After decades of trying to make it go away, last month two California law enforcement agencies acknowledged that marijuana is a fact of life.
First, the California Highway Patrol announced that they would no longer confiscate marijuana from patients whose physicians have recommended it as medicine. The CHP reversed its policy after Attorney General Bill Lockyer defended California's Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative, which voters passed by a large margin in 1996.
Last spring, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Raich v. Ashcroft that federal marijuana laws trump state laws like Prop 215, leaving California's thousands of medical marijuana patients at risk of federal prosecution. But Lockyer ruled that while the feds might arrest people on the basis of federal law, California voters had spoken and the Supreme Court decision did not invalidate 215. Citing his decision, the CHP took the courageous step of announcing that absent other offenses they will leave medical marijuana patients alone.
The next day, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it will no longer automatically screen out job applicants who have used marijuana. The LAPD has a long history of enthusiasm for the war on drugs (former Chief Daryl Gates once said that all drug users "should be taken out and shot"), and it relies on federal drug war funds. So this small step showed a certain amount of courage, too.
Obviously, the LAPD is not looking to hire current drug users. Its new policy simply acknowledges the fact that nearly 100 million Americans have used marijuana, 25 million of them in the past year, according to the latest federal government survey. The department deserves credit for recognizing that it is simply unrealistic to rule out a huge swath of the population solely for having once engaged in a common form of drug use that is considered normal in many conventional segments of society.
Of course, ardent prohibitionists and pundits will claim that these actions by the Attorney General, the CHP and the LAPD "send the wrong message" and that "flakey" California is going to pot. Is there any reason to worry that these steps will somehow signal moral laxity and encourage marijuana use?
The evidence is reassuring. In the 1970s, the Netherlands effectively decriminalized marijuana use. Thirty years later, the Dutch have tightly regulated, tax-paying shops that sell small amounts of marijuana to adults, while last year the U.S. arrested over 600,000 Americans for mere possession of it. Yet national surveys show that the prevalence of marijuana use in the Netherlands has remained about half that in the U.S.
In fact, there has never been a clear relationship between policy and use levels. In the 1970s, 11 U.S. states sharply reduced penalties for marijuana possession. Some people predicted the collapse of civilization, but follow-up studies showed that none of these states experienced any more drug use or drug problems than neighboring states that retained harsh penalties.
In 2004, England reclassified cannabis use as a minor offense. Last week the U.K. Department of Health reported that its annual survey of over 9,000 youth found cannabis use had declined since the reclassification.
The same is true in the U.S. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that illicit drug use among youth (most of it marijuana), was down in 2004. Indeed, marijuana use declined in each of the 10 states that have passed medical marijuana laws -- including California, where use among youth was down more than in other states without such laws.
It is increasingly clear that neither reducing criminal penalties for marijuana use nor allowing medical marijuana lead to increased use. In short, the "wrong message" approach sends the wrong message. No one wants more young people smoking anything. But a moral crusade against marijuana that denies sick and dying people a medicine they and their doctors have found therapeutic is not only bad medicine but bad morals. California voters said this in 1996, and California law enforcement officials are wisely saying this now.
Some will criticize California for its leadership on drug policy reform. But Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis long ago recognized that the individual states were vital "laboratories of democracy" where needed experiments in public policy could be conducted. With all the criticism directed at government these days, it seems only fair to notice when public officials take measured steps toward positive change.
October 19, 2004
Four years ago, on Oct. 27, 2000, CNN reported that polls from Time, Gallup, ABC News, USA Today, and the Washington Post found that Bush was ahead in the popular vote. Some said Bush had a "solid advantage."
"Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush holds a 49-to-43 percent edge over Democratic rival Al Gore in the latest CNN/Time poll. ... The poll of 2,060 adult Americans ... is thus in essential agreement with a CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll also released Friday. That poll gives Bush a 52 percent [to] 39 percent edge over Gore. More important, both polls show the same snapshot of the current state of the presidential campaign: a solid advantage for Bush. ABC News and The Washington Post both have daily tracking polls today putting the race at 48 percent for Bush and 45 percent for Gore."Eleven days later Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. Four years ago, shortly before the election, these major polls were wrong.
The 2000 polls could not correctly predict the winner because they could not accurately predict the effect of the substantial "get out the vote" efforts, especially by labor unions and Democratic organizations in important swing states. Bush's supposed "solid advantage" in the popular vote did not actually exist. It was a fabrication of the polls.
The 2000 election was essentially a tie. Out of a total of over a 100 million votes cast, the difference between Gore and Bush was one half of one percent. No poll of a few thousand potential voters can accurately predict who will win the popular vote in such a close election.
Nor can pollsters accurately predict who will win the electoral vote, because the margin of victory in a decisive swing state might be a statistically insignificant few thousand or even a few hundred votes. In 2000, Bush won Florida by 527 votes and New Hampshire by 7,200 – and Gore won Iowa by 4,100 votes, Wisconsin by 5,700, Oregon by 6,700, and New Mexico by 366 votes. The combined margin of victory in these six states was about twenty-five thousand votes – less than three hundredths of one percent of the total presidential vote.
Fast forward to Sept. 18, 2004 when the New York Times reported that a Gallup poll found Bush leading Kerry 52 to 44 percent among registered voters, and 55 to 42 percent among likely voters. A New York Times/CBS News poll also had Bush over Kerry "51 percent to 42 percent among likely voters."
Sound familiar? Since the first presidential debate, some polls have showed Kerry and Bush as even and suggested the election is too close to call. This is the only trustworthy prediction that anyone can make.
Only in "safe" states where leads are large can polls reliably predict the winner. Yes, Kerry will win Illinois, New York and other "blue" states, and Bush will win Texas, Indiana other "red" states. But in this election, and especially in the crucial swing states, it is not the few undecided voters but the many new and returning lapsed voters – the unknown voters – who will make the difference.
In 2004, Democrats are energized and engaged like never before. Several independent get-out-the-vote campaigns – especially ACT (Americans Coming Together) and MoveOn.org – have been working in the swing states to increase the Kerry vote. Some individuals are even getting out voters on their own. For example, Frank Phillips, an indefatigable 90-year-old retired businessman from New Hyde Park, N.Y., recently organized friends and neighbors to call voters in Florida. Now he is arranging calls to 3,000 more in Ohio.
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields recently reported that in Ohio "one of the smartest Republican professionals I know ... confided that he feared the GOP 'needs a 5-point lead in the polls heading into election day' to counter what he sees as 'the Democrats' intensity' and organizational commitment."
Because the margins are so small, unpredictable events like stormy weather on election day could also effect the outcome. Nader's campaign remains a wild card; a few thousand or even a few hundred votes that Nader takes from Kerry could tip the electoral votes of one or more swing states to Bush – as Nader's newfound Republican backers understand.
In this election, the only certainty is that turnout on Nov. 2 will matter enormously.
And even after the election, if a poll seems to have predicted the winner, remember that it had a 50 percent chance of being right. Which makes even more impressive the mistaken predictions based on the polls four years ago. Coin tosses would have done better than they did.
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