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.