The prospects for reforming drug policy have never been so good. The persistent failure and negative consequences of drug war policies, combined with budgetary woes and generational change, are mainstreaming reformist ideas once considered taboo.
Nowhere is this convergence more evident than with respect to marijuana. In 1969, when Gallup first asked Americans if they support legalizing marijuana use, 12 percent were in favor. Support hovered in the mid-20s for many years, then started drifting upward—from 25 percent in 1995 to 36 percent in 2005. In October, at the height of the landmark campaign for legalization in California, the latest Gallup poll found 46 percent in favor nationally, with 50 percent opposed. Prop 19 garnered 46.5 percent of the vote—and roughly a quarter of Californians who voted against it said they favored legalization but were hesitant to vote yes for one reason or another.
Criminal justice reformers know that marijuana offenses account for "only" 50,000–100,000 of the roughly 500,000 Americans behind bars for a drug law violation, but arrests for marijuana possession represent 45 percent of the 1.7 million drug arrests made annually in recent years. And as Queens College professor Harry Levine has amply documented, African-Americans and Latinos are arrested for marijuana offenses at dramatically higher rates than whites, even though they are no more likely to use or possess marijuana. It’s only a matter of time before the racial justice implications of marijuana prohibition and legalization overcome the cultural conservatism of African-American and Latino communities.
According to the Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans who live in the West now favor legalizing marijuana use. It’s thus highly likely that 2012 will see more legalization initiatives in Western states, and with the support of young people—who consistently say they care a lot about this issue and turn out in higher numbers for presidential elections—a few may actually succeed.
Unfortunately, the recent Republican takeover of the House does not bode well for other aspects of drug policy reform. Lamar Smith, the incoming Judiciary Committee chair, was the only member of Congress to speak out last summer against the bipartisan reform of crack cocaine sentencing laws. Republican control may also undermine recent progress on issues like medical marijuana and federal funding for needle exchange. Elsewhere, New Mexico’s incoming Republican governor, Susanna Martinez, is a prosecutor who has threatened to shut down the state’s tightly run medical marijuana program, and New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie seems determined to strangle his state’s nascent medical marijuana program with nonsensical regulations.
If there’s a silver lining on the Republican surge, it’s that conservatives’ penchant for cutting government spending extends even to the drug war. Conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform have supported eliminating the federal boondoggle for local police known as the Byrne grant program. Some also favor eliminating funding for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, student drug testing and Plan Colombia as part of broader spending cuts. Liberal organizations would do well to embrace such proposals.
But all is not lost around the country. Incoming Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin introduced a marijuana decriminalization bill when he was in the state legislature and favors harm-reduction policies with respect to other drugs. Rhode Island’s new governor, Lincoln Chafee, seems to get it too. Prospects for drug policy reform will be better in Connecticut without Republican Governor Jodi Rell, who vetoed medical marijuana legislation and blocked other drug policy reforms, and in California without Arnold Schwarzenegger, who opposed most pragmatic efforts to reduce the state’s prison population and vetoed numerous harm-reduction bills. The overall state prison population declined for the first time in thirty-eight years in 2009, a result in good part of an emerging bipartisan consensus that nearly bankrupt state governments can no longer afford to keep locking up ever more people, especially for nonviolent drug offenses.
The greatest challenge today is one that was best articulated a couple of years ago by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, co-chaired by former presidents Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia and Zedillo of Mexico. It is to "break the taboo" on vigorous, honest and open debate about all drug policy options, including harm reduction, decriminalization and legalization. That’s what drug war advocates most fear—because they know the policies they advocate ultimately are indefensible on grounds of science, compassion, health or human rights. Breaking taboos requires courage, but it is an essential step on the path to broader drug policy reform.
Read more of the special forum on drug policy reform:
Marc Mauer, "Beyond the Fair Sentencing Act"
Bruce Western, "Decriminalizing Poverty"
Tracy Velázquez, "The Verdict on Drug Courts"
David Cole, "Restoring Lost Liberties"
Laura Carlsen, "A New Model for Mexico"