This isn’t about smoking weed. This is about social justice, science, and an allocation of police resources where they are direly needed.
Earlier this week I took a quick trip to DC for the annual conference and lobby day for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, aka NORML. This has been an important cause to me since I was a teenager, when I realized the way the war on drugs decimates low-income communities and the lives of peaceful humans. The light bulb continued to grow brighter as, through college, I experimented with alcohol and marijuana. Drinking could make me angry, aggressive, and impulsive. Weed? It just made me silly. Why was the clearly more dangerous substance legal, and the drug that made everyone relaxed and jokey illegal?
The topic of drugs is not one I take lightly. My aunt died of a heroin overdose. My dad’s drug use led to serious abuses in my childhood home. I know what hard drugs can do to a family.
But marijuana is not a hard drug. People should not be put in cages for something about as safe as a potato.
I went to this conference to gain more knowledge beyond the overwhelming anecdotal evidence that marijuana should be legal. The conference started on Sunday night with a social gathering. It ended Tuesday with a lobby day on Capitol Hill when we met with the offices of our senators and congressmen. I am going to focus this blog on Monday, when marijuana advocates from across the country gathered at the Elliott School of International Affairs on the campus of George Washington University to learn from a variety of experts.
Here are a few key points from a few of the speakers, along with some additional research and notes from me.
Moderator: Steve Dillon, Esq., Chair, NORML board of directors
People like Mr. Dillon have been at this for decades. Dressed conservatively in a suit–you would trust this man as your lawyer–passion poured out of him.
“Freedom is not a gift from God,” he said. “If you want it you have to work for it every day.”
As he said, this is about freedom and liberty, and the people that are suffering. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, half of drug busts are for pot. And these aren’t kingpins being busted. From the ACLU:
Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.
“The war on marijuana is a war on us,” Dillon said. “This is our time to act. Right now.”
A key word in the marijuana-reform movement is prohibition. The prohibition of alcohol proved this tactic doesn’t work, but rather strengthens black markets and wastes the resources of law enforcement at all levels.
“Prohibition is destroying our country and darkening our spirits,” Dillon said. “Prohibition is based on lies.”
Dillon’s quoting of Abe Lincoln* is what stuck with me:
Prohibition… goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes… A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.
*Whether or not he said this is disputed.
Consumerism and Congress: Allen St. Pierre, executive director, NORML
“As an organization we’re more anti-prohibition than we are pro-pot,” he said.
For those of you reading who wish to be effective advocates for this cause, it’s a critical note. You lose people when you say you’re pro-marijuana. They dismiss you as a stoner. But when you talk about the way prohibition mis-allocates crime prevention, judicial, and prison resources and destroys the lives of mostly black, mostly young people, the argument becomes more salient.
“There’s an emerging mainstream cannabis culture,” St. Pierre said. “Things are going very well in cannabis law reform. We have the most amount of bills before Congress than ever before. They create an alcohol-like model. We’re working on taxes — on producers and distributors, not retailers and consumers.”
The legislation he’s talking about is where the rubber meets the road. This is how change happens. People like St. Pierre and his team spend countless hours helping inform government, and then lobbying them to do the right thing. No change happens by magic. Very little change happens by chance. You must be a part of the change you believe in.
There are bills being voted on all across the country, at the state and federal level. You can learn more about some of those here.
“The federal government has created too much crime,” St. Pierre said. Hopefully, soon, those crimes are replaced by freedoms.
Major progress is potentially on the way. On June 30 the DEA is scheduled to release a public report on whether marijuana should be rescheduled. Some background on this, from the Huffington Post:
The U.S. has five categories, or schedules, classifying drugs or chemicals that can be used to make them. Schedule I is reserved for drugs the DEA considers to have the highest potential for abuse and no “current accepted medical use.” Marijuana has been classified as Schedule I for decades, along with heroin and LSD. Rescheduling marijuana wouldn’t make it legal, but may ease restrictions on research and reduce penalties for marijuana offenses.
“Obama said that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana,” St. Pierre reminded us.
He talked about the widespread support for legalization among the American people. A Gallop poll last year showed that 58% of us back legal marijuana. The number jumps to a whopping 71% for Millenials, our future.
In reality, this issue is over and done with. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for marijuana to be legal in America.
The money will help push the cause along. According to St. Pierre, “over a billion dollars are coming in to state coffers from marijuana. From Oregon and Colorado we know what it looks like. Marijuana taxes paid for a courthouse renovation in Colorado, where there is a 35% effective tax rate. In Colorado alone, there are 16,000 people working at dispensaries.”
Soooo much money is being left on the table. From the Washington Post:
The federal government and most states are throwing away $28 billion in yearly tax revenue by not legalizing marijuana, according to a new analysis from the Tax Foundation, an independent think tank.
The bulk of that revenue — $20.5 billion of it — would accrue to states through the collection of excise taxes on marijuana sales, general sales taxes, and income and payroll taxes levied on workers and businesses in a mature legal marijuana industry.
We Don’t Know Enough about Cannabis, Really? with Paul Armentano, deputy director, NORML
The point that Armentano drove home again and again was that we actually do know enough about marijuana, and the impact it has on our bodies and communities. Leaders who want to “wait and see” more research are making excuses for not being brave enough to be out in front of this issue.
“We have to become forward and forceful,” Armentano said. “We should not be letting them get away with this notion that we don’t know enough about marijuana. We need to confront them and ask, What is it that you need to know?”
Marijuana being classified as a drug as dangerous as heroin has made it much harder for it to be studied in the way other drugs are, but there are plenty of studies out there, plenty of data. Here is a study funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, documented in The Journal of Pain.
The scientists found that, “Medical cannabis used for chronic pain over one year appears to have a reasonable safety profile” and that “Medical cannabis use over one year was associated with improvements in pain, function, quality of life and cognitive function.”
From an article found in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke“:
Based on evidence currently available the Schedule I classification is not tenable; it is not accurate that cannabis has no medical value, or that information on safety is lacking. It is true cannabis has some abuse potential, but its profile more closely resembles drugs in Schedule III (where codeine and dronabinol are listed). The continuing conflict between scientific evidence and political ideology will hopefully be reconciled in a judicious manner
“One needs to be woefully or willfully ignorant of the available data,” said Armentano.
There have been no documented deaths from marijuana overdosing ever. Compare this to our pain pill epidemic. Via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
As Armentano pointed out, the narrative of “unanswered questions” surrounding marijuana is not in line with the conversations we have about the unanswered questions regarding drugs like Adderall, which is prescribed to thousands upon thousands of our young people, and which may just be the most abused drug in America.
“Virtually all conventional therapeutic substances possess side effects,” said Armentano. “Cannabis side effects? Dry mouth, drowsiness, and euphoria. What is wrong with elevating the patient’s mood? The fact that it alters mood is what makes it problematic in the establishment’s eyes. What is wrong with elevating someone’s mood to begin with?”
Armentano said a multi-thousand year phase four trial has been happening with marijuana, and it has continued to prove it is safe, and effective in treating pain.
“Botanical products are safer than pharmaceutical alternatives,” he said.
The Experience with Legalization in Colorado: John Hudak, Brookings Institute
“You’re going to come out of 2016 with wind at your back,” said Hudak, a social scientist. “Look to 2018, 2020.”
According to Hudak, this cause will get easier and easier for advocates as the Colorado and Washington case studies provide more real, from-the-ground data.
“Beyond what you’re doing at grassroots and in Congress, there’s another aspect that is critical as a basis for why Americans might vote in favor of reform: we have data from these states,” he said. “In Colorado, jobs are up and the sky didn’t fall, which came as a shock to many in Colorado.”
Even early critics, like Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, have come around. And why wouldn’t he? According to the LA Times, “the $1-billion-a-year cannabis business will pump $100 million in taxes into state coffers this year.”
According to Hudak–who, again, studies these things professionally for a prestigious think tank– “Most data changes post-commercialization in Colorado were all within margin of error, almost across the board. When you find no change in data, you pack up and say there’s nothing here.”
Crime isn’t rampant. People aren’t dying in the streets. It’s all okay in Colorado, really.
“States, left to their own devices, can get this right,” Hudak said.
When coming to understand why marijuana prohibition has lasted this long, it’s important to know a little history.
“Part of the reason this didn’t happen is it wasn’t legitimate,” he said. “A century of propaganda made this issue evil. In changing minds about those points is extra difficult, but absolutely essential.”
According to an article published on this site, “in 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created within the Treasury Department. President Herbert Hoover appointed Henry Anslinger to head the new agency.”
There is a lot to say about Mr. Anslinger, but this one choice quote says it all: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
And now, today, look at the racial disparity in arrests:
Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. This is the key point I can’t come back to enough.
This NORML conference that everyone had gathered for–lobbying for specific policies–is the hardest, and most vital, part of the social change process. The devil is in the details of what’s in these bills, and how the words play out in reality.
“It’s easy to get people excited about a ballot initiative,” Hudak said. “It’s really hard to get people excited about regulations.”
Hudak encouraged us to not see this as a zero sum game, but as a process that plays out over time.
“You have to come to love compromise,” he said. “All of the ballot initiatives are imperfect. Sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote one way or another. If that’s the best a state can do… you choose between that and prohibition. Sometimes you have to look at a policy choice and think about it rationally and less emotionally.”
He told us to keep going, no matter what.
“As members of Congress think, and consider the issue, their minds will change in time,” he said. “They need it beaten into them. It’s a real challenge, and you have to have empathy for that. They were subject to decades of propaganda… you’re getting movement on an issue that was radioactive 20 years ago.”
The big themes must be brought home over and over: economy, freedom, criminal justice, racial equality. I liken this to a door that needs to be knocked on a thousand times, but eventually, it will open.
Police and Pot Prohibitions: Moderated by Chris Goldstein, Philly NORML
“The scandal of marijuana arrests is the stone cold racism,” said Harry Levine, a Ph.D from Queens College.
From “The Scandal of Racist Marijuana Arrests—and What To Do About It” in The Nation:
hites and blacks use marijuana equally, but the police do not arrest them equally… the vast majority (76 percent) of those arrested and charged with the crime of marijuana possession are young people in their teens and 20s.
From the ACLU’s Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests:
Enforcing marijuana laws costs us about $3.6 billion a year, yet the War on Marijuana has failed to diminish the use or availability of marijuana.
“Young white people use marijuana more than black people and more than Latinos,” Levine said. “The single largest enemy of reform is law enforcement. Police, sheriff, prosecutors, prison guards. It’s good business.”
There’s even a phrase for this among police communities: collars for dollars.
“You can arrest 80, 90,000 people a year, and you still have an illegal market,” said Jon Gettman, Ph.D., Shenandoah University. “We’re letting criminals control the market. If you want to get rid of racial disparities, you have to get rid of the laws.”
According to Loren Siegel of marijuana-arrests.com, most people charged with marijuana related crimes are tried in the lowest courts, with little help from public defenders.
“Guilty pleas are the rules, not the exception,” she said. “We have 70 million people in this country with criminal convictions. It’s a stigma for life. In some states you can’t get food stamps with a marijuana conviction. People that can least afford to overcome the kind of obstacles that come their way.”
The cynical reality is that many cities use marijuana arrests–and the endless fines–to pump money into their cofers.
“They extract and extort money from really poor people to close their budget gaps,” said Siegel.
Just look at Ferguson, Missouri, where they have been sued over their ‘Debtors Prisons’.
Here in Virginia if you’re caught with a joint you face 30 days and $500. Get caught again and it’s a year and $2,500. When there is such an intense disparity in the ways these laws are applied to blacks and whites, it’s not a law at all, but rather a tool of racial oppression.
This. Is. A. Social. Justice. Issue.
According to “Racial disparity persists in Philadelphia marijuana arrests after decrim,” “black residents are still almost five times more likely to end up in custody for small amounts of weed.”
Racism at the root of this policy since 1930s, according to Goldstein. But those same oppressors will see a benefit to legalization: without marijuana users to arrest, crime statistics inevitably become rosier.
“When the crime rate goes down,” Goldstein asked, “you know who looks good?”
The politicians, of course.
“Remind them of the ground war,” Goldstein said. “Tell them about the arrests in their district and their state.”
Again, this was just a snapshot from a few speakers at one conference. I encourage you to get educated on your own, write down your main talking points, and reach out to your elected and civic leaders. Change occurs when you make it happen.