Marijuana’s tipping point
Is a tidal wave of reason about to change pot laws?
Sometime in the last few months, the notion of legalizing marijuana crossed an invisible threshold. Long relegated to the margins of political discourse by the conventional wisdom, pot freedom has this year gone mainstream.
Public support for legalization is climbing to a majority position, with a just-released Zogby poll finding that 52 percent support the legalization, taxation and regulation of pot. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to have softened his position on pot by calling for an “open debate” on the subject. Meanwhile, Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco introduced Assembly Bill 390, legislation that would tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol.
Yes, there is a new freedom in the air when it comes to marijuana.
Newspaper columnists and editorial page writers across the land have taken up the cause with gusto, as have letter writers and bloggers. Last week, even a U.S. senator got into the act, when Virginia Sen. Jim Webb told CNN that marijuana legalization is “on the table.”
But despite the seeming explosion of interest in marijuana legalization, the eventuality of legalization seems as distant as ever, obscured behind a wall of bureaucracy, vested interests and craven politicians. Drug War Chronicle spoke with some movement movers and shakers to find out just what’s going on … and what’ not.
“There is clearly more interest and serious discussion of whether marijuana prohibition makes any sense than I’ve seen at any point in my adult lifetime,” said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s not just the usual suspects.”
Mirken cited a number of factors for the sudden rise to prominence of the marijuana issue. “I think it’s a combination of things: Michael Phelps, the horrible situation on the Mexican border, the state of the economy and the realization that there is a very large industry out there that provides marijuana to millions of consumers completely outside the legal economy that is untaxed and unregulated,” he said. “All of these factors have come together in a way that makes it much easier for people to connect the dots.”
“Things started going white hot in the second week of January,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “It’s helped galvanize a certain zeitgeist that is palpable and that almost everyone can appreciate.”
With the accumulation of arguments for legalization growing ever weightier, the edifice of marijuana prohibition seems increasingly shakier than ever.
Still, translating the zeitgeist into real change remains a formidable task, said Mirken, who said he is waiting for the other shoe to drop. “We have to prepare for an Empire Strikes Back moment,” he said. “I predict that within the next year, there will be a concerted effort to scare the daylights out of people about marijuana.”
Activists need to keep hammering away at both the federal government and state and local governments, Mirken said. “We are talking to members of Congress and seeing what might be doable. Even if nothing passes immediately, introducing a bill can move the discussion forward.”
Part of the problem of the mismatch between popular fervor and actual progress on reform is partisan positioning, said St. Pierre. “Even politicians who may be personally supportive and can appreciate what they see going on around them as this goes mainstream do not want to hand conservative Republicans a triangulation issue. The Democrats are begging for a certain degree of political maturity from the reform movement,” he said. “They’re dealing with two wars, tough economic times, trying to do health-care reform. They don’t want to raise cannabis to a level where it becomes contentious for Obama.”
The window of opportunity for presidential action is four years down the road, St. Pierre postulated. “If Obama doesn’t do anything next year, they will then be in re-election mode and unlikely to act,” he mused. “I think our real shot comes after he is re-elected.”