused the stigmatization and marginalization of people who use illegal drugs, making it more difficult to help people who are addicted to drugs. The report also denounces what it properly calls “drug control imperialism,” that is, how the United States has “worked strenuously over the last 50 years to ensure that all countries adopt the same rigid approach to drug policy.”

In the recommendations section, the report praises the experience of Portugal with drug decriminalization, mentioning Cato’s study on the subject. But perhaps more importantly, it states that drug legalization “is a policy option that should be explored with the same rigor as any other.” Until now, similar reports have denounced the war on drugs and perhaps called for the decriminalization of marijuana and other soft drugs, but they also have stopped short of mentioning drug legalization as a policy alternative.

This report is certainly going to receive a lot of media coverage in the upcoming days. It is, until now, the highest profile endorsement of drug policy reform that we have seen at a global level. And, by having Prime Minister Papandreou as one of the signatories, it offers the hope that other top office holders will also call for an end to the failed war on drugs.

Gary Johnson and Drug Policy

As governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson succeeded in eliminating New Mexico’s budget deficit, cutting the rate of growth in state government in half, and privatizing half of the state prisons. During Johnson’s term, New Mexico experienced the longest period without a tax increase in the state’s history. He vetoed 750 bills in eight years, more than all other governors combined. The Economist dubbed him “America’s boldest governor” – and that was before he took on drug prohibition. He discussed drug policy and other issues at the Cato Institute November 1, 2010 at a Cato on Campus forum.

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Heritage and Prop. 19

Over at the Huffington Post,  I scrutinize a recent Legal Memorandum published by the Heritage Foundation on the Prop. 19 ballot initiative.

Here is an excerpt:

The Heritage memorandum claims that if Prop 19 were approved, it would conflict with the federal criminal statute, the Controlled Substances Act and thus “invite litigation that would almost certainly result in [Prop 19] being struck down” as unconstitutional. This legal claim is dead wrong. While it is true that the supremacy clause of the Constitution makes it clear that federal law will override a conflicting state law, that clause simply has no application here. The federal law on marijuana remains in force, but that does not mean that a state government is under any obligation to assist the feds. As the Supreme Court noted in New York v. United States (1992), the state governments are neither “regional offices nor administrative agencies” of the federal government. Let’s take another example. Suppose Congress were to criminalize, say, cotton candy–would California be in violation of the Constitution because its police agents are not now empowered to arrest people producing and possessing cotton candy? No. Nor could Congress compel the California legislature to move against cotton candy producers and consumers. Here again is the Supreme Court: “Even where Congress has the authority to pass laws requiring or prohibiting certain acts, it lacks the power directly to compel the States to require or prohibit those acts.” (New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144, 166 (1992)). Prop 19 is consistent with the constitutional principle of federalism.

For additional Cato scholarship on drug policy, go here and here.

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