Can Reason Win the Drug War?

In these times of economic strife and fervent debate over health care, our great national culture war has been pushed to the side. But once in a while, it pops up its mischievous little head to remind us that the eternal battle between the hippies and the squares continues on, even if we can ignore it from time to time.

One of those moments happened on Oct. 19, when the Justice Department released a memo instructing U.S. attorneys that while prosecuting drug dealers is still an objective, they "should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." Though the next Republican administration will probably reverse the policy, the directive seems to provide more evidence that the left is winning the culture war.

The administration's move hardly came as a surprise. During the 2008 campaign, Obama made clear his position: If doctors prescribe marijuana, that's fine with him, and if state laws allow it, then the Justice Department shouldn't waste resources on this type of drug arrest. But the memo signaled a dramatic shift from the policy of the Bush administration, which staged dozens of raids on the marijuana dispensaries that have become common in some of the 13 states that have legalized medical marijuana.

This isn't to say that the Obama administration is going to be arguing for legalization – go to the Web site of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and you'll see that the top headline reads, "ONDCP Director Declares Legalizing Marijuana a Non-Starter." Nevertheless, there does appear to be substantial momentum in the direction of more state approval of marijuana. Not only does medical marijuana enjoy overwhelming support among the American public (for instance, a 2003 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Republicans said they favored it), even outright legalization is gaining support. A Gallup poll released last week found support for legalization reaching 44 percent, higher than at any time since the organization began asking the question in 1970. It found majority support for legalization among people under the age of 50, Democrats, liberals, and people living in the West. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in April obtained almost identical results.

We're also seeing a shift in elite debate. When Michael Phelps was caught on camera earlier this year taking a bong hit (his taste for pot didn't seem to stop him from becoming perhaps the greatest athlete on Earth), conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who is profiled in the latest issue of the Prospect, came out for legalization. "It's time to recognize that all drugs are not equal," she wrote, "and change the laws accordingly." In June, Nicholas Kristof all but endorsed decriminalization on the op-ed page of The New York Times. Last week, a committee of the California Legislature held a hearing to debate the possibility of legalizing the drug, and an initiative to that effect could be on Californians' ballots next November.

But for the moment, most legal battles revolve around medical marijuana. Those who favor a continuation of the drug war often argue that medical marijuana is nothing but a Trojan horse to allow legalization of the drug for recreational use. They're half right. Contrary to what the drug warriors would like to believe, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people could -- or already do -- legitimately benefit from the use of marijuana for a variety of medical conditions. But it's also true that legalization of medical marijuana ends up allowing lots of people who don't have much of a medical need but enjoy getting high to access the drug. And that's a good thing.

There are many reasons why, but let's just examine a couple. The first is that if someone goes down to the dispensary and tells the on-sight doctor that their bum knee is helped by smoking, they won't be supporting a criminal enterprise. They also won't risk getting arrested – which is bad for them and takes up resources that could be used to pursue actual criminals. Yet even as Americans increasingly acknowledge that arresting people for possessing pot is utterly insane, our law-enforcement agencies keep locking up more and more people for the offense. Take a look at this graph, which I produced using data gathered by the FBI in its annual Crime In the United States report:

Smoke pot? Go directly to jail.

While arrests for the production and sale of marijuana have remained static at just under 100,000 per year, arrests for possession have gone up through the decade. In 2008, over 750,000 Americans were arrested for possessing marijuana. And though we have some of the harshest drug laws in the developed world, we also have the highest rates of drug use. One recent multinational study found that 42 percent of Americans surveyed had used cannabis at some point in their life -- more than twice as many as in the Netherlands, where the drug is effectively legal (though heavily regulated). The numbers are similar for young people – 54 percent of Americans in their 20s say they have tried marijuana, compared to 44 percent of young French people and 34.6 percent of young Dutch people.

Let's get back to our friend with the bum knee. Though the dispensary system has some obvious weaknesses, it not only prevents him from having to buy from some sketchy dude on a street corner, it also strikes a blow against the Mexican drug cartels. This is because dispensaries deal in high-end, lovingly crafted product that comes almost exclusively from within the United States, with some British Columbian imports thrown in. Dispensaries would no sooner sell cheap Mexican weed than a four-star restaurant would toss a Whopper on your plate. As The Washington Post recently reported, "Stiff competition from thousands of mom-and-pop marijuana farmers in the United States threatens the bottom line for powerful Mexican drug organizations in a way that decades of arrests and seizures have not." Who knows? Maybe some day we'll even see Michael Phelps on television telling people to buy pot with the "Made in the U.S.A." label to fight the cartels.

Faced with the fact that all the pillars of the drug war have failed – the focus on interdiction, the mass arrests of people for possessing a drug most Americans have sampled and found harmless, the useless programs like D.A.R.E. that attempt to scare kids away from drugs – anti-drug crusaders tend to talk about "sending the right message," which is what you argue when you have no real arguments left. Or to put their case more succinctly: "Screw you, hippie!"

It's not insignificant that in that recent Gallup poll, support for decriminalization was highest in the West. There are plenty of conservatives in those states, but their conservatism tends to be a more libertarian brand than the evangelical Christian variety that prevails in the South, where support for decriminalization is lowest. You can see this divide in state laws. Since 1996, medical marijuana initiatives have passed in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. State legislatures passed similar laws in Hawaii, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont. So you've got one Midwestern state, three New England states, and -- if you include Alaska and Hawaii -- nine Western states. (Details on all the state laws can be found in this report from the Marijuana Policy Project.)

This is just one more way the South, and the party that finds its home there, are becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the country. This isn't to say that the culture war will fade any time soon. But on issues like marijuana and marriage equality, the culture warriors are finding themselves separated from an American majority that crosses party lines.

Postscript: You may have noticed that this was a column about the legal status of marijuana that contained no pot jokes. Unfortunately, many reporters (not to mention bloggers) who write about this topic can't help but start their pieces by saying something like, "Fire up the skull bong and get out your copy of 'Terrapin Station'" followed by a liberal sprinkling of puns about someone "blowing smoke" or gratuitous references to the munchies. Wouldn't it be nice if we could talk about this issue like adults?

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