Who Will Legalize Pot Next?
A much bigger challenge than passing state-level reforms will be convincing Congress to take up the issue. But advocates say they are up to the challenge. “It is a high priority of NORML and other organizations to take the victories of Colorado and Washington and try to translate them into a much more serious and prolific discussion in Congress,” Armentano says. He predicts that at the federal level too, “a greater number of elected officials [will be] talking about marijuana-law reform.”
As for potential allies in Congress, MPP’s director of government relations, Steve Fox, says the reform movement’s “biggest supporters are in the Democratic caucus.” With Ron Paul and Barney Frank—previously the “biggest players”—gone from Congress, Fox says there’s “a lot of younger people coming up, trying to take the mantle.” He cites Jared Polis of Colorado, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Steve Cohen of Tennessee as leading the charge, adding: “The mood in DC on this issue has completely shifted in light of the recent election.”
Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado has already introduced the Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act of 2012, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act to exempt state marijuana laws from federal control. This kind of legislation, aimed at finally resolving the conflict between state and federal law regarding marijuana, is what Americans can expect to see coming out of Congress over the next four years. (Whether it can garner enough votes to pass is another story.)
The key to that effort is messaging, says Tom Angell, the founder and chair of the group Marijuana Majority, who points to recent polls showing that most Americans do not want the federal government interfering in Washington and Colorado. “Our task now,” he adds, “is to show [elected officials] that the voters are way ahead of them, and that they’ll be rewarded for speaking up and not punished for it.” Bridging that gap between public opinion and policy, however, requires instilling in politicians the confidence necessary to attach their names to marijuana-law reform. Marijuana Majority is dedicated to this work; much of what it does is spread awareness of the broad range of support for marijuana-law reform so that an increasing number of people, politicians and citizens alike, realize that “when you speak out for marijuana reform, you’re in good company and won’t be attacked and marginalized.”
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If supporting pro–marijuana legalization is increasingly mainstream, so is the opinion that the drug war as we know it has failed. Even Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has distanced himself from the “war on drugs,” recasting it as a public health issue. “There is some truth to the notion that there’s been a shift,” Nadelmann says, but he adds that legislators have failed to match their rhetorical shift with a change in funding, and that spending for incarceration still outweighs funds for treatment.
The White House, too, has not lived up to its rhetoric. “I think the Obama administration would be well served to take a page from what the states are doing with respect to incarceration policy in general,” says Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). She adds that while much reform at the state level is driven, at least in part, by budgetary concerns, “it’s also driven by a new interest in evidence-based solutions” to criminal justice problems. Harm reduction, rather than incarceration, is one kind of drug policy that would use a public health model to minimize and prevent the harms (such as overdosing) that are often associated with drug use.
Still, while the Obama administration has shown some signs of taking a more public-health-oriented approach (by backing federally funded needle exchange programs, for example), it has been silent on prisons. “What’s telling is that Obama has yet to make one powerful comment about the high rate of incarceration in this country, or the fact that we have the highest rate in the world, or the incredible racial disproportion involved,” says Nadelmann, who adds that while Obama worked early on to reduce the racially charged sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine (from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1), “there’s really been a lack of leadership.”
The disconnect is particularly egregious given the outsize role of mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases. As Price notes, the “stacking” of such mandatory minimums leads to such injustices as the case of Montana medical marijuana provider Chris Williams, who initially faced over eighty years in federal prison for possessing both marijuana and guns—neither of which were illegal under state law at the time. “If a gun is found in connection to the offense, even if it is not directly related, the person is subject to this rather extreme mandatory minimum,” says Price, who explained that the first gun charge carries a minimum of five years, followed by a twenty-five-year minimum for every additional charge. (Prosecutors ultimately offered Williams a plea deal that would reduce his sentence to five to ten years.)
With the Sandy Hook tragedy moving Obama and Congress to target guns, Price says she is “somewhat concerned” that the House might push for new mandatory sentencing schemes. But vocal opposition by Senator Patrick Leahy to mandatory minimums gives her confidence they would not pass the Senate.
Coupled with drug reform victories, such progressive stances by elected officials reflect a larger ongoing shift in attitudes toward criminal justice policy, driven by the states. Increasingly, people realize that the country’s exorbitantly expensive, excessively harsh prison system has been more costly than it has been successful at making us safe. The question is whether Congress and the White House will recognize this and use their powers to expedite, rather than impede, change.
Also in This Forum
Frances Fox Piven: “Movements Making Noise”
Aura Bogado: “Dreamers Fight Deportations”
Mark Hertsgaard: “Climate Activists Put the Heat on Obama”
Laura Flanders: “Demanding Women”
John Nichols: “The Election Reform Moment?”