Tomorrow, the country’s first legal retail shops to sell recreational marijuana will open for business in Colorado. This comes 14 short months since the state’s voters approved the legalized possession, use, and sale of marijuana. Washington state, which also passed a pot legalization measure, will soon follow, probably sometime in June. It’s even happening internationally: Uruguay became the first country to legalize marijuana at the national level — which may spark a “tidal wave” of legalization across South American countries that have grown weary of the expensive and bloody U.S.-led war on drugs.
The impact of this historic milestone is more than just legal or political; it is a signal of the mainstream acceptance of a product which for decades has been subject to fearmongering propaganda and sometimes brutal interdiction by a state desperate to eradicate its use. Now that Colorado and Washington have opened the gates to legalization, there is no hope for the drug warriors to stop the flood. Not that they won’t try: even now they continue their dire and uninformed warnings about the dangers of pot.
Perhaps the biggest change will come in how marijuana-related stories are covered by the news media. The Denver Post has launched a new Web site, TheCannabist.co — so far the only major daily newspaper in the country with a site dedicated to marijuana. (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a marijuana blog as part of their main site.) Pot will be covered — in reviews of shops and strains, stories of events and crimes — in much the same way as alcohol. Alongside reviews of pinot noirs, you might find evaluations of Purple Kush. This coverage has existed for years, of course, in states where medical marijuana is legal, but now that 21-plus year-olds can buy the stuff like they can a bottle of wine, societal attitudes will likely shift as well. Lifting the stigma of illegality means no more furtive discussions of pot in public and back-alley deals. We may well be arguing about the relative merits of various strains like we do micro-brews.
Legalization isn’t perfect. There are now many more rules to follow for people who wish to engage in the marijuana trade, and it’s clear that Colorado’s current rules favor the established players in the medical marijuana industry. Banks are still restricted in accepting money from businesses tied to illicit drugs, which marijuana remains classified as at the federal level, so it’s a cash-only business for now. Taxes on retail marijuana will be punitively excessive, reaching as high as 30% in Denver. There are also limits on how much pot one can possess, and strict bans on public consumption.
But for those who can find a private place to light up with their newly-purchased bud tomorrow, they may very well believe what Ozzy Osbourne sang over 40 years ago: “Soon the world will love you, sweet leaf.”
More than forty years after the U. S. government launched the modern drug war, its highest-ranking prosecutor has tacitly admitted that it is a legal and moral failure:
In a major shift in criminal justice policy, the Obama administration moved on Monday to ease overcrowding in federal prisons by ordering prosecutors to omit listing quantities of illegal substances in indictments for low-level drug cases, sidestepping federal laws that impose strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in a speech at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday, announced the new policy as one of several steps intended to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and help correct what he regards as unfairness in the justice system, according to his prepared remarks.
Saying that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Mr. Holder justified his policy push in both moral and economic terms.
At the risk of giving Holder too much credit, it is encouraging that he is not viewing his end-run around mandatory minimums for drug offenses in purely utilitarian terms: he recognizes the injustice of current laws which have contributed to the world’s highest incarceration rate. But it’s worth noting that these reforms follow the lead of several conservative Southern states, which have turned to treatment, diversionary programs, and early release for non-violent offenders as a way to relieve prison overcrowding. Texas, far and away the nation’s leader in executions, has experienced a steady drop in its prison population after adopting sentencing reforms aimed at rehabilitation instead of imprisonment, and is actually closing prisons it no longer needs.
Whether Holder’s proposed reforms will have a similar effect on federal prison populations remains to be seen. One caveat is that this does not represent any long-term reform of the actual mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Holder is simply using his prosecutorial discretion to not issue indictments that could lead to lengthy prison terms. The laws are still on the books and only Congress can change or repeal them. Should Obama or his successor appoint a more enthusiastic drug warrior, even this modest progress could be reversed. It’s also unclear who will qualify as a “low-level” drug offender. Your friendly neighborhood pot dealer may get lucky with this policy change, but it’s unlikely that purveyors of harder stuff will be unrelated “to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels” in the feds’ view.
But it’s a start. If President Obama wants to leverage the political capital he’ll gain from these reforms, he could take even more dramatic action to reduce prison populations by using his clemency powers to reduce the sentences of minor drug offenders. But as he has demonstrated throughout his time in office, Obama’s mercy for incarcerated Americans is quite limited.
I suppose it’s only logical – in that twisted, perverse way unique to the state – that if the president can now detain citizens indefinitely without trial for suspected terrorist activities committed on U. S. soil, the government would be able to arrest them for merely talking about suspected drug activities abroad:
The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill yesterday that would make it a federal crime for U.S. residents to discuss or plan activities on foreign soil that, if carried out in the U.S., would violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) — even if the planned activities are legal in the countries where they’re carried out.
(At this point it should shock no one that the sponsor of this bill is Lamar Smith, the Republican senator from Texas who also backed the free-speech-crushing Stop Online Piracy Act.) So that means if you casually mention to someone that you can’t wait to go to Amsterdam to try some hash – which is completely legal there – you might find yourself detained by DEA agents even before you’ve left the country. It would also conceivably apply to any publications, including blogs, which discuss future drug activity, or even advice about drugs aimed at overseas audiences (such as growing marijuana).
So now the country’s lawmakers are reduced to enacting thought-crime legislation, in the state’s futile attempts to prevent anyone from ever getting high. The only thing that surprises me is that they haven’t named it Whitney’s Law. Because nothing drums up popular support for terrible, unlibertarian laws like naming them after dead people.
I would not expect libertarians to have much sympathy for agents of the state when they are ensnared by the same webs they help create. And yet I do have some sympathy for former Arapahoe County, Colo. Sheriff (and one-time “Sheriff of the Year”) Pat Sullivan, who was arrested Tuesday on charges of methamphetamine distribution. Investigators say Sullivan offered meth to men in exchange for sex, and that he had also been “taking care” of meth addicts, going so far as to claim he was on a drug task force and was working for the Colorado Department of Public Health’s meth treatment program, which doesn’t exist.
It’s a dramatic fall from public grace for a man whose name adorns the very detention center where he’s being held on $500,000 bail. Sullivan served nearly 20 years as Arapahoe sheriff and ironically served on a statewide meth task force in 2000. His department undoubtedly arrested thousands on drug charges during his tenure. For his work he was named “Sheriff of the Year” by his colleagues in the National Sheriffs’ Association in 2001.
So it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who’s run afoul of the same unjust laws he once enforced. But consider this: Sullivan engages in some honest, peaceful, consensual trade for once, and ends up in an orange jumpsuit and shackles on national television, shattering a decades-long legacy as a tough and ethical law enforcement officer. It’s moments like these that makes one want to appreciate cosmic practical jokes.