Marijuana politics


Marijuana occupies an unusual place in the legal world. Possessing any amount is illegal under federal law with a jail term of up to one year for first time offenders. But the ill and afflicted can happily use the plant to soothe their pains in 17 states, as long as a willing doctor prescribes it.

Weed legalization advocates liken the ban on growing, selling and smoking pot to alcohol prohibition. They say it’s time to treat cannabis like booze and allow adults to choose if they want to partake or not. But anti-drug campaigners invoke scenes of spaced out users seeking harder drugs once they get used to stimulating their synapses with legal highs, if Mary Jane ever gained legal status.

In November, voters in three Western states -- Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- will get the chance to weigh in on whether or not marijuana should be regulated much like alcohol is. If these pot legalization ballot measures pass into law, buyers over the age of 21 would be able to walk into specialized stores and buy weed legally -- whether a doctor prescribed it or not. 

Advocates argue that creating open markets for marijuana makes sense from an economic perspective since states could benefit from taxation. The Oregon initiative, for example, requires that 90 percent of the profit from weed sales (which a special state commission will administer) will go to funding state programs and seven percent be put toward paying for state drug abuse treatment programs. The Colorado initiative mandates that the first $40 million raised from a pot sales tax go to public schools each year.

As a recent Associated Press article points out, though, just how much money states could make from marijuana sales remains unclear. In Washington, state analysts suggest that a legal marijuana market could generate up to $2 billion in revenues over five years. Colorado, meanwhile, could see an added $60 million by 2017 from a regulated system, according to a study (funded by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group in favor of legalization) from the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. However, as the article notes, since no state has done something like this before, it is somewhat of a financial experiment. This is chiefly because there are uncertainties about the size of the black-market and how a regulated marijuana market would affect the illegal one.

Supporters of these ballot measures also argue that legalizing pot would take the market out of the hands of drug cartels and free up police to focus on more serious crimes. As Lieutenant Tony Ryan, who worked for the Denver Police Department for 36 years, said in a statement: “Our current marijuana laws distract police officers from doing the job we signed up for – protecting the public by stopping and solving serious crimes. They also put us at risk by forcing us to deal with an underground marijuana market made up of gangsters, cartels, and other criminals.”

If the legal framework for dealing with weed did change in Colorado, Oregon or Washington, it is likely the federal government would not take it lightly. Last month, nine former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to remind Washington, Oregon and Colorado that the feds would not let marijuana sales fly. In 2010, during the run-up to a pot-legalization measure on the ballot in California (which failed in a 56 to 44 percent vote), Holder said the feds would uphold federal marijuana laws in California regardless of whether the state government legalized sales of the drug. If that federal stance remains, then states that legalize pot could wind up fighting costly legal battles in the future, critics maintain.

Besides the potential for federal vs. state government legal clashes, some officials, like Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, worry that legalizing pot would open the gates for kids to get into harder drugs. As he said in a statement: “Colorado is known for many great things -- marijuana should not be one of them. Amendment 64 has the potential to increase the number of children using drugs and would detract from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation. It sends the wrong message to kids that drugs are OK.”

Whether or not voters agree with these sentiments remain to be seen. But, it seems, the more interesting question is how the feds will respond if any of these states do choose to legalize marijuana after the November elections.

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Image from wikimedia commons user Hupu2.