Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.
SEATTLE – In two weeks, adults in this state will no longer be arrested or incarcerated for something that nearly 30 million Americans did last year. For the first time since prohibition began 75 years ago, recreational marijuana use will be legal; the misery-inducing crusade to lock up thousands of ordinary people has at last been seen, by a majority of voters in this state and in Colorado, for what it is: a monumental failure.
That is, unless the Obama administration steps in with an injunction, as it has threatened to in the past, against common sense. For what stands between ending this absurd front in the dead-ender war on drugs and the status quo is the federal government. It could intervene, citing the supremacy of federal law that still classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug.
But it shouldn’t. Social revolutions in a democracy, especially ones that begin with voters, should not be lightly dismissed. Forget all the lame jokes about Cheetos and Cheech and Chong. In the two-and-a-half weeks since a pair of progressive Western states sent a message that arresting 853,000 people a year for marijuana offenses is an insult to a country built on individual freedom, a whiff of positive, even monumental change is in the air.
In Mexico, where about 60,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence, political leaders are voicing cautious optimism that the tide could turn for the better. What happens when the United States, the largest consumer of drugs in the world, suddenly opts out of a black market that is the source of gangland death and corruption? That question, in small part, may now be answered.
Prosecutors in Washington and Colorado have announced they are dropping cases, effective immediately, against people for pot possession. I’ve heard from a couple of friends who are police officers, and guess what: they have a lot more to do than chase around recreational drug users.
Maine (ever-sensible Maine!) and Iowa, where the political soil is uniquely suited to good ideas, are looking to follow the Westerners. Within a few years, it seems likely that a dozen or more states will do so as well.
And for one more added measure of good karma, on Election Day, Representative Dan Lungren, nine-term Republican from California and a tired old drug warrior who backed some of the most draconian penalties against his fellow citizens, was ousted from office.
But there remains the big question of how President Obama will handle the cannabis spring. So far, he and Attorney General Eric Holder have been silent. I take that as a good sign, and certainly a departure from the hard-line position they took when California voters were considering legalization a few years ago. But if they need additional nudging, here are three reasons to let reason stand:
Hypocrisy. Popular culture and the sports-industrial complex would collapse without all the legal drugs that promise to extend erections, reduce inhibitions and keep people awake all night. I’m talking to you, Viagra, alcohol and high-potency energy drinks. Worse, perhaps, is the $25 billion nutritional supplement industry, offerings pills that make exaggerated health claims and steroid-based hormones that can have significant bad consequences. The corporate cartels behind these products get away with minimal regulation because of powerful backers like Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.
In two years through 2011, more than 2,200 serious illnesses, including 33 fatalities, were reported by consumers of nutritional supplements. Federal officials have received reports of 13 deaths and 92 serious medical events from Five Hour Energy. And how many people died of marijuana ingestion? Of course, just because well-marketed, potentially hazardous potions are legal is no argument to bring pot onto retail shelves. But it’s hard to make a case for fairness when one person’s method of relaxation is cause for arrest while another’s lands him on a Monday night football ad.
Tax and regulate. Already, 18 states and the District of Columbia allow medical use of marijuana. This chaotic and unregulated system has resulted in price-gouging, phony prescriptions and outright scams. No wonder the pot dispensaries have opposed legalization — it could put them out of business.
Washington State officials estimate that taxation and regulation of licensed marijuana retail stores will generate $532 million in new revenue every year. Expand that number nationwide, and then also add into the mix all the wasted billions now spent investigating and prosecuting marijuana cases.
With pot out of the black market, states can have a serious discussion about use and abuse. The model is the campaign against drunk driving, which has made tremendous strides and saved countless lives at a time when alcohol is easier to get than ever before. Education, without one-sided moralizing, works.
Lead. That’s what transformative presidents do. From his years as a community organizer — and a young man whose own recreational drug use could have made him just another number in lockup — Obama knows well that racial minorities are disproportionately jailed for these crimes. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of its prisoners — and about 500,000 of them are behind bars for drug offenses. On cost alone — up to $60,000 a year, to taxpayers, per prisoner — this is unsustainable.
Obama is uniquely suited to make the argument for change. On this issue, he’ll have support from the libertarian right and the humanitarian left. The question is not the backing — it’s whether the president will have the backbone.