Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Cannabis legalisation in Washington and Colorado: A game-changer

Last night was a historic moment for the drug policy reform movement: two US states, Washington and Colorado, voted to legally control, tax and regulate cannabis for non-medical use.

They are not just the first US states to do this; they are the first political jurisdictions anywhere in the world to take such a step.

The wider political fallout from this vote will be significant. Firstly, there’s the potential for the domino effect: other states might now feel emboldened to press ahead with similar ballot initiatives. Indeed, last night showed that change is in the air, as Massachusetts became the 18th US state to legalise medical marijuana, and California voted to reform its notorious “three-strikes” law, which will mean those convicted of a third non-violent felony – including drug offences – will no longer receive a mandatory 25-to-life sentence.

Secondly, there remains the possibility that the federal government will crack down on Colorado and Washington as they start taking the necessary practical steps to legally regulate the cannabis trade – something that remains unambiguously illegal under federal law. The governor of Colorado – who was personally opposed to the initiative – said in a statement:

“The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will … This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through.”

But he followed that up by – somewhat flippantly – reminding voters that there may be a clash with the feds down the road:

“That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don't break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly.”

However it plays out, a clash with the federal government over this new legislation will be a major news story, ensuring that the issue of legal regulation maintains its place in the mainstream media and political debate. This is obviously a plus for the reform movement; we know that exposure to meaningful debate invariably pushes public opinion in the right direction (the arguments for the war on drugs, while entrenched, cannot withstand scrutiny). But despite tensions with federal law there is genuine cause for optimism given that, rightly or wrongly, the protection of state rights from unwarranted meddling by the federal government is a theme that runs through much of the political discourse in the US, particularly among the Tea Party-style hardliners who might be expected to be social conservatives and therefore opposed to legal regulation. (Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, for example, has been quoted as saying that it's up to individual states to decide whether to legalise medical marijuana.) The question is whether their usual support for state-level policy making – and disdain for “big government” legislation – extends far enough for them to support – or at least not actively oppose – state-level legalisation initiatives.

Thirdly, there is the clash with international law. The new Colorado and Washington legislation puts the states in clear breach of the general obligation of the 1961 UN drug convention requiring the criminalisation of non-medical supply and use. The US, perhaps ironically now, has historically been the biggest cheerleader for such prohibitions on the global stage. A complete U-turn from this position isn’t realistic, but it will be interesting to see whether, at the international level, they at least tone down their “tough on drugs” rhetoric now that they themselves are the first to do the previously unthinkable.

Even if there isn't much of a change in the US’s posturing about drugs in international forums, the hypocrisy of demanding that other nations carry on enforcing prohibition while they themselves are retreating from it, could be enough to encourage a range of countries to start agitating for reform. What is to stop the Netherlands, for example, from finally solving its “back door problem” and legally regulating production and supply to its cannabis coffee shops, which have for decades operated in a quasi-legal paradox. Change is already well under way in Latin America, and the developments in Colorado and Washington will only help the region’s case for the need to explore alternatives to the war on drugs.

Finally, while drug policy reformers – particularly those in the US who did such an incredible job mobilising support – should all be delighted that these measures have passed, we should refrain being smug about these victories. Although this news adds to the stream of positive developments over the past couple of years, there is still a long way to go.

For outside observers looking at these developments, the main concern with US legalisation will always be over-commercialisation, and a policy model driven more by profit-seeking and the interests of private enterprise than public health and wellbeing. It is vital that if we are going to “regulate marijuana like alcohol” (as the slogan for these ballot initiatives has argued), then we must learn from the mistakes made with inadequate alcohol (and also tobacco) regulation in the past. But done right, it is clear that legal regulation will greatly reduce social and health harms. Having secured their place in the history books as the first places anywhere to break with the global prohibitionist regime, Colorado and Washington now have a responsibility to do it right, and to show the world that legally regulating drugs is a safe, logical and vitally important step to take.

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