Taking the Lead on Marijuana Legalization

November 27, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

Taking the “bolder step” of legalizing a limited amount of marijuana has sparked other state lawmakers to consider similar measures, even as the Obama administration remains silent on how it will respond to the bold measures passed in Colorado and Washington.

University of Denver law school professor Sam Kamin covers possibilities the administration could take, such as enforcing the Controlled Substances Act, which bans the sale and possession of marijuana. Another possibility, Kamin added, is to reclassify marijuana or remove it from the CSA.

In a piece for The New York Times online commentary, Timothy Egan hopes the administration will have “the backbone” to embrace change. He also urges policymakers and pundits to dump the lame talk about the munchies and take seriously the message sent by two “progressive Western states” that “arresting 853,000 people a year for marijuana offenses is an insult to a country built on individual freedom ….” He also notes that other states, such as Maine, are likely to follow those Western states. Indeed Egan believes that it is likely “a dozen or more states will do so as well.”

And why should the Obama administration embrace a societal change? Egan cites a litany of compelling reasons. For starters its base hypocrisy for the government to tolerate legal drugs – alcohol, caffeine and a slew of supplementary vitamins that make all kinds of “exaggerated health claims” -- but continue to arrest people for marijuana use.

Governments would benefit from regulation of marijuana. Egan notes that officials in Washington “estimate that taxation and regulation of licensed marijuana retail stores will generate $532 million in new revenue every year. Expand that number nationwide, and then also add into the mix all the billions now spent on investigating and prosecuting marijuana cases.”

Finally for Obama to be a “transformative president,” he must lead. The president must know that marijuana prosecutions disproportionally target racial minorities and that hundreds of thousands of prisoners are confined in prisons already overcrowded and expensive to imprison. (In a recent report on New York City’s marijuana arrests, Human Rights Watch noted the racial disparities in the city’s arrests and how little information is provided about those arrests. An explanation is warranted HRW says because of both financial and social costs of marijuana arrests. “Precious law enforcement resources are expended making, processing, and booking tens of thousands of marijuana possession arrests each year. Goodwill toward law enforcement may be eroded when substantial numbers of community residents are arrested or witness friends and relatives arrested for marijuana possession, especially when they believe the police had no basis for approaching them in the first place,” the report states.)

Prosecutors in Colorado and Washington are showing they’re ready for change. Last week NORML noted in a press statement that prosecutors in both states are dismissing “hundreds of pending misdemeanor marijuana possession cases.” Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and City Attorney Doug Friednash, NORML reported, said they will stop “pressing charges and would review pending criminal cases involving minor cannabis possession offenses.” That announcement came on the heels of Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett’s statement that he would dismiss pending cases of marijuana possession of less than an ounce.