The Future of Drug Policy - Future Week

Cannabis Station, a medical marijuana dispensary located at a former gas station in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Jeffrey Beall.

With recreational marijuana now legal in Colorado and Washington (while still, however, illegal at the federal level), the question on the minds of many hoping to capitalize on the new market is whether or not they should be watching out for the feds. The federal government remains opposed to the legislation, and some fear President Obama will try to quash the laws altogether via the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Others hope nationwide ratification may be near. The good news for those in states where weed is legal is that the system will likely stay out of their way if they keep it on the small scale.

“What you’re going to have is a funny balance with some states who will legalize it,” Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, and former Senior Policy Advisor for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, tells BTR. “The federal government won’t necessarily arrest individuals for smoking pot, but they will take down big enterprises. So maybe what will happen is you can smoke your own pot, grow your own pot, give your friends pot, but you won’t be able to market it.”

According to The Denver Post, the new law works in three key ways: Individuals have the constitutional right to grow up to six marijuana plants and keep the harvest without fear of state prosecution, people can collectively grow marijuana in large-scale cooperatives, and private businesses can allow marijuana smoking on site. Sales of the drugs are the murky water that remains.

“We cannot give up what we won,” Christian Sederberg, a legalization campaign leader explains to The Post. “We cannot kowtow and lose what we got because we’re afraid of federal intervention… They have the upper hand from the legal perspective. But we have the momentum, the spirit and the people behind us.”

Humphreys contrasts the situation to the tobacco industry, as many consider marijuana to be a similarly addictive substance. Unlike its smoky counterpart, however, marijuana won’t be able to commercialize or embrace large-scale commodification, which in Humphreys’s opinion, is a good thing.

DEA Agents. Photo courtesy of the Department of Justice.

“When you have a legal, corporate industry with lots of powerful lobbyists and it promotes addiction, that’s bad,” he comments. “The other thing is you have industries when a drug is legal. There are scientists who sit around and make products more addictive. They associate advertising with fun and sex and youth. If you legalized all drugs, you would probably get way more addiction than you have now.”

Not everyone, of course, foresees harm. There are those who feel there would be great benefits to ratification of not only marijuana, but of all drugs. In a commentary piece for CNN in 2009, Harvard economics lecturer Jeffrey A. Miron wrote a diatribe supporting drug legalization as a means of reducing violence, noting “prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground. This means buyers and sellers cannot resolve their disputes with lawsuits, arbitration or advertising, so they resort to violence instead.”

Marijuana protests from 2001.Photo courtesy of Armstrong Legalize Marijuana.

He also addressed health concerns related to prohibition.

“Prohibition harms the public health,” says Miron. “Patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, and other conditions cannot use marijuana under the laws of most states or the federal government despite abundant evidence of its efficacy. Terminally ill patients cannot always get adequate pain medication because doctors may fear prosecution by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug users face restrictions on clean syringes that cause them to share contaminated needles, thereby spreading HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases.”

A line graph on compares the relatively static rate of drug addictions to the escalating rate in spending on the War on Drugs. The article points out that, “enforcing illegal drug laws imposes an annual cost on the American criminal justice system of $56 billion; while incarceration of drug offenders imposes an annual cost of $48 billion.”

Nevertheless, Humphreys points out that legalizing alcohol and tobacco hasn’t helped in dealing with those addictions, and really has only made the situation worse.

“Half a million people die to alcohol and tobacco every year, they are used far more and addiction is far more prevalent,” he says. “When things are illegal, people use them far less.”

At this point, it doesn’t look like the federal government will be embracing pot’s benefits anytime soon. What does appear to be true is that there are not enough hours in the day for the feds to chase down every stoner and his baked goods, so if you’re in Colorado or Washington you can relax a bit more than usual.