Opinion: Marijuana debate has reached a tipping point
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 22:02
Whether you’re watching television, listening to the radio, reading the newspaper or just looking at your Twitter feed, chances are you’ll see a story about marijuana policy. Only years ago, marijuana was a fringe issue that drew giggles from reporters and silence from politicians. Today, it’s one of the leading issues in our national debate, and it’s clear which way the political winds are blowing. The American marijuana policy debate is at a tipping point.
One of the most visible examples of this major shift is the passage of recreational marijuana legalization by popular vote in Colorado and Washington. Last November, citizens of both states approved referendums to legalize marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, allowing the state to set up a regulatory process to allow for the production and distribution of marijuana to adults over 21 years of age. State lawmakers are now implementing the laws, drafting the exact regulations with input from the drug policy, business and public health communities.
Many states are attempting to replicate those victories, with legalization bills introduced in the state legislatures of Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It’s too early to tell how likely any of these bills are to pass, but these unprecedented numbers of proposals are a victory themselves. Allies of drug policy reform are no longer afraid to show themselves, and are stepping up to start this important debate with their fellow lawmakers.
However, if any of these bills pass, the states will simply join Colorado and Washington in wondering whether the federal government is going to allow legalization to be implemented. The Obama Administration has the choice to either crack down and enforce the federal ban in these states, or allow them to proceed with legalization and only use federal resources against those in violation of both state and federal law. Many organizations are working to convince President Obama to take the former route, and some lawmakers in Congress are trying to remove the federal prohibition altogether. As I wrote two weeks ago, Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) has introduced a bill that would leave all marijuana policy up to the states. A recent YouGov poll shows that 51 percent of Americans support allowing these states to implement legalization, compared to only 30 percent in opposition.
This gap is even larger when it comes to medical marijuana enforcement. The same poll shows that Americans support exempting medical marijuana patients from federal law by a 35-point margin. This illustrates the rapidly growing support for the idea, which is currently law in 18 states and being considered for passage in an additional 15. To top it all off, the first medical marijuana dispensary in our nation’s capital is set to begin operating this April, and is getting a significant amount of positive press.
Legalization of marijuana for recreation or medicine aside, there have also been numerous victories in adjusting the overly harsh penalties for possessing the drug. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced that those found in possession of personal amounts of marijuana will immediately get a court date, rather than first having to spend a night in jail.
Outside the realm of government, it’s clear that marijuana is becoming more of a mainstream issue. Morgan Freeman recently lent his famous voice to “Breaking the Taboo,” a documentary film portraying the disastrous effects of the war on drugs. A new organization, Marijuana Majority, has been formed with the sole purpose of showcasing the fact that most Americans support reforming our marijuana policies.
Looking at public support for marijuana legalization, one immediately notices that younger voters are the most supportive. While there is a definite generational split on the issue, this does not mean that progress is inevitable. All of the victories outlined above were not due to shifting demographics in the voting population, but thanks to the hard work of dedicated advocates. Marijuana policy is at a tipping point, but continued progress is only possible if people learn more about the issues and communicate their views to key decision makers.