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Mark Kleiman Wins Washington Marijuana Legalization Implementation Contract

Prominent policy analyst and UCLA professor Mark Kleiman has won Washington State's consulting contract on I-502 implementation. According to Northwest Public Radio, "Washington's Liquor Control Board wants consulting help in four areas: marijuana industry knowledge, plant quality and testing, regulation, and to the extent possible, projecting how many people will use pot now that it's legal."

Mark Kleiman (ncjrs.org via Wikipedia)
Reformers have had a "love/hate" relationship with Kleiman over the years. He supports some of our issues, like marijuana legalization -- sort of. He acknowledges the impact of prohibition in increasing the harmfulness of addictive drugs to their users, but states as nearly a fact the assumption that overall harm would go up with legalization nonetheless -- while admonishing the rest of us not to make assumptions about the positive effects of even just marijuana legalization. He does pretty clearly want to make criminal justice less punishing, and wrote a book about that. Another book Kleiman's co-authored, which we've promoted on this web site and which Phil complimented in a book review, is "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know." (You can order a complimentary copy from us if making a donation of $35 or more.)

A quote that caused some consternation among reformers is one he gave to the LA Times during California's 2010 Prop 19 campaign:

"There's one problem with legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis at the state level: It can't be done. The federal Controlled Substances Act makes it a felony to grow or sell cannabis. California can repeal its own marijuana laws, leaving enforcement to the feds. But it can't legalize a federal felony. Therefore, any grower or seller paying California taxes on marijuana sales or filing pot-related California regulatory paperwork would be confessing, in writing, to multiple federal crimes. And that won't happen."
 

I think the quote deserves some criticism. Medical marijuana provision is also a federal felony, under the same law Kleiman cited with regard to legalization of marijuana. Kleiman's arguments in the piece -- that the feds can afford to largely ignore the medical marijuana industry only because prices remain high, and because regulation of medicine is traditionally a state matter -- are unpersuasive to me. Administrations in power during the medical marijuana years have not suggested that medical marijuana is a state matter; even Obama's inconsistently-respected "not a priority" position about going after businesses operating in compliance with state law, made clear that they can go after any medical marijuana business if they think it's in the federal interest to do so. And Kleiman or his coauthors during book talks and related fora I've attended have argued that we don't know what will happen to marijuana prices following state legalization in the face of continuing federal prohibition. One reason they've argued it might not is that federal prohibition makes it too risky to set up the very large scale growing and distribution infrastructures that are needed to bring down prices in the way that we'd predict from legalization at all governmental levels.

Still, I count myself among the optimistic when it comes to Kleiman's work for Washington State. Kleiman prefers a very non-commercial form of legalization to any big sales model. But he's also suggested the federal government allow the Washington and Colorado experiments with legalization to take place. And whatever quotes I might take issue with from time to time, Kleiman is a very serious academic who's written extensively about the issue; and he's not a drug warrior, even if his support for legalization, even of just marijuana, tends toward the tepid. I expect he'll do the best job he can on this very high profile assignment -- that assignment being to advise on the implementation of legalization, not on whether it's a good idea. (I also saw Kleiman wearing a Students for Sensible Drug Policy t-shirt at the Takoma Park Folk Festival one year. :-)) I can think of plenty of people who might have been in the running for the job, who would make me a lot more nervous than Kleiman. But time will tell.

Anyway, along with some articles linked here, CNN has pitched an interview with "Washington State's New Pot Czar" on "Erin Burnett OutFront" tomorrow (Tuesday) night. Perhaps the interview will provide some indicators of where Kleiman might go with this.

More Overreaching Arguments Against Marijuana Legalization by DEA Chiefs and the UN

Colorado billboard, 2012
The International Narcotics Control Board, a UN agency, and eight former DEA administrators came out swinging this week against marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington. The INCB says the state laws violate UN treaties. The DEA chiefs want the Obama administration to sue to block the laws.

Both of those positions may be overreaches. It's true that federal marijuana legalization would require revision of the drug treaties, if the US is not to be in violation of them (or for the US to do what Bolivia did by withdrawing and then rejoining "with reservations"). Legalization by Congress even just within states that have enacted it is also a likely treaty issue. But Colorado and Washington aren't parties to the treaties, and federal law remains in force within those states. The states have simply ceased to contribute their own resources to a part of the prohibition program. Under our federal system they very probably have the legal right to do so.

And that is why the DEA chiefs have overreached as well. When one says that federal law is supreme in this area, it means that federal agents can use the powers they have to bring criminal or civil actions against marijuana users or sellers, despite the passage of state laws -- the Raich case decided that for medical marijuana, for reasons that would seem to apply to fully legalized marijuana too. But that doesn't mean the states have to help them. We have a federal system. As I've pointed out previously, no federal prosecutor in 16 years of state medical marijuana laws has ever argued in court that the states can't have those laws on their books. Clearly they've had incentive to do so, if they thought they could win that way.

I don't argue that we know for sure how these points will come out if they are adjudicated -- it is new legal territory. But most legal scholars seem to think a preemption ruling would be a long shot outcome. So that is how it looks to me.

[If you haven't already, please order the two recent reports, from the Cato Institute and the London School of Economics, addressing these two very issues -- available in harcopy on our web site for a small donation.]

The Top Ten Drug Policy Stories of 2012 [FEATURE]

In some ways, 2012 has been a year of dramatic, exciting change in drug policy, as the edifice of global drug prohibition appears to crumble before our eyes. In other ways it is still business as usual in the drug war. Marijuana prohibition is now mortally wounded, but there were still three-quarters of a million pot arrests last year. The American incarceration mania appears to be running its course, but drug arrests continue to outnumber any other category of criminal offense. There is a rising international clamor for a new drug paradigm, but up until now, it's just talk.

The drug prohibition paradigm is trembling, but it hasn't collapsed yet -- we are on the cusp of even more interesting times. Below, we look at the biggest drug policy stories of 2012 and peer a bit into the future:

1. Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana!

Voters in Colorado and Washington punched an enormous and historic hole in the wall of marijuana prohibition in November. While Alaska has for some years allowed limited legal possession in the privacy of one's home, thanks to the privacy provisions of the state constitution, the November elections marked the first time voters in any state have chosen to legalize marijuana. This is an event that has made headlines around the world, and for good reason -- it marks the repudiation of pot prohibition in the very belly of the beast.

And it isn't going away. The federal government may or may not be able to snarl efforts by the two states to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce, but few observers think it can force them to recriminalize marijuana possession. It's now legal to possess up to an ounce in both states and to grow up to six plants in Colorado and -- barring a sudden reversal of political will in Washington or another constitutional amendment in Colorado -- it's going to stay that way. The votes in Colorado and Washington mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition.

2. Nationally, Support for Marijuana Legalization Hits the Tipping Point

If Colorado and Washington are the harbingers of change, the country taken as a whole is not far behind, at least when it comes to public opinion. All year, public opinion polls have showed support for marijuana legalization hovering right around 50%, in line with last fall's Gallup poll that showed steadily climbing support for legalization and support at 50% for the first time. A Gallup poll this month showed a 2% drop in support, down to 48%, but that's within the margin of error for the poll, and it's now a downside outlier.

Four other polls released this month
demonstrate a post-election bump for legalization sentiment. Support for legalization came in at 47%, 51%, 54%, and 57%, including solid majority support in the West and Northeast. The polls also consistently find opposition to legalization strongest among older voters, while younger voters are more inclined to free the weed.

As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it after his survey came up with 51% support for legalization, "This is the first time Quinnipiac University asked this question in its national poll so there is no comparison from earlier years. It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

Caravan for Peace vigil, Brownsville, Texas, August 2012
3. Global Rejection of the Drug War

International calls for alternatives to drug prohibition continued to grow ever louder this year. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the voices for reform took to the stage at global venues such as the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

While calls for a new paradigm came from across the globe, including commissions in Australia and the United Kingdom, this was the year of the Latin American dissidents. With first-hand experience with the high costs of enforcing drug prohibition, regional leaders including Colombian President Santos, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, and even then-Mexican President Calderon all called this spring for serious discussion of alternatives to the drug war, if not outright legalization. No longer was the critique limited to former presidents.

That forced US President Obama to address the topic at the Summit of the Americas and at least acknowledge that "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places" before dismissing legalization as a policy option. But the clamor hasn't gone away -- instead, it has only grown louder -- both at the UN in the fall and especially since two US states legalized marijuana in November.

While not involved in the regional calls for an alternative paradigm, Uruguayan President Mujica made waves with his announcement of plans to legalize the marijuana commerce there (possession was never criminalized). That effort appears at this writing to have hit a bump in the road, but the proposal and the reaction to it only added to the clamor for change.

4. Mexico's Drug War: The Poster Child for Drug Legalization

Mexico's orgy of prohibition-related violence continues unabated with its monstrous death toll somewhere north of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000 during the Calderon sexenio, which ended this month. Despite all the killings, despite Calderon's strategy of targeting cartel capos, despite the massive deployment of the military, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid for the military campaign, the flow of drugs north and guns and money south continues largely unimpeded and Mexico -- and now parts of Central America, as well -- remain in the grip of armed criminals who vie for power with the state itself.

With casualty figures now in the range of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and public safety and security in tatters, Calderon's misbegotten drug war has become a lightning rod for critics of drug prohibition, both at home and around the world. In the international discussion of alternatives to the status quo -- and why we need them -- Mexico is exhibit #1.

And there's no sign things are going to get better any time soon. While Calderon's drug war may well have cost him and his party the presidency (and stunningly returned it to the old ruling party, the PRI, only two elections after it was driven out of office in disgrace), neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.

The Mexican drug wars have also sparked a vibrant and dynamic civil society movement, the Caravan for Peace and Justice, led by poet and grieving father Javier Sicilia. After crisscrossing Mexico last year, Sicilia and his fellow Mexican activists crossed the border this summer for a three-week trek across the US, where their presence drew even more attention to the terrible goings on south of the border.

5. Medical Marijuana Continues to Spread, Though the Feds Fight Back

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and while there was only one new one this year, this has been a year of back-filling. Medical marijuana dispensaries have either opened or are about to open in a number of states where it has been legal for years but delayed by slow or obstinate elected officials (Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, DC) or in states that more recently legalized it (Massachusetts).

None of the newer medical marijuana states are as wide open as California, Colorado, or Montana (until virtual repeal last year), as with each new state, the restrictions seem to grow tighter and the regulation and oversight more onerous and constricting. Perhaps that will protect them from the tender mercies of the Justice Department, which, after two years of benign neglect, changed course last year, undertaking concerted attacks on dispensaries and growers in all three states. That offensive was ongoing throughout 2012, marked by federal prosecutions and medical marijuana providers heading to federal prison in Montana. While federal prosecutions have been less resorted to in California and Colorado, federal raids and asset forfeiture threat campaigns have continued, resulting in the shuttering of dozens of dispensaries in Colorado and hundreds in California. There is no sign of a change of heart at the Justice Department, either.

6. The Number of Drug War Prisoners is Decreasing

The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced recently that the number of people in America's state and federal prisons had declined for the second year in a row at year's end 2011. The number and percentage of drug war prisoners is declining, too. A decade ago, the US had nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges; now that number has declined to a still horrific 330,000 (not including people doing local jail time). And while a decade ago, the percentage of people imprisoned for drug charges was somewhere between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, that percentage has now dropped to 17%.

That decline is mostly attributable to sentencing reforms in the states, which, unlike the federal government, actually have to balance their budgets. Especially as economic hard times kicked in in 2008, spending scarce taxpayer resources on imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders became fiscally and politically less tenable. The passage of the Proposition 36 "three strikes" sentencing reform in California in November, which will keep people from being sentenced to up to life in prison for trivial third offenses, including drug possession, is but the latest example of the trend away from mass incarceration for drug offenses.

The federal government is the exception. While state prison populations declined last year (again), the federal prison population actually increased by 3.1%. With nearly 95,000 drug offenders doing federal time, the feds alone account for almost one-third of all drug war prisoners.

President Obama could exercise his pardon power by granting clemency to drug war prisoners, but it is so far a power he has been loathe to exercise. An excellent first candidate for presidential clemency would be Clarence Aaron, the now middle-aged black man who has spent the past two decades behind bars for his peripheral role in a cocaine deal, but activists in California and elsewhere are also calling for Obama to free some of the medical marijuana providers now languishing in federal prisons. The next few days would be the time for him to act, if he is going to act this year.

7. But the Drug War Juggernaut Keeps On Rolling, Even if Slightly Out of Breath

NYC "stop and frisk" protest of mass marijuana arrests
According to annual arrest data released this summer by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges. The good news is that is a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

But that still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, and no other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

The war on drugs remains big business for law enforcement and prosecutors.

8. And So Does the Call to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients

Oblivious to constitutional considerations or cost-benefit analyses, legislators (almost always Republican) in as many as 30 states introduced bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients, people receiving unemployment benefits, or, in a few cases, anyone receiving any public benefit, including Medicaid recipients. Most would have called for suspicionless drug testing, which runs into problems with that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant or probable cause to undertake a search, while some attempted to get around that obstacle by only requiring drug testing upon suspicion. But that suspicion could be as little as a prior drug record or admitting to drug use during intake screening.

Still, when all the dust had settled, only three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- actually passed drug testing bills, and only Georgia's called for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. Bill sponsors may have been oblivious, but other legislators and stakeholders were not. And the Georgia bill is on hold, while the state waits to see whether the federal courts will strike down the Florida welfare drug testing bill on which it is modeled. That law is currently blocked by a federal judge's temporary injunction.

It wasn't just Republicans. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Roy Tomblin used an executive order to impose drug testing on applicants to the state's worker training program. (This week came reports that only five of more than 500 worker tests came back positive.) And the Democratic leadership in the Congress bowed before Republican pressures and okayed giving states the right to impose drug testing requirements on some unemployment recipients in return for getting an extension of unemployment benefits.

This issue isn't going away. Legislators in several states, including Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have already signaled they will introduce similar bills next year, and that number is likely to increase as solons around the country return to work.

9. The US Bans New Synthetic Drugs

In July, President Obama signed a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The bill targeted 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years. The drugs had previously been banned under emergency action by the DEA.

The federal ban came after more than half the states moved against the new synthetics, which have been linked to a number of side effects ranging from the inconvenient (panic attacks) to the life-threatening. States and localities continue to move against the new drugs, too.

While the federal ban demonstrates that the prohibitionist reflex is still strong, what is significant is the difficulty sponsors had in getting the bill passed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put a personal hold on the bill until mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were removed and also argued that such efforts were the proper purview of the states, not Washington. And for the first time, there were a substantial number of Congress members voting "no" on a bill to create a new drug ban.

10. Harm Reduction Advances by Fits and Starts, At Home and Abroad

Harm reduction practices -- needle exchanges, safer injection sites, and the like -- continued to expand, albeit fitfully, in both the US and around the globe. Faced with a rising number of prescription pain pill overdoses in the US -- they now outnumber auto accident fatalities -- lawmakers in a number of states have embraced "911 Good Samaritan" laws granting immunity from prosecution. Since New Mexico passed the first such law in 2007, nine others have followed. Sadly, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill this year.

Similarly, the use of the opioid antagonist naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and restore normal breathing in minutes, also expanded this year. A CDC report this year that estimated it had saved 10,000 lives will only help spread the word.

There has been movement internationally as well this year, including in some unlikely places. Kenya announced in June that it was handing out 50,000 syringes to injection drug users in a bid to reduce the spread of AIDS, and Colombia announced in the fall plans to open safe consumption rooms for cocaine users in Bogota. That's still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs unanimously supported a resolution calling on the World Health Organization and other international bodies to promote measures to reduce overdose deaths, including the expanded use of naloxone; Greece announced it was embracing harm reduction measures, including handing out needles and condoms, to fight AIDS; long-awaited Canadian research called for an expansion of safe injection sites to Toronto and Ottawa; and Denmark first okayed safe injection sites in June, then announced it is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection. France, too, announced it was going ahead with safe injection sites, which could be open by the time you read this.  

This has been another year of slogging through the mire, with some inspiring victories and some oh-so-hard-fought battles, not all of which we won. But after a century of global drug prohibition, the tide appears to be turning, not least here in the US, prohibition's most powerful proponent. There is a long way to go, but activists and advocates can be forgiven if they feel like they've turned a corner. Now, we can put 2012 to bed and turn our eyes to the year ahead.

The Next Seven States to Legalize Marijuana?

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/rolling-stone-marijuana-states-map-200px.jpg
The Rolling Stone map marks medical marijuana states with a leaf/red cross icon, medical marijuana states they judge as likely to legalize with a smaller icon and green check mark, and Washington and Colorado with a leaf and smiley face.
Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson continues his coverage of marijuana legalization with a not unjustifiably optimistic article, "The Next Seven States to Legalize Pot." Dickinson's predictions: Oregon, California, Nevada, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, and Alaska. Some of the states are more intuitively obvious than others, such as California, and even Oregon despite the loss. But Dickinson offers reasonable reasons to be hopeful about the others.

Oregon's Measure 80 is an interesting case. While it was reported as losing 45-55, the pro total actually crept up to 46.3% when all the returns were finally counted. This was with virtually no funding, though perhaps benefiting from discussion of the issue in neighboring Washington, and with language that was far more radical in most respects than either Washington's or Colorado's measures. With a better-written initiative and the funding that would likely attract, and with legalization happening next door as Dickinson pointed out, Oregon could be a winner soon -- if not 2014 and the expected more conservative turnout expected in an off year election, then in 2016.

Also interesting about Oregon, is that I thought the loss there while two other states passed would settle the debate over how to write an initiative -- whether to poll and do focus groups and write one that the research says can pass, or to just go for broke with the language you like -- the two initiatives that did the former won, the one that did the latter lost. But given how well Measure 80 did despite having no funding has some activists including a number of friends of mine saying that we don't have to compromise, or compromise as much, in order to win. If the funds come on board, the money and the real campaign it would enable could make up those 3.7 percentage points, is the reasoning.

I don't believe the money would make up those percentage points. I believe it is more likely that there is a swath of voters who agree with legalization in principle, but are picky about what kind of initiative they would approve, and that initiatives written the right way for them (or for the opinion leaders they take seriously like the former law enforcement and others who supported Washington's I-502) probably swung a significant percentage of voters. I think that Oregon was a special case, because of what was happening at the same time in Washington. And I think that a real campaign in Oregon, would have resulted in a greater amount of discussion about the details of the Oregon initiative (especially if polls suggested it had a chance), increasing the negative impact that certain aspects of it would have had on the aforementioned picky legalization supporters.

But do I know that for sure? No. Oregon's vote should certainly be studied to see what can be learned. So should Colorado's, a system that is pretty different from and a lot more open than Washington's. (At a Cato forum last week, former DEA chief Asa Hutchinson scarcely even mentioned Washington.)

One way or another, it is very likely that a page of history turned last month. Whether as many as seven states will go for legalization in the next few years, or whether Rolling Stone has called all the right ones, only time can tell. But the optimism is certainly appropriate -- time is on the side of marijuana legalization, and I hope for overall drug reform as well.

Slim Majority of New Yorkers Say Legalize Marijuana

A Quinnipiac poll released last Friday has New Yorkers supporting marijuana legalization by a narrow majority. The poll found 51% supported marijuana legalization, with 44% opposed.

That puts New York in line with the rest of the country, where most post-election polls are showing support for legalization at over 50%. Those polls come in the wake of victories for the Amendment 64 and Initiative 502 marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington, respectively.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been pushing marijuana decriminalization, but the Quinnipiac poll suggests New Yorkers are ahead of their political leaders on the issue of marijuana reform.

New York City has achieved notoriety as the marijuana arrest capital of the world, with the NYPD arresting tens of thousands of mainly young black and brown men each year. Despite recent reforms, those numbers have yet to significantly decrease.

In a report released last month, Human Rights Watch found that between 1996 and 2011, the NYPD arrested more than 563,000 people for possession of marijuana in public (typically after police intimidate them into emptying their pockets and revealing their baggies), including nearly 100,000 in 2010 and 2011 alone. Neither Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor the NYPD "has ever provided a detailed justification for the high number of marijuana arrests, suggesting only that the arrests improve public safety," the report noted.

But the report also examined the subsequent criminal histories of the 2003 and 2004 cohorts of New York City pot possession arrestees. It found that more than 90% of them had not subsequently been arrested on a felony charge.

The Quinnipiac poll found majority support for legalization in New York City (54%) and its suburbs (50%), and a plurality (49%) for legalization upstate. Majorities supported freeing the weed in every age group except seniors, while majorities of Democrats (56%) and independents (57%) also favored legalization. Only 33% of Republicans did.

Men were more likely to support legalization (56%) than women (47%), while people with college degrees were more likely to support it (58%) than those without (47%). People who identified themselves as belonging to a religious denomination had levels of support ranging from 46% to 48%, while 70% of those who said they had no religion supported legalization.

Gov. Cuomo has been talking decriminalization. Given last month's election results and this month's polling, perhaps he should raise his sights.

The poll contacted 1,302 New York state voters between December 5 and 10 and asked"Do you think that the use of marijuana should be made legal in New York State, or not?" The poll has a margin of error of +/- 2.7 percentage points.

NY
United States

Legalization and the UN Drug Treaties -- A Minor Obstacle at Worst

I have criticized the ease with which some media outlets and even some reformers have accepted the argument made by prohibitionist advocates that courts are certain to overturn the Washington and Colorado marijuana legalization initiatives, or their regulatory systems at least, based on federal supremacy. Most legal scholars in the news have expressed skepticism that a preemption challenge of the laws, as it's called, would succeed, though we can't know for sure until and unless that goes through the courts.

Another argument that's been made is that legalization would violate US obligations as signatories to the UN's international drug control treaties, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and two others. While it's not clear that state legalization existing alongside continuing federal prohibition including those states would violate the treaties, the argument is somewhat more tenable with respect to the possibilities of federal legalization or even of federal exceptions to prohibition in those states. My understanding of the treaties is that they discourage but do permit legal drug possession (given a public health system in place for addressing drug abuse), but not legal production and sales excepting medicine and research.

How easy would this to be address? Pretty easy. Bolivia did it this year. That nation has had problems with the treaty ban on coca growing, even for traditional purposes (purposes other than cocaine) as has been done in Bolivia for thousands of years. Attempts to enforce the ban through US-backed eradication programs have fomented civil instability, ultimately leading to a backlash in which a coca grower and indigenous leader, Evo Morales, won the presidency in 2006. (Shameless promotional fact: Morales's vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, spoke at our 2003 conference.)

What happened is that the Morales administration sought a modification to the Single Convention to address the coca issue, but was rebuffed. So late last year, they withdrew from it. Then they announced they would rejoin the treaty on January 1, but with "reservations" stating their non-participation with respect to the coca provision. If one third of member nations object to Bolivia's readmission to the treaty -- by the end of this year, if I'm not mistaken -- they can be prevented from rejoining it, and potentially have problems in some regulatory areas. But other countries would suffer problems from that as well, and it is unlikely.

The US could do that too. Or, and better, we could seek the revision of the treaties to permit legalization. The US would be powerful enough to pull that off, and the rest of the world is mostly concerned with their own interests and are not clamoring for the continuation of marijuana prohibition in the US in any case.

One way or another, it will be pretty easy to handle the drug treaties, once the political will exists here to enact legalization under our own laws. The treaties are a valid issue, but not a difficult one to surmount.

Obama Comments Beg the Question on Marijuana Legalization

In an interview last Friday with ABC News' Barbara Walters, President Obama said going after marijuana smokers in states that have legalized it should not be a "top priority" of federal law enforcement, but he failed to address how the federal government would respond to efforts by state governments in Colorado and Washington to implement taxation and regulation schemes for legal marijuana commerce.

President Barack Obama (whitehouse.gov)
Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington were both approved by voters in last month's elections. Their provisions legalizing marijuana possession (and cultivation in Colorado) are already in effect, but officials in the two states are now charged with crafting those taxation and regulation rules.

The looming question is what the federal government will do about that. President Obama's comments Friday did not shed new light on that topic.

"We've got bigger fish to fry" than going after individual pot smokers in Colorado and Washington, Obama said. "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."

That is in parallel with the administration's approach to medical marijuana. It has not gone after individual patients, but in the past two years, the Obama Justice Department has vigorously and aggressively targeted medical marijuana cultivators and dispensaries for raids, threats of asset forfeiture, and, more rarely, federal criminal prosecutions.

Obama also told Walters that he does not support marijuana legalization "at this point," but he added that shifting public opinion -- polls are now showing majorities in favor of legalization -- and questions about how to allocate limited government resources are good reasons to seek to find a middle ground on dealing with the weed.

The president also said he had asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to look into how to resolve the conflict between state and federal laws. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

"I head up the executive branch; we're supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we're going to need to have is a conversation about is how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it's legal?" Obama said.

Holder said last Wednesday that he expected a Justice Department review to be completed "relatively soon."

While Obama notoriously partook of the weed in his youth, being a leading member of the "Choom Gang" of serious recreational puffers, according to biographer David Maraniss, he has downplayed his own use and not favored marijuana legalization. He told Walters Friday he had regrets over his youthful behavior.

"There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid," Obama told Walters. "My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society. "I want to discourage drug use," he added.

Washington, DC
United States

Prohibitionists are Overstating Feds vs. State Marijuana Legalization Case to Media

A mostly great piece in Rolling Stone this weekend, "Obama's Pot Problem," missed the mark on the federal preemption question -- can the feds shut down Washington and Colorado's legalized regulation systems? Tim Dickinson wrote the following on that subject:

[T]he administration appears to have an open-and-shut case: Federal law trumps state law when the two contradict. What's more, the Supreme Court has spoken on marijuana law: In the 2005 case Gonzales v. Raich contesting medical marijuana in California, the court ruled that the federal government can regulate even tiny quantities of pot – including those grown and sold purely within state borders – because the drug is ultimately connected to interstate commerce. If the courts side with the administration, a judge could issue an immediate injunction blocking Washington and Colorado from regulating or taxing the growing and selling of pot – actions that would be considered trafficking under the Controlled Substances Act.
 

But a former Bush administration official quoted in the New York Times on Thursday, former DOJ civil division head Gregory Katsas, made the opposite prediction. Katsas was "skeptical" that a preemption lawsuit would succeed, according to the Times. Why? Perhaps because it's not just that the feds can't force states to criminalize drug possession, as Kevin Sabet selectively pointed out to Dickinson. It's also the case that they probably can't directly force the states to criminalize sales either. The Controlled Substances Act in fact leans against federal preemption of state drug policy, as pointed out in a law professors brief on preemption submitted in a California case this year.

Dickinson also pointed out that federal officials had used threats to prosecute state employees involved in implementing regulations for medical marijuana. In my opinion the US Attorney letters were deliberately vague -- scary enough to influence state officials, but in most if not all cases stopping short of explicitly making that threat. A better piece of evidence, I think, is that in 16 years of state medical marijuana laws, no federal prosecutor has ever tried to actually invalidate such a law in court, not even after the Raich ruling. Why not? They must not think they have a slam dunk case. And if preemption is not a slam dunk for medical marijuana, then it's not a slam dunk when it comes to legalization either, although there are additional arguments to throw against full legalization.

The reality is that no one knows how this will turn out if it goes to court. Raich established that federal police agencies can use their powers in medical marijuana states to continue to criminalize marijuana federally, justified by the Interstate Commerce Clause. But that is not the same as having the power to forbid states from granting exceptions to the states' own anti-marijuana sales laws, which in legal terms is what the regulatory frameworks do, and plenty of smart lawyers are skeptical that they can do that. This is not a slam dunk either way.

Majority Says Feds Should Stay Out of Marijuana Legalization States

A slight majority of adults say the federal government should not attempt to enforce federal marijuana laws in states which have voted to legalize it, according to a new YouGov poll. Some 51% of respondents said the federal government should "exempt adults who follow state law from enforcement."

The poll was conducted December 5 and 6 among 1,000 adults. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.4%.

The poll comes as the Obama administration ponders how to respond to last month's passage of marijuana legalization measures Amendment 64 in Colorado and I-502 in Washington. While possession of up to an ounce by adults became legal last week in Washington and will become legal within weeks in Colorado, both states have a matter of months to come up with regulatory structures for commercial marijuana cultivation and distribution.

There has been speculation that the administration may attempt to block the regulatory and tax components on the initiatives, but this poll suggest little support for that among the public.

Fewer than one-third (30%) of respondents said the federal government should "enforce the drugs laws the same way it does in other states," while an unusually high 20% of respondents were not sure.

This is the second poll this month to find a majority saying the question of legalization should be left to the states. A CBS News poll last week  had 59% of respondents saying it should be up to the states. Like the YouGuv poll, this poll had only about one-third (34%) saying it should be up to the federal government.

What Happens Next?

We noted this morning that marijuana is now legal in Washington State. (!) But what happens next?

As WA press noted, federal authorities had no plans to intervene at this time -- the expected celebrations proceeded unmolested, at least we've not heard of any problems.

Seattle skyline
Of course that's not what the feds would do. As we've noted here, most law enforcement is state and county and local -- federal arrests for marijuana possession are a rarity, and mostly occur in places like national parks that are specifically federally controlled. Thinkers within and without our movement have been speculating what the federal response might be and what options they will legally have at their disposal once the courts weigh in.

As one of our advisors, Eric Sterling, commented in our newsletter after the election, officials at the Dept. of Justice were taken by surprise, perhaps by the passage of the initiatives and certainly by the strong margins of victory. A New York Times story today by Jack Healy noted that the Obama administration has yet to announce any policy on the matter, but have simply noted that federal law remains unchanged. According to the article, officials asked about it referred to a statement released yesterday by the US Attorney in Seattle, Jenny Durkan:

"In enacting the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance," [Durkan] said. "Regardless of any changes in state law, including the change that will go into effect on December 6 in Washington State, growing, selling or possessing any amount of marijuana remains illegal under federal law."
 

Which tells us nothing we didn't know. But Durkan did say that the administration is reviewing the initiatives. And according to Healy's article, "several people familiar with the [administration's] deliberations" say they are considering legal action. There are a few legal issues at stake:

  • Can the government "preempt" the states' regulatory systems -- that is, not just raid marijuana stores if they choose to, but prevent the state from exempting any growers or distributors or sellers under state law?
  • If they can, will that endanger the rest of the laws? The argument for that, Healy posits, would be that voters mightn't have passed the laws without the regulations.
  • Do the state laws run afoul of our government's treaty obligations, particularly the 1961 Single Convention on Drugs?

Many scholars are skeptical that a preemption challenge would succeed. Gregory Katsas, a DOJ official in the George W. Bush administration, pointed out to the Times that there is nothing in the laws that prevent the federal government from bringing marijuana cases in the states. The argument there is that the laws are not in "positive conflict" with the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), despite their clear "tension" with it. Several legal scholars submitted a brief in a California case on this subject earlier this year taking that viewpoint.

My takeaway from the brief was that the feds might not be able to preempt even the regulatory portions of the laws, and would probably have to amend the CSA to have a chance. The very same law that would be invoked in a court case, is the same one at work in prohibition of medical marijuana. And in 16 years of state medical marijuana laws, including now 10 dispensary states, no federal prosecutor has sought to invalidate any of these laws in court. That suggests they are not confident of what their prospects would be.

Regarding the treaties, my guess would be that the same reasons federal law might not preempt state marijuana legalization applies to the treaties too -- marijuana is still federally illegal. The treaties do seem to frown even legalized possession. But they explicitly allow for alternatives to criminalizing possession, such as health and education-based approaches -- which we don't have as much of as we should, but which we do have. So it's not clear that the treaties will be a problem either.

All that said, we do not know what will happen, and Congress's power to regulate commerce is broad -- the pressure on the feds to do something is greater, and the set of arguments they can bring to court are more numerous.

I am excited but also anxious about what may happen next. Are Amendment 64 and I-502 going to federal court? What will the courts say? Will the feds try to scare Washington and Colorado officials from implementing regulations -- will the states' governors stand up to them if they do, or will they seek delays as happened in a number of medical marijuana states? Will the federal raids being made against medical marijuana facilities be expanded when legalized marijuana stories eventually open? Such a strategy would be more effective in Washington, less so in Colorado where there will be more stores and where home growing is legal. But they can probably take down anyone in Colorado as they choose. Will there be threats to withhold highway funds over the laws, or law enforcement funds?

Hopefully the Obama administration will finally choose to be on the right side of history on this issue. But we'll ses. What happens next? For now we wait -- I am nervous but also excited.

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