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Feature: Marijuana Reform Approaches the Tipping Point

Sometime in the last few months, the notion of legalizing marijuana crossed an invisible threshold. Long relegated to the margins of political discourse by the conventional wisdom, pot freedom has this year gone mainstream.
Is reason dawning for marijuana policy?
The potential flu pandemic and President Obama's 100th day in office may have knocked marijuana off the front pages this week, but so far this year, the issue has exploded in the mass media, impelled by the twin forces of economic crisis and Mexican violence fueled by drug prohibition. A Google news search for the phrase "legalize marijuana" turned up more than 1,100 hits -- and that's just for the month of April.

It has been helped along by everything from the Michael Phelps non-scandal to the domination of marijuana legalization questions in the questions, which prompted President Obama to laugh off the very notion, to the economy, to the debate over the drug war in Mexico. But it has also been ineffably helped along by the lifting of the oppressive burden of Bush administration drug war dogma. There is a new freedom in the air when it comes to marijuana.

Newspaper columnists and editorial page writers from across the land have taken up the cause with gusto, as have letter writers and bloggers. Last week, even a US senator got into the act, when Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) told CNN that marijuana legalization is "on the table."

But despite the seeming explosion of interest in marijuana legalization, the actual fact of legalization seems as distant as ever, a distant vision obscured behind a wall of bureaucracy, vested interests, and craven politicians. Drug War Chronicle spoke with some movement movers and shakers to find out just what's going on... and what's not.

"There is clearly more interest and serious discussion of whether marijuana prohibition makes any sense than I've seen at any point in my adult lifetime," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's not just the usual suspects; it's people like Jack Cafferty on CNN and Senator Jim Webb, as well as editorial pages and columnists across the country."

Mirken cited a number of factors for the sudden rise to prominence of the marijuana issue. "I think it's a combination of things: Michael Phelps, the horrible situation on the Mexican border, the state of the economy and the realization that there is a very large industry out there that provides marijuana to millions of consumers completely outside the legal economy that is untaxed and unregulated," he said. "All of these factors have come together in a way that makes it much easier for people to connect the dots."

"Things started going white hot in the second week of January," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "We had the fallout from the Michael Phelps incident, the marijuana question to Obama and his chuckling response, we have the Mexico violence, we have the economic issues," he counted. "All of these things have helped galvanize a certain zeitgeist that is palpable and that almost everyone can appreciate."

"The politicians are still very slow on picking up on the desires of citizens no matter how high the polling numbers go, especially on decriminalization and medical marijuana," said St. Pierre. "The polling numbers are over 70% for those, and support for legalization nationwide is now at about 42%, depending on which data set you use. Everything seems to be breaking for reform in these past few weeks, and I expect those numbers to only go up."

"It feels like we're reaching the tipping point," said Amber Langston, eastern region outreach director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "I've been feeling that for a couple of months now. The Michael Phelps incident sent a clear message that you can be successful and still have used marijuana. He's still a hero to lots of people," she said.

"I think we're getting close now," said Langston. "We have moved the conversation to the next level, where people are actually taking this seriously and we're not just having another fear-based discussion."

"There is definitely momentum building around marijuana issues," said Denver-based Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation), which has built a successful strategy around comparing alcohol and marijuana. "Yet we still find ourselves in a situation where change is not happening. Up until now, people have made arguments around criminal justice savings, other economic benefits, ending the black market -- those things have got us to where we are today, but they haven't been enough to get elected officials to act," he argued.

"The problem is that there are still far too many people who see marijuana as so harmful it shouldn't be legalized," Tvert continued. "That suggests we need to be doing more to address the relative safety of marijuana, especially compared to drugs like alcohol. The good arguments above will then carry more weight. Just as a concerned parent doesn't want to reap the tax benefits of legal heroin, it's the same with marijuana. The mantra is why provide another vice. What we're saying is that we're providing an alternative for the millions who would prefer to use marijuana instead of alcohol."

With the accumulation of arguments for legalization growing ever weightier, the edifice of marijuana prohibition seems increasingly shaky. "Marijuana prohibition has become like the Soviet Empire circa 1987 or 1988," Mirken analogized. "It's an empty shell of a policy that continues only because it is perceived as being huge and formidable, but when the perception changes, the whole thing is going to collapse."

Still, translating the zeitgeist into real change remains a formidable task, said Mirken. "It is going to take hard work. All of us need to keep finding ways to keep these discussions going in the media, we need to work with open-minded legislators to get bills introduced where there can be hearings to air the facts and where we can refute the nonsense that comes from our opponents. Keeping the debate front and center is essential," he said.

Mirken is waiting for the other shoe to drop. "We have to be prepared for an empire strikes back moment," he said. "I predict that within the next year, there will be a concerted effort to scare the daylights out of people about marijuana."

Activists need to keep hammering away at both the federal government and state and local governments, Mirken said. "We are talking to members of Congress and seeing what might be doable. Even if nothing passes immediately, introducing a bill can move the discussion forward, but realistically, things are more likely to happen at the state and local level," he said, citing the legalization bill in California and hinting that MPP would try legalization in Nevada again.

Part of the problem of the mismatch between popular fervor and actual progress on reform is partisan positioning, said St. Pierre. "Even politicians who may be personally supportive and can appreciate what they see going on around them as this goes mainstream do not want to hand conservative Republicans a triangulation issue. The Democrats are begging for a certain degree of political maturity from the reform movement," he said. "They're dealing with two wars, tough economic times, trying to do health care reform. They don't want to raise cannabis to a level where it becomes contentious for Obama."

The window of opportunity for presidential action is four years down the road, St. Pierre suggested. "If Obama doesn't do anything next year, they will then be in reelection mode and unlikely to act," he mused. "I think our real shot comes after he is reelected. Then we have two years before he becomes a lame duck."

But we don't have to wait for Obama, said St. Pierre. "We expect Barney Frank and Ron Paul to reintroduce decriminalization and medical marijuana bills," he said. "I don't think they will pass this year, but we might get hearings, although I don't think that's likely until the fall."

It's not just that politicians need to understand that supporting marijuana legalization will not hurt them -- they need to understand that standing its way will. "The politicians aren't feeling the pain of being opposed to remain," St. Pierre said. "We have to take out one of those last remaining drug war zealots."

Drug Legalization Cited During Jon Stewart/Jim Cramer Interview, Then Edited Out

With the help of our intern, Stacia Cosner of SSDP fame, we put together this short video last week:

Feature: Drug Reformers Boycott Kellogg Cereals Over Dumping of Michael Phelps Over Bong Photo

Mixing equal parts genuine outrage and political calculation, major elements of the drug reform movement have begun a national boycott of cereal giant Kellogg over its treatment of Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. Phelps was famously caught holding a bong in a photograph that surfaced last week, leading Kellogg to refuse to renew his endorsement contract.
Michael Phelps
So far, Kellogg stands alone in dumping Phelps. Other corporations with which he had endorsement deals, such as Subway, have stood by him. He has been handed a three-month suspension by Colorado Springs-based USA Swimming , which is now under attack for its treatment of the Olympic champion by the Colorado activists of Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), led by Mason Tvert.

In a statement last week, the Michigan-based Kellogg said Phelps' behavior was "not consistent with the image of Kellogg." Oddly enough, Kellogg did not have a problem with Phelps' 2004 conviction for drunk driving. As recently as last fall, Kellogg's was touting its partnership with the hero of the Beijing Olympics.

"Michael's commitment to encouraging healthy lifestyles, especially among children, is in line with our many programs that educate consumers and promote good nutrition," said Brad Davidson, president of Kellogg North America. "He demonstrates that winning is not just about the glory that comes with gold medals, but that it's also about good sportsmanship, eating right, working hard and being your best."

Kellogg did not respond to Drug War Chronicle calls and emails this week requesting comment.

As the Phelps affair rocketed through the media -- it has been the subject of countless mass media reports, sports columns, and blog postings -- anger over Kellogg's treatment of the talented swimmer percolated through the drug reform community, as well as among marijuana aficionados everywhere.

"Kellogg's dismissal of Phelps is hypocritical and disgusting, and our members are angrier than I've ever seen them," said Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) executive director Rob Kampia. "Kellogg's had no problem signing up Phelps when he had a conviction for drunk driving, an illegal act that could actually have killed someone. To drop him for choosing to relax with a substance that's safer than beer is an outrage, and it sends a dangerous message to young people," he said.

"Kellogg is telling young people that drunk driving is okay, but using a social relaxant that's safer than beer gets you fired," Kampia continued. "That's not just outrageous, it's potentially lethal. We all know that boycotts are difficult to pull off, but the 100 million Americans who've made marijuana this nation's number one cash crop represent a lot of buying power -- buying power that Kellogg may wish it hadn't alienated."

MPP is by no means alone. In a coordinated effort, groups including the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and have endorsed the boycott.

And it isn't just the "pro-pot lobby," as some media have referred to the reform groups, that is upset. Kellogg was so inundated with calls complaining about its decision to dump Phelps that it had to set up a special phone line to handle them all. The Kellogg Phelps line was getting so many calls it was listed above the line for dealing with questions about salmonella-tainted peanut butter products.

''If you would like to share your comments regarding our relationship with Michael Phelps, please press one to speak to a representative,'' said the recording. ''If you're calling about the recent peanut butter recall, please press two now.''

Boycotts are iffy things; their success depends not only on mobilizing consumers to act, but also on the willingness of the target to be influenced. The groups involved in the boycott said they understood the chances of persuading Kellogg to reverse its decision were not great, but that helping Phelps regain his lucrative endorsement deal was not the only reason for the action.

"We are trying to bring attention to the fact that Michael Phelps has committed an act that millions and millions of Americans have committed," said Amber Langston, SSDP eastern region outreach director, who noted that about 25,000 people had signed on to the group's petition -- begun before the Kellogg announcement -- urging that Phelps not be barred from Olympic competition. "He's still a hero, he's not a bad person, and he doesn't deserve to be punished. Our students have really mobilized to let Kellogg know how we feel."

The Phelps bong brouhaha and the South Carolina arrests of students attending the party where he was photographed could have a silver lining, Langston said. "Those arrests were completely ridiculous, but some good could come of all this by bringing attention to the fact that people are being needlessly punished. Phelps should not be arrested, and neither should the people who were there with him."

Langston may be on to something. Media coverage of the affair has been remarkable in that it has sparked more coming out of the closet as pot smokers than ever before and notable for the mocking tone about the hand-wringing over Phelp's bong photo and marijuana in general.

"This has struck a nerve like never before," said DPA's Ethan Nadelmann. "It is a case of overreach that provides an opportunity for the movement," he said. "When you look at the overwhelming majority of responses to this, it was give me a break, we have a president who smoked pot, enough with this hypocrisy. They are trying to say this sends the wrong message to the kids, but this is a guy who brought home a dozen gold medals."

Kellogg's decision to dump Phelps provided a rare opening for the reform movement, said Nadelmann. It's easier to pressure a corporation than a government, he noted.

"One of the challenges we face in drug policy reform," said Nadelmann, "is that we don't often have the option of targeting corporations doing bad things because we are mostly opposed to government -- not corporate -- policies. But this is an easy case. Also, Kellogg is a very prominent company, and it is helpful to be able to go after a visible target. And to be able to say that millions of Americans will no longer be turning to Kellogg when they have the munchies is a laugh line, but it's also true."

"The boycott call gives us a venue to really put the issue in perspective and talk about why marijuana prohibition is harmful and counterproductive," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "It's a way to put the issue out into the public discussion. Nobody would care if this guy was photographed holding a martini or a bottle of beer, yet there is all this uproar despite there being no dispute that alcohol is the more dangerous drug."

And it's working, Mirken said. "We're a bit blown away by the intensity of the media attention around this. We've been doing radio interviews literally all day, and we have more scheduled for tonight," he said Wednesday. "Even if we don't change Kellogg's position -- and we know that effective boycotts are difficult -- this gives us a huge opportunity to educate the public about the fact that the laws don't make any sense."

Europe: Former British Anti-Drug Official Now Calls For Legalization

The man who was once responsible for coordinating the British government's drug policy now says drug legalization would be preferable to the current prohibitionist-style approach embraced by successive British governments. Julian Critchley, former director of the UK Anti-Drugs Coordination Unit in the Cabinet Office, said that his views were shared by "the overwhelming majority" of professionals in the field, but that the New Labor government played to a tabloid audience in setting drug policy, instead looking at the evidence for what worked and what didn't.

As director of the coordination unit, Critchley reported to then drug czar Keith Hellawell. The defection of such a high level player is yet another blow to Britain's prohibitionist drug policies, most recently scored as failing in a report from the UK Drug Policy Commission. It was in response to an online discussion of that report that Critchley took his stand.

Critchley first announced his change of heart during a BBC web site discussion on drug policy (see comment #73), then, after the Transform Drug Policy Foundation's Steve Rolles dug up and rug-co.html" target=_blank_>blogged about Critchley's comments Wednesday, exciting a British media frenzy, Critchley elaborated on them in The Independent on Thursday.

During his time with the anti-drug unit, "it became apparent to me that the available evidence pointed very clearly to the fact that enforcement and supply-side interventions were largely pointless. They have no significant, lasting impact on the availability, affordability or use of drugs," Critchley wrote on the BBC blog on July 30.

"It seems apparent to me that wishing drug use away is folly," he continued. "The only sensible cause of action is to minimize the damage caused to society by individuals' drugs choices. What harms society is the illegality of drugs and all the costs associated with that. There is no doubt at all that the benefits to society of the fall in crime as a result of legalization would be dramatic," he argued. "The argument always put forward against this is that there would be a commensurate increase in drug use as a result of legalization. This, it seems to me, is a bogus point : tobacco is a legal drug, whose use is declining, and precisely because it is legal, its users are far more amenable to Government control, education programs and taxation than they would be, were it illegal. Studies suggest that the market is already almost saturated, and anyone who wishes to purchase the drug of their choice, anywhere in the UK, can already do so. The idea that many people are holding back solely because of a law which they know is already unenforceable is simply ridiculous."

Hear, hear! But is anyone in the Gordon Brown government listening? Or are they busy trying to figure out what will sell with Daily Mail readers?

Media: David Borden in Televised Drug Legalization Debate

  • David Borden, Executive Director,, Washington, DC
  • Deirdre Boyd, CEO, Addiction Recovery Foundation, London
  • host: Shahab Mossavat

    part 1 of 3: embed:
    part 2 of 3: embed:
    part 3 of 3: embed:

    Click here to view the full one-hour program on David Borden did not appear in the first half due to technical problems. PressTV is an English-language network based in Teheran, which airs across Europe and the Middle East.

    references for statements made by David Borden:

  • Drug Legalization Debate, 6/26/08, 4 Corners Program, Press TV -- aired across Europe and the Middle East

  • David Borden, Executive Director,, Washington, DC
  • Deirdre Boyd, CEO, Addiction Recovery Foundation, London
  • host: Shahab Mossavat
  • part 1 of 3: embed: part 2 of 3: embed: part 3 of 3: embed: Click here to view the full one-hour program on David Borden did not appear in the first half due to technical problems. PressTV is an English-language network based in Teheran, which airs across Europe and the Middle East. references for statements made by David Borden:

    Inmate Count in US Dwarfs Other Nations

    United States
    New York Times

    Marijuana: Washington ACLU Wants to Start a National Conversation

    The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA) Wednesday launched a multimedia public education campaign designed to stimulate a national conversation on state and federal marijuana laws, their history, and their efficacy. The campaign, "Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation," includes an in-depth web site, an informational booklet, and a 30-minute video on DVD with travel writer and public television host Rick Steves. Additionally, the material will be available to Comcast subscribers through that company's On Demand service.
    Rick Steves in ACLU-WA video
    "I've traveled throughout Europe and seen how they handle marijuana use and enforcement. I've learned that more thoughtful approaches can work," said Steves. "We need the understanding to go beyond 'hard' or 'soft' on drugs and find a policy that is 'smart on drugs'."

    "We spend billions every year and arrest hundreds of thousands of Americans simply for possessing marijuana. We need to ask whether our laws are really working. Are they doing more harm than good?" said Washington ACLU executive director Kathleen Taylor in a statement announcing the campaign.

    Each year, roughly $7.5 billion is spent on marijuana law enforcement, and more than 800,000 Americans are arrested on marijuana charges, close to 90% of them for simple possession, the statement noted. Meanwhile, nearly 100 million Americans have used the popular plant.

    "Enforcement clogs our courts and criminal justice system, diverting resources from more serious crimes against people and property," said Taylor. "At the same time, an arrest for just possessing marijuana has a life-changing impact on people. We heard of people losing jobs and financial aid for college, and of patients fearing that they may be unable to get medical marijuana even when their doctors recommend it."

    "As a parent of two teens I care deeply about this issue," noted Steves. "I have seen how Europe has approached drug use as a public health issue instead of building more jails. I find it interesting that marijuana use in Europe among both teens and adults is actually less than it is here."

    "We think this is one of those times and issues where the public knows things aren't working, people have talked about it privately, but there is little or no public discussion," said Taylor. "We intend to engage the public in a discussion. We're excited to see where it goes."

    So... anybody want to start a conversation? The Washington ACLU is waiting to hear from you.

    Join MPP's online social networking revolution

    [Courtesy of MPP]

    One of the easiest — and most fun — ways you can promote marijuana policy reform is to get active in the world of online social networking.

    Not only are the popular social networking sites a great way to show your support for MPP, but you can also subscribe to our blogs and receive daily notices to stay up-to-date on the latest happenings in the marijuana policy reform movement, as well as meet and mingle with other supporters.

    You can get active with MPP on the following sites:

    • Become a friend of MPP on MySpace

    • Join the MPP Facebook cause

    • Become a friend of MPP on Facebook

    (In order to view our Facebook pages you’ll need to be a member, so if you don’t already have an account, just follow the “Sign Up” link on the main Facebook page.)

    • Subscribe to MPP's YouTube channel

    • Become a friend of MPP on Digg

    And there are many other ways you can help to end marijuana prohibition.

    1. Tell your friends to sign up for MPP's free e-mail alerts. Send them to today.

    2. Send letters to your three members of Congress using MPP's free and easy automated system.

    3. Volunteer to circulate sign-up sheets to subscribe others to MPP's free e-mail list. E-mail [email protected] to get started.

    4. Host a screening of the award-winning medical marijuana documentary Waiting to Inhale in your community. Contact [email protected] for more information (and please be sure to specify what state you live in).

    5. Download MPP's printer-friendly handouts and brochures and distribute our literature in your community.

    6. If you have a Web site or blog, link to MPP's site by downloading our banner ads, and encourage your Web site's visitors to check out MPP’s work.

    7. Use this link to shop at A portion of the proceeds from your purchases will go to MPP.

    8. Donate your car to MPP.

    9. Search the internet with GoodSearch instead of Google: Each click generates money for MPP.

    10. Encourage your friends to visit to become dues-paying members of MPP. MPP does not have an endowment or any revenue-generating investments, so we are 100% dependent upon the donations that people willingly give. This means that the extent of our campaigns is limited to the amount of money that 23,000 dues-paying members, a handful of major philanthropists, and new/future dues-paying members are willing to donate.

    Together, one person at a time, our work is paying off. On behalf of all of us at MPP, thank you for standing with us in this fight.


    Rob Kampia
    Executive Director
    Marijuana Policy Project
    Washington, D.C.

    United States

    Video: US Government Encourages Drug Offenders to Choose the Army Instead of College

    (As part of an effort to find students who are currently losing their financial aid eligibility because of drug convictions, our friends at Students for Sensible Drug Policy have put together a viral YouTube video to raise awareness of the law, get supporters to lobby Congress about it, and to let them know about the Perry Fund, DRCNet Foundation's scholarship program that assists students who are in this situation. Scott Morgan blogged about it for us this week, and we reprint his posting here.)

    We can now add to our long and growing list of drug war grievances that this terrible crusade has become a fully functional army recruitment tool. The US Military has changed its rules to make it easier for drug offenders to enlist. Meanwhile, the aid elimination penalty of the Higher Education Act denies federal financial aid to students with drug convictions. That's right, folks. The federal government thinks drug users don't belong in college, but has no problem sending them to die in Iraq.

    Our friends at Students for Sensible Drug Policy have a great new video explaining the absurdity of all this:

    Of course, we support the US Military's new hiring policy. Past drug use should never be a factor in assessing a person's qualifications. But making it harder for drug offenders to go to school, while making it easier for them to join the army, is shockingly barbaric and hypocritical.

    One can only hope that this bizarre situation may expose the fraudulent logic by which drug offenders are denied college aid to begin with. After all, military service is widely considered an honorable profession; one which requires great courage, character, and intelligence. The very notion that past drug users can serve their country in combat destroys the myth that these Americans are somehow handicapped because they took drugs.

    Now that the US government has acknowledged this principle in one self-serving context, it bears a powerful moral obligation to examine and abolish other forms of discrimination against drug users. Freedom, however one may choose to define it, cannot be defended so long as we arbitrarily injure and obstruct our fellow citizens over such petty indiscretions.

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