Victories against the drug war

November 27, 2012

Helen Redmond analyzes the impact of two referendums that passed this month.

YES WE cannabis! The votes on Election Day in favor of two state referendums that legalize marijuana for recreational use are the most important victories yet in the struggle to end the racist war on drugs.

The ballot measures, Amendment 64 in Colorado and I-502 in Washington, both won by decisive majorities. Both states will now set up cannabis control systems to regulate and tax the sale of marijuana to adults.

Colorado will create state-licensed retail marijuana shops, and residents will be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use. Washington is also setting up guidelines for the sale of marijuana, and beginning on December 6, it will no longer be a violation of state law to possess up to an ounce of pot. The Seattle Police department has stated publicly that its officers will follow state law and stop making arrests for marijuana possession as defined under I-502.

Mark Cooke, a lawyer and policy advocate for the ACLU in Seattle, who helped to write I-502, explained how it passed:

Protesters gathered in Los Angeles to demand decriminalization
Protesters gathered in Los Angeles to demand decriminalization

It was a combination of a lot of work that had already been done and coalition building. It was strategic to run the initiative in a presidential election year. You have to look at your demographics. Who is most likely to support legalization--it's young people...That's why it got so much support.

With the end of the criminalization of marijuana possession will come an end to the racial disparities in enforcing these particular laws. In the last decade, Latinos in Colorado were arrested for marijuana possession at 1.5 times the rate of whites--Blacks were arrested at 3.1 times the rate of whites. The disparities are similar in Washington for Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.

THE UNITED States is now in a curious and contradictory position. It is the preeminent enforcer of drug prohibition around the world, but the citizens of two of its states just voted out marijuana prohibition. Moreover, in legalizing marijuana for explicitly recreational purposes, the states of Colorado and Washington are in direct violation of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, a treaty to which the U.S. government is a signatory.

Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, a leading drug law reform organization in New York City:

The International Narcotics Control Board has criticized these initiatives, and they are the watchdog unit for the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. They're very conservative, and they uphold international drug treaties. So if the Obama administration allows the states to legalize marijuana, that means the international drug treaties have been contravened by the U.S., which was the main architect of those treaties back in 1961.

But in fact, the administration is on a collision course with the voters in Colorado and Washington. President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration not only opposed the ballot initiatives, but are all committed to prosecuting marijuana smokers.

In 2010, the Justice Department weighed in against California's Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana. Holder publicly threatened that even if Prop 19 won, the federal government wouldn't allow it to be implemented. The referendum failed by a narrow margin.

This is despite the fact that Obama, as a presidential candidate in 2008, promised to let the states regulate medical marijuana. "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," he stated.

But as on so many other issues, Obama the president did exactly the opposite. Over the past four years, legal marijuana dispensaries and growers have come under continuous siege by heavily armed, SWAT-style raids by federal law enforcement and DEA agents. One of the most audacious assaults was at California's Oaksterdam University, a leading medical marijuana provider. Federal authorities detained founder Richard Lee, who was a leading proponent of California's Prop 19.

As Rolling Stone magazine reported earlier this year:

[T]he Obama administration has quietly unleashed a multi-agency crackdown on medical cannabis that goes far beyond anything undertaken by George W. Bush. The feds are busting growers who operate in full compliance with state laws, vowing to seize the property of anyone who dares to even rent to legal pot dispensaries, and threatening to imprison state employees responsible for regulating medical marijuana. With more than 100 raids on pot dispensaries during his first three years, Obama is now on pace to exceed Bush's record for medical-marijuana busts.

This time, Holder and the Justice Department didn't threaten Colorado and Washington with federal intervention in the run-up to the vote, but that likely has more to do with the fact that Obama couldn't afford to lose support in the swing state of Colorado, not a change of heart.

Now that Obama has won re-election, there won't be any such constraints. Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser for policy to White House Office of National Drug Control Policy director Gil Kerlikowske, believes there will be a showdown:

Once these states actually try to implement these laws, we will see an effort by the Feds to shut it down...We can only guess now what exactly that would look like. But the recent U.S. attorney actions against medical marijuana portends an aggressive effort to stop state-sponsored growing and selling at the outset.

So far, the DEA has only stated through a spokesperson that officials are reviewing the ballot measures. But the agency made it clear that the enforcement of federal drug laws "remains unchanged."

THERE'S A lot at stake in allowing Colorado and Washington to create a legalized cannabis control system--not least the U.S. role as the global cops of drug prohibition. What's more, legalization directly threatens the power and profits of the drug warriors, the criminal justice system and the prison industry, which together benefit from the arrest of 850,000 Americans every year for marijuana crimes.

Plus, the criminalization of drugs and drug users has created a system of racial and social control used disproportionately against Blacks and Latinos--which in turn has provided a convenient scapegoat for social problems.

The drug warriors won't want to give up a leading edge of their war on drugs without a fight. But cracking down on Colorado and Washington may come too late to stem the tide. Lawmakers in Maine, New Mexico and Rhode Island are considering legislation to legalize marijuana, and more states will follow.

Legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington is a victory for racial and social justice, but in the coming months and years, this win will need to be defended against the drug warriors who are hell-bent on maintaining drug prohibition, no matter what the cost.

Further Reading

From the archives