The Right Opinion

The Perils of Pushing Pot Prohibition

By Jacob Sullum · Feb. 6, 2013

Three months ago, voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives aimed at legalizing the possession, production and distribution of marijuana. A month later, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would settle on a response to this historic development “relatively soon.”

How soon is that? I have been trying to get a response to that question from Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre for about a month, but she is not returning my calls. Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney’s offices in Colorado and Washington decline to give any indication of how they will treat the state-licensed marijuana stores that are scheduled to open next year.

This caginess may be a good sign, reflecting the Obama administration’s awareness that interfering with these experiments in pharmacological tolerance would be politically perilous. Survey data released last week indicate that most Americans think marijuana should be legalized, while an even larger majority says states should be free to make that decision.

In a Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey completed on Jan. 21, 53 percent of respondents said “the government should treat marijuana the same as alcohol.” Asked whether the federal government should arrest pot smokers in Colorado and Washington, 72 percent said no; more strikingly, by a margin of 2 to 1, the respondents said the federal government should not arrest newly legal growers or sellers, either. Two-thirds of the respondents took that view.

These results indicate that some people who oppose marijuana legalization nevertheless believe the choice should be left to the states, as a consistent federalist would. Reflecting that tendency, most Republicans and self-identified conservatives in the Reason-Rupe poll supported marijuana prohibition, but most also said the federal government should not try to impose that policy on Colorado and Washington. A CBS News poll conducted in November generated similar results.

In a December interview with ABC News, President Obama said his administration had no plans to go after marijuana consumers, which the federal government almost never does anyway, but he did not say how state-licensed suppliers will be treated. He added that “we’re going to need to have a conversation” about the interplay between state legalization and continued federal prohibition.

So far, that conversation has been pretty one-sided. Last month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talked to Attorney General Holder about marijuana legalization for 45 minutes. Afterward, Inslee called the meeting “very satisfying” and “a confidence builder,” although he emphasized that Holder had made no commitments regarding the possibility of trying to block legalization through civil litigation, criminal prosecution, or forfeiture threats.

In the meantime, both Colorado and Washington have begun writing the rules for growing, processing and selling marijuana. The Washington State Liquor Control Board is holding hearings on its marijuana regulations, and in Colorado a task force appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper is putting together recommendations, due at the end of this month, for state legislators.

It surely is not lost on Obama that marijuana legalization got more votes in Colorado, a swing state, than he did, and nearly as many as he did in reliably blue Washington. Any attempt to override the will of those voters would provoke a hostile response not just from people in Colorado and Washington, but from the large majority of Americans across the country who believe the federal government should mind its own business.

Wanda James, co-founder of Simply Pure, a Denver-based manufacturer of cannabis-infused food products that until now has served medical marijuana dispensaries, understands that getting into the recreational market could be risky. But she argues that trying to shut down that market would be risky for the president and his party.

“Three million people in America on election night voted to legalize marijuana,” James says. “I can’t imagine the U.S. government starting some arrest campaign on people who are compliant with their state laws. I just can’t see the American government doing this when the will of the people is saying ‘enough.’”

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11 Comments

fred in oregon said:

i will catch hell for what im about to say. im retired law enforcement, drugs should be legle. period. people will do what people want to do, regardless of the law. now dont give me this crap about,well then should murder also be legle? no of course not. thats apples and oranges. we have laws on the books that have penalties for problems that arise from the missuse of boose, guns, automobles,etc. the thing about making dope legle, after a relativly short time, the black market would take a beating, provided the government didnt tax the crap out of it. and by the way, i do not use. just an observation from someone that wore a badge.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 8:15 AM

ToddMac in Gone to pot replied:

Fred, did you really wear a badge? You mispelled "legal" three times! We know you folks have some great chronic you are smoking there in Oregon!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 11:59 AM

fred in oregon replied:

haha, spelling has never been one of my best things. where i worked we dictated our reports. good thing huh?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 7:47 PM

READY4ACHANGE in ILLINOIS replied:

Fred, if you wish to post on this site, could you please use basic punctuation, capitalization, and correct spelling? Not that I am picky, but it is painful reading your posts. And "legle" is "legal".

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 12:00 PM

fred in oregon replied:

THANK YOU. I WILL TRY.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 7:47 PM

Cliff Schaffer in Los Angeles, CA replied:

You will find the following to be interesting reading:

The short history of the marijuana laws at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/whiteb1.htm This is funny and fascinating. Not what you expected.

Licit and Illicit Drugs by the Editors of Consumer Reports at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/cu/cumenu.htm This is the best overall review of the drug problem ever written. It has been used as a basic college textbook for decades.

The Drug Hang-Up at http://druglibrary.org/special/king/dhu/dhumenu.htm This is an excellent history of the laws written by a former president of the American Bar Association. He formed a committee with the American Medical Association to study the drug laws. He found out that was a bad idea.

Then, you can browse through the full text of every major government commission report on the subject from around the world over the last 100 years at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer under Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy. They all reached very similar conclusions. They all said that prohibition is based on nonsensical ideas and does more harm than good.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 6:16 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

I agree with Fred on legalizing drugs. The money we spend on the so-called "War on Drugs" could be better spent elsewhere. I suspect some people do drugs just for the simple fact that they are illegal. It's called getting over on the man. The drug cartels would find that the price people are willing to pay for drugs would go down. If the government put a tax on them, a lot of people would find they could do without the drugs.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 9:11 AM

enemaofthestatistquo in Monroe, GA said:

I agree, legalize Pot, its only a gateway drug because it is illegal. That having been said, the hypocrisy of the Left is showing again. If they did not want this result, from the referendums, lawsuits would already have been filed, and petityions for more votes would have been circulated until they got the desired result somewhere. Think same-sex relationship referendums. year after year voted down, overturned by the courts. now two states pass them- no a peep.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 3:01 PM

Cliff Schaffer in Los Angeles, CA replied:

Pot is not a gateway drug. In fact, the latest research shows that mj actually helps to lead people away from harder drugs. In one piece of research, it was found that 90 percent of hard drug users greatly reduced their use of hard drugs, and ten percent quit completely when they took up the use of medical marijuana.

Marijuana was originally outlawed in some states because of the fear that heroin would lead to the use of marijuana - exactly the opposite of the modern "gateway" idea. You can find the history of that idea at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/gateway_myth.htm It was made up in 1951 by a government official trying to justify a budget request. There has never been an ounce of truth behind the idea.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 6:11 PM

XCpt in the ether said:

I'm more in favor of "decriminalization' then legalization. That a plant is ruled illegal to own or consume is just absurd. Decriminalization would remove the government from the discussion altogether as there would not be any need to regulate something that wasn't within the government's role or function.

Marijuana should be treated like any other plant or vegetable that you can grow in your garden. If you are growing it for yourself that is your business. If you want to try and grow enough to sell on the open market then you would be competing for customers like any other industry and paying some amount of sales tax or other local fees as a vendor.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 5:53 PM

Cliff Schaffer in Los Angeles, CA replied:

The problem with decriminalization is the marijuana is big business -- by some estimates as big as the business of beer. That is tens of billions of dollars of income. We will do better if those billions are in the hands of legal, regulated distributors than if all that money is going to organized crime. See our experience with beer as a good example.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 6:09 PM