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Analysis

In the U.S. war on drugs, weed is winning

  • Mark Gordon (L) and Ryan Perry display their "I Want Weed" t-shirts as they wait in line to be among the first to legally buy recreational marijuana at the Botana Care store in Northglenn, Colorado January 1, 2014. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

WASHINGTON: At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day 2014, marijuana went on sale at licensed shops in Colorado, the first U.S. state to treat the drug like alcohol and tobacco. Within the first 24 hours, sales passed the million-dollar mark. Drug policy reformers hailed the event as the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition and possibly major shifts in the U.S.-led global war on drugs in general.They may well be right. In the state of Washington, where the liquor control board began issuing licenses last year, over-the-counter sales are scheduled to begin in spring to consumers aged 21 or older.

What is happening in the two states highlights the bizarre nature of American drug policy. Under federal law, growing, using and selling marijuana is banned. The 1970 Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana as one of four “most dangerous” drugs, alongside heroin, that have “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.” Despite that classification, 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have adopted state laws providing for marijuana to be dispensed for medical reasons. It is prescribed for conditions ranging from nausea to seizures.

The 1970 federal act stipulates draconian penalties which explain why the United States has more people behind bars than any other country. With just under 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Strictly speaking, the licenses issued in Washington and Colorado are licenses to commit a federal crime. But the Justice Department announced last September it would allow the state regulations to go into effect as long as they did not violate a newly issued list of federal priorities. They include distribution to minors, diversion of the drug to other states and driving while high.

If marijuana legalization goes well in the two states, several others, including California, are likely to follow, responding to a remarkable shift in public opinion over the past decade. Last year, a series of polls showed that for the first time a majority of Americans favored legalizing marijuana, thought it had legitimate medical uses and held that government efforts to enforce marijuana prohibition were not worth the cost.

Such views are not confined to the United States, by far the world’s leading consumer of illicit drugs. In December, Uruguay became the first country to legalize the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana under strict government control and – like in Colorado and Washington – subject to taxation.

The move, meant to cut traffickers out of the lucrative business, is being watched closely across Latin America, where citizens and their leaders have become increasingly skeptical about the war on drugs and the staggering violence that goes with it. In Mexico alone, more than 100,000 people have died as the government fought traffickers and drug cartels fought each other for access to the rich U.S. market.

Not surprisingly, some of the sharpest criticism of the tough enforcement policies long pushed by Washington has come from Latin America. In 2011, a global commission that included three former Latin American presidents and a former U.N. secretary-general issued a scathing critique that helped spur international debate.

“The global war on drugs has failed,” the commission said. “When the United Nations single convention on narcotics drugs came into being 50 years ago and when President [Richard] Nixon launched the U.S. government’s war on drugs ... policymakers believe that harsh law enforcement action against those involved in drug production, distribution and use would lead to an ever diminishing market in drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis. In practice, the global scale of illegal drug markets – largely controlled by organized crime – has grown dramatically over this period.”

Last year, the 35-member Organization of American States followed up with a 400-page report that endorsed looking for new approaches to stem the illicit drug trade in a region that is home to the world’s top producer of marijuana (Mexico) and of cocaine (Peru). Among the scenarios listed in the OAS report (the first of its kind by a multilateral organization) were legalizing marijuana and treating all drug use as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice.

Both would diminish the profits of criminal organizations whose operations have driven the murder rate in several countries to levels normally experienced only in war zones. The violence is driven by money: If the global drug trade were a country, it would have one of the top 20 economies in the world, according to one estimate.

The most widely used product of this illicit business is marijuana. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime has estimated the number of people using the drug at between 160 and 200 million, roughly 5 percent of the world’s population. Several medical studies have found marijuana less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

In the U.S., drug policy reformers see marijuana’s new status in Colorado and Washington as a clear sign that national prohibition is on the way out. In the words of Mark Kleiman, one of America’s leading drug policy analysts, “we are in 1928.” This is a reference to alcohol prohibition which lasted 13 years and ended in 1933. In its final stages, polls showed that a large majority of Americans opposed it.

Politicians took notice: Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential elections on a platform to repeal prohibition. The ban on alcohol was lifted four months after his victory.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 11, 2014, on page 8.
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Summary

At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day 2014, marijuana went on sale at licensed shops in Colorado, the first U.S. state to treat the drug like alcohol and tobacco.

Drug policy reformers hailed the event as the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition and possibly major shifts in the U.S.-led global war on drugs in general.They may well be right.

Under federal law, growing, using and selling marijuana is banned.

With just under 5 percent of the world's population, it holds 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

Last year, the 35-member Organization of American States followed up with a 400-page report that endorsed looking for new approaches to stem the illicit drug trade in a region that is home to the world's top producer of marijuana (Mexico) and of cocaine (Peru).

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime has estimated the number of people using the drug at between 160 and 200 million, roughly 5 percent of the world's population.

In the U.S., drug policy reformers see marijuana's new status in Colorado and Washington as a clear sign that national prohibition is on the way out.


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