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5 Burning Questions About Legalizing Pot

Three experts explain everything you need to know about the battle to legalize marijuana.

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PBS recently ran a  Need to Know segment on marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado. The episode featured interviews with three prominent marijuana policy reform activists: Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML;Major Stanford “Neill” Franklin, a 34-year law enforcement veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department and the Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition ( LEAP); and Mason Tvert, co-founder of  SAFER in 2005 and the  SAFER Voter Education Fund in 2006. See transcript below:

How does legalization in the U.S. or parts of the U.S. affect our security and law enforcement relationship with Mexico, a country with a history of opposition to such legislation?

Paul Armentano: U.S. drug policy drives international drug policy and not vice-versa. In fact, Mexican lawmakers are ready to pursue alternative approaches to drug prohibition. Former Mexican President Vincente Fox has publicly called the global drug war an ‘absolute failure’ and has called for replacing criminal prohibition with regulatory alternatives — both in Mexico and in the United States. In 2009, Mexico’s Congress approved legislation decriminalizing the possession of personal use of illicit substances, including cannabis. Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, has said that legalizing the marijuana trade is a legitimate option for both the Mexican and U.S. governments. President Felipe Calderon has publically called for ‘market alternatives’ to address the growing level drug prohibition-inspired violence in Mexico and along the U.S. southern border. Just this week, a Mexican lawmaker  announced intentions to introduce legislationto legalize the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.

Mexican officials understand that the U.S. demand for cannabis, combined with its illegality, is fueling violence and empowering criminal traffickers. Mexico today has a growing body count ( anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 dead citizens) to attest to this. Yet our own DEA administrator, Michelle Leonhart, has publicly described this bloodshed as “a signpost of success.” Hardly. It is a tragic yet predictable failure of U.S. drug policy. When the U.S. finally begins to address the failure of this policy and embrace alternatives, much of the world, particularly Mexico, will no doubt follow suit.

Neill Franklin: Bringing marijuana aboveground and out of the illegal market can only improve security in our communities both here in the U.S. and in Mexico. As long as marijuana is prohibited, 100% of its profits (and all the decisions about where, how and to whom it is sold) are controlled by gangs and drug cartels. It is clear that Mexican leaders have been waiting for the U.S. to move away from prohibition for some time now. More than 60,000 people have died there over the past six years because drugs are sold only in the illegal, unregulated market.

Outgoing President Felipe Calderon has talked about the need for “market alternatives” if a prohibition approach continues to be unsuccessful in reducing demand for drugs. Mexican ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan has said that those who are pushing for legalization “understand the dynamics of the drug trade.” Former President Vicente Fox has repeatedly said it is time for legalization, and incoming President Enrique Pena Nieto has said he’s open to considering legalization as a way forward. Now that two U.S. states have voted to legalize marijuana, expect to see more sitting officials talking about the need for policy change even more clearly and frequently. The U.S. can’t credibly bully other countries into maintaining a prohibitionist approach while states within its own borders are recognizing the senselessness of this approach and embracing legalization.

Mason Tvert: Marijuana prohibition in the U.S. is steering profits from marijuana sales toward cartels and gangs instead of legitimate, tax-paying businesses. In doing so, it is propping up these criminal enterprises and subsidizing their other illegal activities, including human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and the sale of other drugs. Much of the violence escalating on the Mexican border revolves around the actions of Mexican drug cartels who fight over profits from marijuana sales. Whether they are large-scale drug cartels or small-town street gangs, the vast supply and demand surrounding marijuana will ensure they have a constant stream of profits to subsidize other illegal activities. Regulating marijuana like alcohol would eliminate this income source and, in turn, eliminate the violence and turf battles associated with the illegal marijuana market.