In 2012 Border Crossings ran a series of posts (“The War on Drugs”) reviewing the history of our drug laws, the long term consequences of those laws, and recommendations to decriminalize and legalize recreational use of marijuana and other drugs. In November of that year, Colorado and Washington state voters approved referendums legalizing the recreational use of marijuana; and this January, the two states began to implement regulation and taxation of marijuana sales despite grumblings from the Justice Department and DEA. Sale of pot in Colorado netted tax revenue of $2 million in just this first month. While only a drop in the bucket of the state’s $20 billion plus annual budget, other states have taken notice and additional referendums to legalize marijuana are being advanced for consideration of the voters during the next election cycle. Recent polls show that a majority of Americans (51% plus) now believe that marijuana should be legalized. Even the President has weighed in, recently downplaying the hazard posed by marijuana, declaring the drug no more dangerous than alcohol, pointing to the graver risk presented by other recreational drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. Have we turned a corner on the War on Drugs?
The jury remains out on that question. Indeed despite the votes in Colorado and Washington more than a year ago, the feds continued to move aggressively to prosecute state-legalized growers of medicinal marijuana in nearby states such as California and Montana, some of those growers facing lifetime prison sentences for their actions. Even following President Obama’s comments, Michael Botticelli, the deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, testified before Congress that the “Department of Justice’s responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged.” As noted in our earlier blogs, “The entrenched interests of our law enforcement agencies, our judicial system, our ever-growing public and private penal system, our border security and homeland security agencies, a reluctant Congress, and hard-line officials whose careers have been built on prohibition—not to mention the interests of the drug cartels themselves— do not suggest these policies will be changed any time soon.” Much still remains to be done before we will see an overturn of our current policies.
That said it would appear that a number of politicians at the local, state and national levels are looking to change their view on drugs. In February of this year a bi-partisan group of eighteen Congressional Representatives spearheaded by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and including Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)—these later three notable in representing border states with Mexico—wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to reclassify marijuana, eliminating it as a Schedule I or Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substance Act. They argued that “You stated you don’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol, a fully legalized substance, and believe it to be less dangerous “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer”… Marijuana, however, remains listed in the federal Controlled Substance Act as Schedule I, the strictest classification, along with heroin and LSD. This is a higher listing than cocaine and methamphetamine, Schedule II substances that you gave as examples of harder drugs. This makes no sense.” They go on to note that: “Classifying marijuana as Schedule I at the federal level perpetuates an unjust and irrational system. Schedule I recognizes no medical use, disregarding both medical evidence and the laws of nearly half of the states that have legalized marijuana. A Schedule I or II classification also means that marijuana businesses in states where adult or medical use are legal cannot deduct business expenses from their taxes or take tax credits…”
In Washington, D.C., recently, the City Council lent its preliminary approval to a bill that would decriminalize marijuana in the district, reducing the penalty for possession of small amounts of the drug to a $25 citation. To be enacted, the proposal must be passed once more by the council and approved by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. In addition, Congress then would have 30 days to block the measure by passing a resolution “disapproving” of it, although one could question their desire to find themselves in contentious debate regarding local versus federal laws and amid growing public sentiment in favor of such laws.
Finally, other states are considering changes in their laws to legalize pot. New Jersey State Senator Nicolas Vitari recently introduced legislation legalizing marijuana, arguing the monies used for prosecuting and enforcing current laws against personal use of marijuana as wasteful use of scarce taxpayer resources. He proposes to regulate and tax the sales of marijuana and use the proceeds to fix the state’s roads and bridges. Again this law faces an uphill battle where the governor has made clear his opposition to legalizing marijuana.
The drug wars in Mexico seemed to have gone into remission, at least based on news or, better stated, the lack of news of the horrific murders of innocent and not so innocent by-standers at the hands of the drug cartels heard just a year or two in the past.
The capture last month of the infamous cartel leader “Chapo” Guzman in Mexico and the death or capture of other drug lords in that country suggests that at long last some advances may be being made in controlling the drug cartels that have plagued the country and in particular the border region of both our countries. In my own experience I have found that queries to local residents or workers—taxi drivers, hotel clerks, maids—in a city may be more enlightening than official news accounts on TV or in the newspapers. When asked, my housekeeper, who lives in Juárez with her husband and adult children, noted that while things are quieter now than a year or two back, no one believes the situation has really changed. “They still find bodies…they just don’t reach the news as before.” She for one is keeping her family close and her eyes open. Our country’s appetite for drugs and the mountains of money that will continue to flow as long as our current drug policies persist both suggest that her pessimism is well warranted.
My son earlier this year, noting the news of legalization and proposed referendums to legalize marijuana, said that I must be feeling pleased about the drug law changes that were apparently underway. I told him that indeed the news on drug laws and drug policy was encouraging and I was happy to see the changes. However, we would only see real advances when more conservative states such as Texas or Arizona agree to decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana and other drugs. I went so far as to say that probably “hell would freeze over” before a state like Texas would agree to such changes. To my surprise a few days later, Gov. Rick Perry, while attending the Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, was quoted as favoring to “start us toward a decriminalization” of pot (!). While not legalization, it is a step in the right direction. Perhaps, hell isn’t freezing over, but at least the thermostat is being turned down! — Paul Maxwell