Why It’s Always Been Time to Legalize Marijuana
“Marijuana is indeed a gateway drug,” quips Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies. “It’s a gateway drug to the Oval Office!” Indeed. From Bill Clinton’s “I didn’t inhale it” through George W. Bush’s “I was young and foolish” to Barack Obama’s teen years in the Choom Gang (“I inhaled frequently—that was the point”), the last three presidents have more or less owned up to breaking America’s drug laws.
All of them were elected. Then re-elected.
This raises obvious questions: If Clinton, Bush and Obama, ex–pot smokers all, were deemed responsible enough to lead the world’s most powerful nation, largest economy and strongest military (with thousands of nukes), why are we still arresting young men and women—especially young African-Americans and Latinos—for doing what these men did? Why do countless people languish behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes? And why is pot still classified as a dangerous drug?
This is especially astonishing when you consider that almost half of all Americans—myself included—admit to having at least tried pot. As a parent who has had the substance use-and-abuse talks with my 22-year-old daughter, I’ve had a hard time explaining why she can freely purchase cigarettes, which can certainly kill her, but not marijuana, which will surely not.
When the Eighteenth Amendment banned alcohol in 1920, it took thirteen years to admit failure and enact the Twenty-first, which ended Prohibition. By contrast, it has now been almost eighty years since the Federal Bureau of Narcotics launched the “reefer madness” era. The ensuing decades have been a debacle, from Nixon’s “war on drugs” to the creation, by Joe Biden, of a national “drug czar.”
So much failure. So many lives ruined. So much time wasted.
Enough. It’s time to end pot prohibition. It’s time to legalize marijuana.
Since the 1960s, The Nation has challenged America’s war on drugs. In a 1999 special issue, we argued for the decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs, for treatment, not punishment, and for viewing the use and abuse of drugs as strictly a public health issue. In fall 2010, this page endorsed California’s Proposition 19 to legalize pot. That December, we ran a special issue calling for “a more sensible approach…that recognizes the deep injustice of mass incarceration.”
So why the full-throated support of legalization now? Because the country is ready. And other countries have shown the way. Internationally, the movement to legalize pot is picking up steam. In Uruguay, the government of President JosÃ© “Pepe” Mujica is close to passing a bill that would legalize and tax marijuana cultivation and distribution.
At home, as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance highlighted in our 2010 special issue, there has been rising public support for legalizing marijuana use—from 12 percent in a 1969 Gallup poll, to 25 percent in 1995, to 36 percent by 2005 and hitting 48 percent—almost a majority—last year. The demographic shift on this issue has been stunning, akin to the about-face on same-sex marriage. Nearly a year after Colorado and Washington passed historic legalization measures, Gallup reported in October that 58 percent of Americans support legalization. If Congress—with its dismal 8 percent approval rating—wants to enjoy a popularity as high as marijuana’s, it might consider revisiting pot’s federal prohibition.
A good start would be a law to regulate, control and tax, which would ease the drug war on people of color, the poor and the young, and raise substantial tax revenues. The House might take up a bill introduced by Dana Rohrabacher, and co-sponsored by Steve Cohen, Jared Polis, Earl Blumenauer and others, that marijuana prohibition as prescribed by the Controlled Substances Act will not “apply to any person acting in compliance with State laws.” This could help more states and localities introduce ballot initiatives to decriminalize marijuana without fear of federal meddling.
The Justice Department should also adhere to Attorney General Eric Holder’s voluntary guidelines, which minimize the focus on marijuana offenses, ease restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries and allow states to begin experimenting with saner rules.
President Obama should order a review of marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug, which falsely defines pot as dangerous, addictive and having no legitimate medical use. He should then commute the sentences of those in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses—or at least lay the groundwork for such action in late 2016.
After all, the young Barry Obama was only one small step away—one broken taillight on the Choomwagon, one traffic stop by a cop in a bad mood, one unlucky lapse in Hawaii’s famed tolerance—from becoming just another young African-American casualty in this country’s failed drug war.
And once that happened: no more Columbia grad. Or Harvard Law Review editor. Or US senator from Illinois. Or president of the United States. Just another painful statistic in a war that should have ended long ago.
No more wasted lives. Let America exhale.