After two decisive victories for marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington State, what to expect from Obama?
With the historic and decisive victories for marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington State, the War on Drugs has been dealt a severe blow this November 6th, and the global drug policy debate has entered a whole new phase. Marijuana is still illegal for the federal government, which overrules states’ rights, and this is probably just the beginning of the battle. The U.S. Department of Justice reacted by saying that its enforcement policies remain unchanged, adding: “We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time.”
Medical marijuana also won in a landslide in Massachusetts, bringing to 18 the number of states (plus the district of Colombia) where marijuana is legal for medical purpose, further complicating the task of the Federal Government. A medical marijuana initiative in Arkansas, the first of its kind in the deep-South and the Bible belt, fared much better than expected, ending up narrowly defeated at 49 to 51 when most polls were predicting double-digits loss. This could be indicative of evolving attitudes even in the most conservative parts of the US.
It is quite clear that the status of marijuana poses a real dilemma for Obama and the Democratic Party. Marijuana legalization has wide support among young voters and drug prohibition disproportionally affects minorities, filling jails to the beams. Both constituencies have been keys to Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories. Marijuana activists were frazzled by the Obama crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries but at the end of the day they lined up behind him thanks to their deep distrust of Mitt Romney, while they are still hoping that Obama will have a change of heart in his second term.
So, with reelection out of the way, how will the Obama administration react? Marijuana legalization has lost its hot-potato status as the Washington initiative enjoyed mainstream support across the political spectrum. The public is clearly ahead of its politicians on that matter and support for marijuana legalization has been steadily growing nationwide over the past 30 years, a trend unlikely to reverse anytime soon with the aging of its opponent and coming of age of its proponents.
Under such circumstances, Obama would have far more to lose than to win in picking up a battle with Colorado and Washington State; the issue could prove distracting and definitively alienate and demobilize some of his strongest supporters, which could prove costly in the mid-term 2014 election where voters turn-out is traditionally low.
While marijuana legalization could be stuck for years in lengthy legal battles, this would keep the issue in the political debate and the headlines. In a country weary of undue government interference, it will be hard to justify fighting the will of the people, especially when it has been expressed as decisively as it was on November 6th. Furthermore, prohibitionism might be deeply entrenched, but it has never withstood close scrutiny, as witnessed by countless studies and reports, including the 1972 Shafer Commission’s Report sponsored by the Nixon administration itself and later repudiated for recommending marijuana decriminalization. Drug policy reform would most likely benefit from keeping marijuana legalization in the limelight, as exposure allows it to generally outshine its prohibitionist nemesis.
Moreover, few more states legislatures are expected to take on medical marijuana in 2013, bringing the medical marijuana camp tantalizingly closer to the 25 count when a majority of the states will have legal access to medical marijuana. California is widely expected to present a legalization initiative in 2014 and may be joined by Massachusetts.
Last but not least, most law-enforcement is done by state and local agencies in the US and the federal government would be powerless without their cooperation, which strongly limit its practical options.
Should the Obama administration decide to fight marijuana legalization heads-on, it will clearly go against the tide and could face an uphill battle.
Pressure for drug policy reform is not just internal. Colombia and Mexico, the US’ closest Latin American allies have expressed for a while their growing frustration with the current prohibitionist policies. Now Guatemala, long a pariah state emerging from a decades-long civil war plagued with human-rights abuses, is trying to garner support throughout the region for a radical reevaluation of drug policy and a debate about legalization and proper control of all drugs.
There is also risk (or hope depending on where people stand on the issue) of a domino effect. The US elections have been watched closely by the activist community all over the world, from neighboring Canada to Australia and New Zealand, and through Latin America and Europe. The Colorado and Washington victories may have opened the Pandora box, and many states, provinces and countries could follow.
On the other hand, the US has been the world’s prohibitionist-in-chief for over a century, and has over the years imposed her prohibitionist policies to the rest of the world. All current international treaties on illicit drugs having been produced and backed by successive US administrations over the past 50 years, a complete U-turn seems unlikely. But with 18 states and the district of Colombia in oblique violation of the international treaties and Colorado and Washington now squarely confronting them, the “tough on drugs” stance is increasingly untenable. Unless it reverses its attitude and draws the lessons from a century of failed prohibitionist rule, the US will be increasingly stuck between a rock and a hard place and her prohibitionist-in-chief posture will become more and more indefensible.
2012 has certainly been a momentous year for drug policy reform, with a bumper crop of firsts:
- Otto Perez Molina, from Guatemala, was the first president to formally and forcefully call for legalization and proper control of all drugs last January.
- Drug legalization was placed on the agenda on the Summit of the Americas in April 2012
- Uruguay announced its intention to legalize marijuana under state control in June 2012
- Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico formally requested an open debate about drug policy reform at the 2012 UN General Assembly.
- And of course, the states of Colorado and Washington voted decisively to legalize marijuana on November 6, 2012
In another notable development, US’ closest ally, Israel, is expanding its medical marijuana program, fueled by its strong research sector in medicine and technology with active governmental support.
Will 2012 be the year when the US acknowledges at long last the failure of her prohibitionist policies and start exploring less destructive, more realistic and pragmatic alternatives? Substance abuse is here to stay and tackling it is a matter of being smarter rather than tougher. Public mobilization behind the issue will be critical. Petitions and other forms of public pressure are likely to emerge both in support and against marijuana legalization and drug policy reform in general.
It should be noted that beyond the fate of particular initiatives or policies, powerful global trends are at play here. While alcohol has been the dominant psychoactive substance and social lubricant of Western civilization since its inception over 8,000 years ago, and while Western civilization has dominated the world for the past few centuries, globalization is rapidly shifting the geopolitical tectonic plates. As the world accelerates its move towards multipolarity, where no single power exerts overwhelming dominance, alcohol is also losing its psychoactive dominance to become just one of many psychoactive modalities, being replaced firstly by psychopharmaceuticals, followed by marijuana, more properly called cannabis.
At the end of the day, the days of prohibition are most likely counted and it will fade away with the American century that started with the 1908 Shanghai conference, the event that set the foundations of global prohibition, on the eve of World War-I.