The Beginning of the End of Marijuana Prohibition

Even I can't believe the way that the marijuana issue is opening up right now.

There's been steady progress on medical marijuana -- as evidenced by the Obama administration's new guidelines directing federal drug agents not to arrest legitimate patients and suppliers in medical marijuana states. Then there's the recent victories in MaineNew JerseyRhode Island and Washington D.C., -- not to mention the medical marijuana bills making progress in numerous other states around the country. Last month's ABC News/Washington Post poll reported a record 81 percent support for medical marijuana. If ballot initiatives could be held in all 50 states, voters would approve it in all but a small handful.

What's even more remarkable is the recent jump in support for taxing and regulating marijuana. I was pleasantly stunned by the Gallup poll late last year finding that support for making marijuana legal jumped from 36% in 2005 to 44% in 2009. Fifty-four percent of Democrats, 53% of people living in the West, and roughly half of Independents and 18-49 year-olds now support making marijuana legal. In the past year, legislative proposals to tax and regulate marijuana have prompted hearings in California, Washington, and New Hampshire -- and California voters will have their say this November at the ballot box.

What does all this mean?

Despite such progress, I don't expect bold leadership from the Obama administration, mostly because presidents rarely provide any sort of leadership on hot-button issues involving cultural conflict, personal behavior and morality. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that Obama expresses concern that 750,000 people are arrested each year for doing exactly the same thing he did as a young man -- possessing a small amount of marijuana.

Still, though, Obama has already made a difference in two critical ways. First, his candid discussion of his own experiences using marijuana set a new standard for honesty. Second, the Department of Justice's new guidelines on medical marijuana opened up significant political and legal space for states to get more deeply involved in regulating the otherwise illicit product. This move took the dialogue around medical marijuana to a new level of seriousness and sophistication, and effectively invited an emerging public conversation about making marijuana legally available for non-medical use.

Neither the administration nor Congress is ready for a serious dialogue on ending marijuana prohibition, though. Congress is even stymied when it comes to medical marijuana -- many elected officials still insist they can't spend their political capital on it. With support for medical marijuana at 81 percent, one has to wonder -- just how popular does something have to be before elected officials are willing to stand up to the vested interests behind the war on drugs?

Since the public is so far ahead of national policymakers, I think the best we can hope for is that the federal government allows change to continue bubbling up from the state and local levels. That's the nature of movements for individual freedom and social justice -- the people lead, elected officials follow grudgingly.

It's only a matter of time before marijuana is taxed, controlled, and regulated in the United States. The tragedy is that in the meantime tens of billions of dollars will be wasted, and millions of people will be harmed by our marijuana laws. It's up to us -- as conscientious members of society who care about science, compassion, health, and human rights -- to make sure that the time comes as soon as possible.


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