Tag: marijuana legalization

Drug Prohibition Was a Loser Last Night

Marijuana legalization keeps rolling. The legalization of recreational marijuana was on the ballot in five states yesterday. The people of California, Massachusetts, and Nevada voted to legalize.  As of this writing, legalization maintains a slim, too-close-to-call lead in Maine as well. Legalization failed in Arizona by a small margin.

Beyond legalizing marijuana in America’s most populous state, the vote in California also means the entire West Coast has now rejected marijuana prohibition. The vote in Massachusetts makes it the first state east of the Rocky Mountains to do the same.

In addition, medical marijuana was legalized in Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota, while restrictions on medical marijuana were relaxed in Montana.  In Oklahoma, which prides itself on being “the reddest state in the nation” (Donald Trump won every single county last night), voters passed an amendment to state law that recategorizes a variety of drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

All of these developments speak to a growing (and increasingly bipartisan) acknowledgment that Americans are tired of the failed drug war, and especially the government’s crusade against marijuana. More people are arrested for marijuana offenses than for all violent crimes combined in this country, and voters increasingly think it’s time to put a stop to it.

As my colleague Jeff Miron points out, marijuana prohibition is predicated on myths. The allegations that marijuana legalization leads to huge increases in use; causes increases in crime, traffic fatalities, and addiction; and leads to abuse of other, harder drugs simply do not comport with the data we’ve seen from legalization policies in the U.S. and around the world.

Despite this building momentum for reform, last night also injected a bit of uncertainty into the prohibition discussion. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The Supreme Court has already ruled that federal marijuana prohibition is constitutional, state-level legalization notwithstanding (although Congress has put temporary limits on federal funding for that purpose). As a result, the progress we’ve seen thus far has depended on President Obama’s commitment to respect the will of the states when it comes to marijuana enforcement. Essentially, President Obama has refused to enforce federal marijuana laws when those laws conflict with legalization bills passed by state voters.

President-elect Trump is not required to continue that commitment. He, along with his pick for Attorney General, could decide to begin enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that have voted to legalize (provided Congress provides funding), in which case the successful experiments in legalization would end virtually overnight. The more states legalize marijuana, however, the less likely it seems that the federal government will try to force the cat back into the bag.  

President-elect Trump should let the state experiments play out, and respect the will of the American voters who increasingly reject the failed policy of prohibition.

Federal Versus State Marijuana Law

Marijuana is now legal under the laws of four states and the District of Columbia, but not under federal law. And this creates huge headaches for marijuana businesses: 

Two years after Colorado fully legalized the sale of marijuana, most banks here still don’t offer services to the businesses involved.

Financial institutions are caught between state law that has legalized marijuana and federal law that bans it. Banks’ federal regulators don’t fully recognize such businesses and impose onerous reporting requirements on banks that deal with them.

Without bank accounts, the state’s burgeoning pot sector—2,500 licensed businesses with revenue of $1 billion a year, paying $130 million in taxes—can’t accept credit or debit cards from customers, Colorado officials say.

Marijuana-related businesses instead use cash to pay their employees, purchase equipment or pay taxes to the state. Reports abound of business owners refurbishing retired armored bank trucks to transport money and hiring heavily armed security guards.

The best solution is repeal of federal prohibition. This is not on the policy table yet, but if more states legalize marijuana in November (at least five states are likely to vote on the issue), the pressure on federal policy might just hit the boiling point.

Ohio’s Issue 3: The Runt of the Marijuana Crop

By nearly a 2 to 1 margin, Ohio’s Issue 3 has failed. It may be just as well. Jacob Sullum writes at Reason:

[I]t’s not clear whether the rejection of Issue 3 reflects general resistance to legalization or opposition to the initiative’s most controversial feature: a cannabis cultivation cartel that would have limited commercial production to 10 sites controlled by the initiative’s financial backers. The ballot description highlighted that aspect of the initiative, saying Issue 3 “grants a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes” and would “endow exclusive rights for commercial marijuana growth, cultivation, and extraction to self-designated landowners who own ten predetermined parcels of land.”

This is nothing like the model that prevailed in Colorado, and that seems to be working well so far.

Establishing a permanent commercial pot cartel has no clear public policy rationale. It appears rather to have been an instance of shameless self-dealing by individuals who hoped to extract rents based on the public’s anxiety about change. Even – and I don’t say this lightly – even a state monopoly on commercial sales might have been better, in that the rents would have gone to a public purpose, rather than to some well-connected speculators, who ought not to profit from a law written specifically to favor them. Indeed, such laws are not properly called laws at all; they are privileges – private laws, rather than public ones, and as such they come under grave suspicion.

Loretta Lynch Confirmed as Attorney General

After one of the longest confirmation processes in the history of the Attorney General’s office, Loretta Lynch was confirmed by the Senate today as Eric Holder’s successor.

From a criminal justice perspective, whether Lynch will embrace or abandon Holder’s position on state-level drug legalization and his announced commitment to reforming civil asset forfeiture are two questions that spring immediately to mind.

Loretta Lynch zealously defended civil asset forfeiture during her confirmation hearings, and was a devoted practitioner of it as a U.S. Attorney in New York.  One of her seizure cases, that of the Hirsch brothers [$], garnered widespread attention and condemnation, and helped spur the nationwide calls for reform to which Eric Holder responded.

Colorado Pushes Back against Oklahoma and Nebraska Marijuana Suit

In 2012, the people of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana through a state constitutional amendment, which went into effect in January of 2014.  Two of Colorado’s neighbors, Nebraska and Oklahoma, subsequently filed a lawsuit urging the U.S. Supreme Court to prohibit the state of Colorado from constructing a regulatory regime for the marijuana industry.  Last Friday, Colorado filed its response.

The Nebraska/Oklahoma argument: because the federal government, through the Controlled Substances Act, has banned marijuana, states are not allowed to contradict that ban by creating a regulatory framework for legalization.  Further, Colorado’s official regulation of recreational marijuana imposes a nuisance burden on surrounding states due to an alleged increase in drug trafficking.  While Nebraska and Oklahoma disclaim any intent to force Colorado to “re-criminalize” marijuana, the suit argues that Colorado’s official efforts to regulate the legal marijuana industry bring the state into conflict with federal and international drug laws.

Colorado’s response: there is no conflict.  Federal marijuana prohibition is still in effect, and the decision not to prioritize enforcement in states that legalize marijuana came from the federal government, not Colorado.  If Nebraska and Oklahoma object to the manner in which the federal government is discharging its law enforcement duties in Colorado, they should be suing the federal government.  Colorado’s regulation of the marijuana industry is within its prerogatives under the CSA. As to the nuisance claim, Colorado argues that mere policy differences between states that don’t directly injure the sovereignty of other states are not actionable nuisances.

The legal basis for the lawsuit has been questionable from the beginning, with legal commentators both challenging its merits and pointing out the irony in two of America’s “reddest” states taking a legal posture that overruns state sovereignty in favor of federal power.

And, of course, if prohibition states are concerned with the costs, they could always legalize and regulate marijuana themselves and spare their justice systems the immense costs of prohibition.  

While some notable conservatives appear to be coming around in favor of a federalist experiment on drug legalization, it is a testament to the unfortunate power of the drug war that two state governments that routinely invoke the merits of federalism would abandon it in favor of federal prohibition.  As discussed previously, federalism would hardly be the only cherished principle to be left in the drug war’s wake.

President Obama’s Dismissal of Drug Reform

Yesterday President Obama seemed to make light of the push for drug reform (again), arguing that young Americans should put it at the bottom of their priority list in favor of issues like climate change and war:

I understand this is important to you but, you know, you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe, way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana.

As a member of that millennial generation, I’d like to ask: why?

Setting aside the strange suggestion that environmental and peace activism are somehow mutually exclusive with opposing the drug war, I would suggest that Americans have much more influence over drug policy than we have over the global climate or the U.S. government’s penchant for warmaking. 

Despite the President’s insinuations, the fight to end the drug war isn’t just a crusade by young stoners to get high without worry of arrest.  Prohibition doesn’t work.  It didn’t work in the 1920s when alcohol prohibition turned entire American cities over to organized crime, and it doesn’t work in 2015.

The War on Drugs is a key reason why America’s incarceration rate is off the charts, why more than 60,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug violence over the last decade, why violent gangs control entire swaths of urban America the U.S. prison system, why there are more than a million drug arrests clogging up our courts every year, why our cherished protection from unreasonable searches and seizures has been eroded and twisted to nearly nothing, and why paramilitary police raids have gone up 1,500% in the last generation, leaving dead bodies and maimed children in their wake.

To his credit, President Obama has made some positive policy decisions to lessen the burden of the drug war.  His decision to “de-prioritize” marijuana busts in jurisdictions that have voted to legalize marijuana is commendable.  But that is merely one small tile on a vast mosaic of ruinous government prohibition efforts.

There are thousands of non-violent drug offenders in federal custody which President Obama could free with the stroke of a pen today.  There are hundreds of state and local law enforcement agencies receiving military weaponry from the Obama Administration, while the administration’s own task force acknowledges there is very little accountability, training, or respect for civil liberties built into the weaponry distribution system.  There are thousands of immigrants seeking refuge in America from the violence spawned by our drug war.

I don’t see what’s so funny or unimportant about any of this.

Would Anti-Marijuana Activists Also Try to Keep Alcohol Illegal?

After I read the latest of Mitchell S. Rosenthal’s tirades against drug legalization in the Wall Street Journal, I must have fallen asleep and dreamed of a world in which marijuana is legal and alcohol is illegal. Not one of Coleridge’s opium-induced dreams, alas, so I didn’t wake up to write a classic poem. But I did wonder what op-ed the Journal might publish in such a world if people began to agitate for the freedom to drink alcohol. With the help of Matthew LaCorte, I discovered you wouldn’t have to change many words. I imagine it might go something like this: 

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves About Alcohol

By Rose Ethel Mitchell

Booze is always good for a giggle, and that makes it hard to take alcohol seriously. The news and entertainment media couldn’t resist puns on “LAX new rules” when California started the year with legal sales of alcohol for recreational purposes. TV stations across the country featured chuckling coverage of long lines outside the state’s new state-licensed liquor shops.

Legalizing alcohol isn’t just amusing. It’s increasingly popular with legislators and the public. And why not? No matter how drunk drinkers get, they’re nowhere near as useless in society as lazy pot-heads, right?  Drinkers don’t clear all the munchies off the grocery shelves or grow their hair out like hippies. But studies show that, unlike pot, alcohol leads to violence and aggression, especially with friends or partners.

A recent study found that alcohol is more dangerous than such legal drugs as cannabis and Ecstasy. We should not be raising a glass to the coming acceptance of alcohol use and dependency. Alcohol is far from safe, despite the widespread effort to make it seem benign. Drinking damages the heart, increases the incidence of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, and can trigger acute psychotic episodes. Many adults appear to be able to use alcohol with relatively little harm, but the same cannot be said of adolescents, who are about twice as likely as adults to become addicted to drinking. The new California law limits alcohol sales to people 21 or older, but making it available for recreational use normalizes it in society. The drug will be made more easily available to those under 21, and how long until the age limit is dropped to 18? Having some bubbly may enhance social interactions, but at what cost?

Adolescents are vulnerable—and not just to booze. That’s how they are programmed. They make rash and risky choices because their brains aren’t fully developed. The part of the brain that censors dumb or dangerous behavior is last to come on line (generally not before the mid-20s). Meanwhile, the brain’s pleasure-seeking structures are up and running strong by puberty. When you link adolescent pleasure-seeking and risk-taking to liquor’s impairment of perception and judgment, it isn’t surprising that a 2004 study of seriously injured drivers in Maryland found half the teens tested positive for booze.

Drinking impairs judgment—no small matter during the adolescent years—and it can do lasting harm to the brain. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has found that alcohol disrupts the brain’s communication pathways and can change mood and behavior, making it harder to think clearly and move with coordination. Long-term drinking can damage the heart, inflame the liver, increase risk of cancer, and weaken the immune system.

Most disturbing is a recent discovery about alcohol from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health which found alcohol is the third leading cause of disease around the world. The lead author wrote, “Alcohol consumption has been found to cause more than 200 different diseases and injuries.” While New Yorkers are sipping their “Long Island iced tea” or vacationers are singing about tequila, the facts show that their bodies don’t think these drinks are going down smooth.

Many experts are troubled by changing teen attitudes about drinking.   Half of adolescents have already tried illegal alcohol. Teen marijuana use and cigarette smoking have declined, and their abuse of prescription painkillers has fallen off sharply, but teen imbibing  continues to increase.  And a shocking 15% exhibit signs of alcoholism even in their teen years. This binge of facts will only worsen with legal alcohol.

No one can say how liquor legalization will play out. A perception of legal alcohol as safe, combined with sophisticated marketing, may well double or triple drinking. Warning of aggressive promotion, alcohol-policy expert Luke Farmer, who studied potential issues of a legal alcohol market for the New York City Council, pointed out last year: “The only way to sell a lot of alcohol is to create a lot of alcoholics.”

As we learn more about the realities of legalizing recreational booze, I suspect it won’t seem so funny anymore. Remember, potheads used to be good for a laugh too. A spaced-out pothead was a staple of Hollywood comedies in the 1960s and ’70s. Smoking cigarettes was considered cool. The reality of wrecked lives and ruined health eventually changed public perceptions of these addictions. Now liquor is becoming more widely regarded as a harmless amusement. That’s not funny, it’s tragic. Drinkers may enjoy a Scotch on the rocks, but the social effects will be rocky for us all.

It’s always hard to imagine a counterfactual. I wrote once about a world in which education was provided on the free market but shoes were produced and distributed by the government, and how people would have trouble imagining how a free market in shoes would work. In this case, however, we did go through an episode of substance prohibition, followed by legalization. And despite all the real problems created by alcohol use, we decided that a liberal system created fewer social problems than Prohibition. Surely we can imagine the same with regard to marijuana.