This week, in observance of 4/20, we're taking a look at the politics of pot in America. We kicked off yesterday with a quick overview of marijuana law reform efforts over the past twelve months. Today, we check in with a leading legalization advocate, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, for a take on the path ahead. Below, some highlights from our talk.
The meaning of California's narrowly defeated legalization initiative, Proposition 19
"Prop. 19 was in many ways an extraordinary step forward. It's not always the case that you wage an initiative battle and lose and yet move forward. By virtue of its being on the ballot it generated a public dialogue in the state and around the country, and even outside, that really transformed the nature of the discussion, and lot of surprising players stepped up and endorsed it. So there was a sense of the issue being legitimized far beyond many of our expectations.
"You had stories showing up on the front page of The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, where there was a noticeable shift in the coverage, and all of a sudden people went from saying "Marijuana legalization is a fringe issue" to saying "How come you didn't win?" It was a leap forward. So I would say the Prop. 19 thing was a major success story."
How public opinion is evolving
"The fact that, according to Gallup, it went from 36 percent in favor of legalization and 60 against in 2005 to 46 in favor and 50 against in 2010 is one of the more remarkable evolutions in public opinion in recent history. The question is, does the trend line continue in that way? What we know now is that in some of the western states support for legalization is over 50 percent; we know that for young people under the age of 29, or maybe even a little older than that, there's a significant number in favor. Basically it's age dependent. Mostly, the people entering the electorate are the ones in favor of legalization; so the trend lines are very encouraging."
What's next on the legalization front
"There's almost definitely going to be a legalization initiative in Colorado, and it's quite likely that there'll be another one in California. I would say in both states you have more people in favor of legalizing than you have against, but there's always the problem that in the last few weeks of the campaign, people get nervous about the details or about what the feds are going to do. So it's going to be an interesting year. But I do know that there's a broad commitment to keep doing these initiatives until we just win them."
The outlook for medical marijuana initiatives
"It's really up in the air as to where medical marijuana's next going to be on the ballot. There are some states like Massachusetts, where the overwhelming majority is in favor, but there may be some constitutional issues that restrict the ability to put a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot within a certain period of time after there's already been one. (Massachusetts had a decriminalization initiative in 08.) Washington state is one where the public is more or less split, so what happens there - whether it's decriminalization, legalization - remains to be determined. There may be action in other states, and some of them are going to be more conservative states, or bigger states, which are more expensive. But there's no clear indication yet where; that'll take shape over the next ten months or so."
"We've been concerned about what's going on in Washington State, where the legislature passed a medical marijuana bill but the governor, Chris Gregoire, under pressure from the U.S. Attorneys there, refused to sign it. That the attorneys there have mobilized against this doesn't appear to be consistent with the messaging coming out of the justice department. [A 2009 Justice Department memo directed U.S. Attorneys not to prioritize marijuana busts where "offenders" are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.] I think there's going to be more of an effort on the part of the marijuana law reform community to figure out why there seems to be some pulling back on this front, and to push back the other way. This is not the time to be backtracking on the sensible regulation of medical marijuana in the states that have made it legal."
Two big drug reform dates coming up
"On June 2 there's going to be a press conference in New York of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. It's going to be a collection of former presidents and prime ministers and other influential people, from Paul Volcker to Richard Branson, calling for a major shift in drug policy. And then, June 17 is the 40th anniversary of President Nixon's declaring the "war on drugs," and there's going to be a whole host of activities happening on that date and throughout the year, aiming for a tipping point in the critical mass of people who say enough is enough, we've got to move in a new direction."