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Does America Have the Stomach for Legalization?

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Earlier this week, NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof used his Facebook page to start a lively conversation about legalizing drugs. This comment in particular caught my eye:

"I favor legalization/decriminalization in theory, but I wonder how a policy shift of such magnitude would play out in the real world, or if it's even possible," wrote Stephen Wittek. "A lot of deeply entrenched interests, opinions, attitudes and beliefs would have to uprooted or steamrolled, and a lot of people would scream bloody apocalypse. Regardless of whether or not it 'makes sense,' the question at the heart of issue is 'Does America have the stomach for legalization?' And I'm pretty sure the answer is 'no.'" [Huffington Post]

It's an interesting point and I would respond by asking whether America has the stomach (or the cash) to continue the war on drugs for another 10 or 20 years. The drug war has been falling out of favor with Americans for a long time now, but it seems the floodgates have burst open in recent months. It's gone from being an issue no one wanted to talk about to suddenly gracing the op-ed pages of major papers as a matter of routine. The fact that NYT's Nicholas Kristof wants in on the conversation is a perfect example of the issue's cascading momentum.

It's only a matter of time before the next Michael Phelps-level marijuana media frenzy explodes in everyone's face again and each time it happens, the calls for legalization reverberate louder than before. It's certainly true that "deeply entrenched interests, opinions, attitudes and beliefs" continue to shape the debate, but that's always the obstacle to any seismic shift in our political culture.

It can't happen overnight, but the surging drug policy dialogue that's emerged in recent months is a necessary and promising first step on the path towards long-term reform. For the first time since the drug war began, we're witnessing the White House score political points by toning down the tough talk and pandering to the public's widespread drug war fatigue. The new administration is not about to disarm their great drug war army, but they've established the premise that our current political climate no longer favors the war rhetoric and saber-rattling that have traditionally been considered obligatory by politicians and the press. It's a subtle, yet significant milestone.

In the end, there will always be paranoid parents, unscrupulous prison-industry profiteers and misguided moral crusaders doing their part to derail the discussion. But we've gotten this far in spite of them and we'll continue to press on. Remember, we don't have to "uproot or steamroll" our opposition, we just have to beat them by one vote.
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It doesn't have to be an upheaving change

Something that constantly frustrates me in American political debate is all-or-nothing approach many people take when debating issues. This can be generalized to an all-at-one approach too.

I think eliminating all drug legislation is certainly too much for the American psyche to handle right now, but that's not our only option. The goal should be a rational, science based approach to drug policy. A rational mind would have concluded 30 years ago that strong arm, drug-war approaches to drugs clearly don't work, so the goal should be to move away from this mentality, and experiment with new approaches until we find something that works to our satisfaction. This doesn't have to be an all-at-once process. Indeed, it's foolish to think that we know what the right approach is. We do know what fails, so we need to move away from that. It's reasonable to do this in small steps, and evaluate the effects of these steps as we go. For the record, I would like our steps to get a little bigger than they are at the moment.

The single biggest step we must take a society, is to elevate the level of drug policy discussion, and I'm happy to see this happening. We need to make our drug policies based on the real, rational risks inherent in the drug under consideration (we currently have a completely insane, irrational drug scheduling), as well as based on the net effects that the drug policies have on society. Do they reduce drug abuse? Do they reduce drug addiction? Do they reduce the negative health-effects associated with drug abuse? And of course, do they have any negative side effects?

Applying those criteria, it's clear straight prohibition is a failed policy. So the question we need to be asking ourselves isn't "do we have the stomach for it?", but rather "do we have the intelligence for it?". I'm hoping yes.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, it's enough for us to work on elevating the discourse. If we can eliminate all the bullshit, lies, emotional manipulation, propaganda etc, and analyze the issue on facts, figures and measurable consequences, we're sure to get a much more palatable drug policy.

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I'm pro-choice on EVERYTHING!

Just Stopping in to say Told ya So!

WASHINGTON, June 5 (Reuters) - The Obama administration's top drug cop plans to spend more money on treating addiction and scale down the "war on drugs" rhetoric as part of an overhaul of U.S. counternarcotics strategy.

But don't expect the White House to consider legalizing marijuana, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said on Friday.

"The discussion about legalization is not a part of the president's vocabulary under any circumstances and it's not a part of mine," Kerlikowske said in a telephone interview.

Vote him in for another term, Dumbasses.


I dont hink we need legalization as far as Marijuana goes we just need the Feds to decriinalize allowing the individual states to set their own polcys.
This should have been a states rights issue all the long the federal governemnt should have never gotten involved.

Some people just don't get it

No, no, double no on decriminalization. We already have that in Ohio and it doesn't protect me from getting legal charges thrown at me. I can still be randomly drug tested at work and fired if I test positive, or made to go to a drug class. I can be charged with DUID if I get stopped while driving, if there is any trace of marijuana in my system. Decriminalization means nothing.

I won't settle for anything less than full legalization for adults. We have the tools in place to tax and regulate marijuana. It would bring in tax revenues. It would create a barrier to kids selling and buying on the streets. It would mean I can smoke without risking losing my rights, my home, my freedom, my job.

Only full legalization would ensure that I and millions of proud potheads like myself can be left alone about it. Decrminalization means absolutely nothing as far as I'm concerned.


People don't realize the criminals would just make more money. That includes those that work as drug warriors and the drug cartels. Decriminalization is a ploy that continues to let the alcohol elitists push their deadly poison on us, too!

O'bama: Constitutional Professor OR Pothead?

What if we considered everyone that abused a drug equally, regardless of whether or not they got caught, worthy of prison... and unworthy of public trust! What if O'bama, a self proclaimed christian, was by definition a 'pothead' the way an alcohol abuser is considered an alcoholic... 'Once a This - Always a That'?

O'bama's is a very bright guy in many respects... he was, afterall, able to dupe millions of 'responsible marijuana users' and the 'gay and lesbian community' into believing false claims... namely that he was a Constitutional scholar (aka professor) committed to the egilitarian ideal of equality for all... based on the 'rule of law'! The 'Rule of Law' (the Constitution) we are all supposed to be equal under IS Federal Law and technically not subject to the interpretations of state legislators (often nuttier then their federal counterparts)!

The marijuana community ought to join the 'gay and lesbian community' in a 'class action' lawsuit against California... and eventually the federal government! If not, when the gay and lesbian community wins their lawsuit we can do the same by following their legal arguments... just replace the words 'gay and lesbian community' with 'responsible marijuana community' in the new lawsuit!

If only persecution were that easy to reverse and prevent! Unfortunately, 'the law' (and thus our rights) has been supplanted by political and religious leaders!

re "just stopping in" post

Things would look a lot worse if the Republicans won. And it's not like Obama ever said he was going to legalize any illegal drugs, and it's not like he could legalize any drug by himself.
As far as rescheduling cannabis out of its status of having no federally recognized medicinal use, that's definitely a place to keep pressing the Obama admin hard. They're the ones claiming to want science based policies, so that makes the current legal status of cannabis the juiciest possible target. Let's home in on it.


When legislators confront a problem, they write a law. When law enforcement officers confront a problem, they arrest people. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail. It is past time true freedom loving Americans became willing and able to take back the God-given freedom and liberty guaranteed us all in the Constitution of the United States. People with problematic drug use are not bad people, they are sick people. This is a public health/medical problem. Sick people need care and treatment not arrest and prison terms. People who use drugs responsibly, as the vast majority do, and therefore it does not cause problems, are simply exercising their God-given freedom and liberty, and IT IS NONE OF ANYONE ELSE'S, AND ESPECIALLY GOVERNMENT'S DAMN BUSINESS! This nation's current drug policy, championed by self-appointed morality police (much like the Taliban), is/are directly responsible for the current situation that: makes the most dangerous drugs available to our children by keeping distribution and sales in the hands of drug profiteers, is counter productive with countless unintended consiquences, violates the will of God for mankind to live free, causes most of the police corruption in this country, continues to have the government repeatedly lie as it has about cannabis since about 1937, wasted more than a trillion dollars of tax-payer dollars, directly funds terrorists sworn to kill us all, and on, and on, and on. The unintended consequences of prohibition alone distinguish it as the most disasterous public policy in this country since institutionalized slavery. It is past time for true American patriots to take our country back, and we can all start by just saying "NO!" to stupid.

No Stomach for Old Men

Maybe the 50s generation can’t handle legalization, but the 18-34 age crowd can and does and will.  They’re the demographic to watch.

The truth about marijuana and the drug war emerges with each and every bumbling lie told by the prohibs and exposed by the reformers.  I hate to admit it, but the absurd example of the idiotic prohibs makes them the best argument for legalization, and thus our greatest allies in the struggle for drug freedom.  Strange how things work out.


Micah Daigle's picture

Agreed, except for your last point

Great analysis, as always, Scott.

However, I have to disagree with you on this: "we don't have to 'uproot or steamroll' our opposition, we just have to beat them by one vote."

If we beat them by only one vote, and the implementation of the law is a mess, you can bet that there will be significant public blowback and the political pendulum will quickly swing back toward prohibition. Do we really want to create a political quagmire where the country is split down the middle on drug policy for decades?

Our movement is too often focused on scoring political victories ASAP and not focused enough on what happens after the victories. Implementing policy - and building broad public support for the new system - is where the hard work begins. We can't simply throw up our hands and rejoice when we get 50%+1 of the vote and then move onto the next battle.

The fiercest segment of our opposition is not very large, and there are a lot of people sitting on the fence. It's up to us whether or not those people will eventually fall onto our side of the debate. But it certainly won't happen by setting up a ballot box at the moment we see the opportunity for a slim majority, and then rattling the fence to see who shakes off. To ensure that we don't get trapped in political polarized purgatory for decades, we need to wait for a clear majority before we shake the fence.

Finally, when working on legalization/taxation/regulation campaigns, we also need to be serious about devising effective models of distribution (and even recruiting and vetting responsible businesspeople to handle the distribution) early on in the process. Smooth implementation of the law will be the biggest factor in ensuring that public support grows - rather than shrinks - over time.


the reason the 18-34

generation is the ones to watch is because we have been teaching our children that this is so wrong in so many ways it isn`t even close to funny. They are mostly not going to be able to be " catch 22 ed" out of the whole problem and need to move ahead while they can.

I have the stomach - and it's filled with munchies...

I agree with Micah. Creating the infrastructure for a controlled marketplace is perhaps the most important part of the equation and one that doesn't get nearly enough attention.

Painting the picture of what the American (and global) landscape will look like in a post-repeal world is crucial for those believing prohibition to be wrong but unclear on how repeal will unfold. Addressing that uncertainty successfully will supply talking points for those who are currently tongue-tied when attempting to express their thoughts.

Some of the hardest

Some of the hardest attitudes to address are the ones coming from people who have seen the harms of addiction first-hand. These are the people who have seen drugs at their worst and have the strongest aversions to drugs. I think a big problem for us is the increase in prescription drug abuse we are seeing. Here are legal and regulated drugs that are continuing to pose a big threat to society. I agree with previous posters that we really need to concentrate on what the safest sort of regulated market would look like, one with a lot more education. A lot of people are apprehensive to make more drugs legal when prescription drugs are some of the most highly abused ones.

Response from Stephen Wittek


Hi Scott!

I hope you won’t mind a late response to your question(s) following my comments on Kristof’s post:

Q1) Does America have the stomach to continue the war on drugs for another 10 or 20 years? -- Yes. Rational or not, feasible or not, maintaining the status quo requires far less ‘stomach’ (or political will) than a major reversal of drug policy would require. I think you and I agree that turning the tide of popular opinion is a difficult—but not impossible—long-term project. However, like Micah (above), I disagree with you in terms of pragmatics. Although public policy might adopt a democratic posture in order to legitimize itself, it does not in fact work by simply ‘beating them by one vote’.

Q2) Does America have the cash to continue the war on drugs for another 10 or 20 years? -- I’m afraid we’re going to find out… 

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