News & Politics

4 Hopeful Signs in the Fight Against Disastrous Drug War, Including a New Bill to End Federal Pot Prohibition

Although this new bill is largely symbolic, the fact that it's being introduced, and other small victories of late, bode well for a change in tone on this discussion.

It's been forty years since President Nixon declared a "war on drugs." And we're not winning.

In local communities, Black and Latino men are being singled out unfairly and fed into the prison system for minor drug offenses; in Mexico, an unspeakably brutal drug war continues with no signs of cessation; sick people continue to be denied legal access to medical marijuana that could ease their pain.

But there are signs that things are changing, the first being a new bill introduced in congressby Representatives Barney Frank and current Presidential candidate Ron Paul, with several co-sponsors--including Representatives John Conyers of Michigan, Jared Polis of Colorado, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, and Barbara Lee of Oakland--which would completely end federal prohibitions on marijuana. If the bill were enacted, that the only policing of pot the feds could do would limit interstate smuggling. The rest would be tossed up to the states--so that they could allow the use of the drug for medicinal reasons or even tax and regulate it, in theory. 

New Bill in Congress

From the Marijuana Policy Project, which declares the bill the "first" of its kind, came this seriously-worded response: "Rep. Frank’s legislation would end state/federal conflicts over marijuana policy, reprioritize federal resources, and provide more room for states to do what is best for their own citizens."

It's hard to disagree with that. The open question, of course, remains: whether the bill will get a robust hearing or a debate at all on the House floor, or be considered a joke. But it's creating a stir in the media, not the least because of Frank and Paul's name recognition--and because of a growing consensus even among more conservative types that the war on drugs, particularly the war on "weed," isn't working.

Either way, the bill is vital symbolically, due to its mainstream support and the media attention it's garnering.

Here are a few other signs, large and small, that the climate is changing when it comes to discussions of pot.

"Serious" opinion converging:

A new report from the ultra-serious Global Commission on Drug Policy opens with the following damning words, and just goes further from this beginning (emphases mine):

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

 

Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers.Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.


The distinguished commission includes former US Secretary of State George Schultz, former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, and former presidents and prime ministers of numerous countries around the world, particularly in Latin America which has been hit hard by the war on drugs.

More decriminalization, more medical marijuana.

Each year, another state or two decides to legalize medical marijuana--and more decide to decriminalize the substance itself, making possession subject to fines and smaller charges rather than full-blown criminal ones. Connecticut made steps to becoming another such state this spring.

Connecticut Governor. Dannel P. Malloy's public response to the bill's passage were particularly instructive, practical, and logical.

As reported in a piece on the bill in the Hartford Courant, Malloy made the following statement:

"... the current law does more harm than good - both in the impact it has on people's lives and the burden it places on police, prosecutors and probation officers of the criminal justice system... Let me make it clear - we are not legalizing the use of marijuana.  In modifying this law, we are recognizing that the punishment should fit the crime, and acknowledging the effects of its application.  There is no question that the state's criminal justice resources could be more effectively utilized for convicting, incarcerating and supervising violent and more serious offenders...
 "Modification of this law will now put Connecticut in line with the laws of two of our neighboring states, New York and Massachusetts, and a total of thirteen states across the country with similar statutes. "

Indeed, these concerns about resources in tough economic times may be a big selling point for defenders of legalization.

Pop cultural-shift

Stoner movies and jokes have always occupied a niche place in pop culture, but it certainly made heads turn last week when the new Miss USA won after expressing her point of view that marijuana should be legalized for medical purposes. 

Okay, so not exactly major news of national import there, but on the other hand Miss USA isn't some sort of left-wing think-tank, either. It's a distinctly, boringly middle-of-the-road and acceptable entertainment franchise.

As Think Progress's Alyssa Rosenberg points out, "Beauty pageants like Miss America and Miss USA are anachronistic and a little silly, but they’re also a useful measure of the moment when ideas become not just mainstream, but blandly uncontroversial."

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.