In theological terms that go back to Augustine and Aquinas, the War on Drugs is not a Just War. First, it has no reasonable chance of success. Second, it has disproportionately harmed others, especially people of color. Third, reasonable alternatives exist, especially drug treatment rather than jail or prison for those struggling with substance use disorder. As we head into 2019, thirty-three states have now legalized medical marijuana, 13 have decriminalized it, and 10 have approved legalization for recreational use. Policy debates are intensifying as opponents fear a new national approach to drug policy is taking hold. Witness the just published book Tell Our Children by journalist and novelist Alex Berenson warning that marijuana can cause psychosis and other mental illness. This is not a new concern. But as similar incomplete and partisan tracts appear, it is more important than ever before to examine the basic assumptions underlying the national marijuana debate. The struggle is really between “prohibition” and “regulation.” Is this too simple? I don’t think so. Those opposing legalization now make their stand at decriminalization. This is really a soft word for prohibition. All production and distribution would remain with the illicit market. Low level users are given a civil citation, a small fine, like a traffic ticket. The same was true during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s: drinking liquor was legal, but selling it was not. The best way to think about drug use and most other vices (defined as any activity that provides pleasure but also the possibility of harm) is set forth in the book Regulating Vice by James Leitzel, who teaches public policy and economics at the University of Chicago. Leitzel argues for regulations that protect youth, those in the throes of addiction and therefore unable to make rational decisions, and drug use that will likely harm others, such as driving while intoxicated. None of this requires prohibition, which creates more harm than good. As for legalization, I tell my clergy colleagues that is a misnomer: what they are really supporting is “regulation and taxation.” I have heard opponents assert that we are encouraging marijuana use. In fact, we are merely acknowledging the reality of drugs in our society, including marijuana, and seeking the most effective ways to prevent abuse. The clearest evidence of the prohibition mindset is the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. According to this Schedule, marijuana is as dangerous as heroin and ecstasy, and has “no currently accepted medical use.” Federal agencies use this classification to block scientific studies even as they oppose drug policy reform citing a lack of research. Most opponents of marijuana legalization try to defend this nonsensical classification. Where does all this leave us? On November 20, 2018, U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III laid out a critical next step: “our federal policy on marijuana is badly broken… [Congress must] remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)” and legalize it at the federal level. After 47 years of a tragic War on Drugs that has cost our nation over $1 trillion dollars and destroyed innumerable lives, federal legalization will make it possible to continue to test regulation, starting with marijuana, at the state level. Perhaps, at long last, we can end drug prohibition and achieve a national policy concerning drug use that best meets the needs of all our citizens. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director
Our November 17, newsletter argued that marijuana legalization makes possible “Drug Education That Students Will Believe.” While Rick Steves did not address drug education explicitly, his comments confirmed this critical point – as these excerpts make clear: We need credibility for teachers, cops, and parents when it comes to the dangers of hard drugs. When we get the ‘reefer madness’ out of the system we have credibility. When we take the crime out of marijuana, then we can address the serious problems of hard drugs, and we can do that effectively. This isn’t an issue of soft or hard on drugs. This is an issue of how can we be pragmatic? How can we be smart about a problem that we can’t just wish away? Marijuana is here. People who are opponents talk like, “If you legalize marijuana, it’s going to mess up kid’s brains.” Well, the kids are smoking marijuana. They’re going to smoke after legalization. The question is how can we gain credibility. In Europe, they talk about pragmatic harm reduction. For eight years during the Bush administration, if you proposed pragmatic harm reduction that would not even have been considered because that would have been code for “Let’s legalize it.” But what is wrong with pragmatic harm reduction when it comes to a moral issue? We are suffering from decades and billions of dollars of misinformation from the federal government on the need to make marijuana criminal. When they finally legalized alcohol, there wasn’t a celebration. There was recognition that the laws against alcohol were causing more harm to society than the alcohol itself. We can gain credibility by talking truth to our young people and to me it’s a huge issue. I was a parent of two kids and we had to navigate all those challenges. I want teachers and parents, and cops to have credibility with kids. They will when they speak the truth rather than mouthing government talking points. Let’s regulate instead of criminalizing it. We’re learning that right now. Marijuana use is going down among adolescents, because now we have credibility, just like we’ve had success with tobacco and kids. You can advertise, you can educate, and you can make progress.
On Monday evening, Nov. 27, Rick Steves spoke at a private reception. On Tuesday morning, he held a press conference and then testified before a joint hearing of state legislative committees on marijuana legalization and economic development. Here are excerpts from these events. Transcripts of the complete remarks are available upon request. In Washington State marijuana is legal and the sky is not falling. I’m a friend of our Governor, Jay Inslee, who wanted nothing to do with this. He was elected the same day we legalized marijuana and now he understands what it is. He’s so thankful we are not arresting 10,000 people a year. He so pleased that we’ve taken out much of the black market. And he’s getting to used to $300 million in additional revenue. The black-market industry rivaled apples in my state, and if you know how big apples are in Washington, that’s a big industry. It was empowering and enriching organized crime and gangs, and we dismantled it. We’ve turned it into a highly regulated, highly taxed legal market employing 26,000 people, especially in rural areas where we can use the employment. We’ve been able to redirect precious law enforcement resources away from petty pot issues to serious crime. In 2013, James Cole of the U.S. Justice Department made this memo with very clear points: we’re going let you try this, but if you break our rules, you can expect to be busted by the federal government: keep it away from children, keep the criminals out of the business, keep out leakage from neighboring states, be very strict about safety on the roads, no pot in federal property and so on, and don’t let it be a cover for other illegal drug use. In Washington State, we have been very shipshape about making sure the Cole Memo is satisfied. Consequently, we actually have banking now in our state. About 95% of our money is not cash. EUROPEAN VIEWS OF U.S. I spend a third of my whole life hanging out in Europe. They cannot imagine how in the United States 70,000 people are in jail today for non-violent marijuana crimes. “How can you arrest 700,000 people?” they ask. “You Americans lock up 10 times as many people per capita as we do here in Europe. Either you have inherently more criminal people or there’s something screwy about the laws.” They look at us and they say, “You guys are just crazy about legislating morality.” IMPACT OF LEGALIZATION ON MARIJUANA USE The exciting news today is that we have a track record. There’s never been a correlation with how strict the laws are and how much is consumed. That was our hunch when we started in Washington State. Now we know that because we have the statistics. We’ve been at this for four years in Washington State and in Colorado. The numbers are in. Use does not go up. Adolescent use does not go up. DUI’s don’t go up. Crime does not go up. What goes up is civil liberties and tax revenues. I’ve been at this, as I mentioned, for 15 or 20 years and it’s always difficult to get statistics because people who generate statistics have an agenda. We have a thing called the Healthy Youth Survey that our government does in our state. It interviews 200,000 students between sixth and 12th grades every year on their lifestyle choices and their challenges and drug use and all those kinds of things. Since 2012, teen use has stayed the same in our state. You drive into town and you see the marijuana signs. It seems like it’s less forbidden. Perhaps that makes it less sexy for the kids. Also, remember of that $300 million we’ve generated in tax revenue, a good portion of it is earmarked for education and drug prevention programs. Most of those who oppose legalizing marijuana are assuming use will go up. People who oppose legalizing marijuana act like nobody smokes it now. A lot of people assume a whole reservoir of decent people who would love to ruin their lives smoking pot if only it was legal. But what we’ve learned is that anybody who wants to smoke pot, generally does now, already. IMPACT ON RACE A big issue for me is the racism embedded in our prohibition. When I was doing this in Washington State an individual from law enforcement was assigned to trail me when I gave my talks. We became friends. We went to dinner one night. He said, “I disagree with everything you say except for the civil liberties thing.” Later he asked, “Why are you so passionate about this? Rick, you’re comfortable here in suburban Seattle, you can smoke pot for the rest of your life and never get in trouble.” I said, “That’s exactly it! A rich white guy won’t get arrested. It’s poor kids, it’s black kids.” It is just pathetic – the racism behind this law, and now people are starting to stand up. In the first 57 years of my life I had never been hugged by a big, black, Baptist minister. After we legalized, I’ve been hugged by lots of big, beautiful, Baptist ministers. Now leaders in the black community know how drugs have ravaged their communities. What they’re learning is it’s not the drugs that are so devastating, it’s the fact that it is criminal to use those drugs. The NAACP endorsed our law in Washington. They know that the most costly thing about marijuana is the fact that if you smoke it, you can ruin the rest of your life because you have a record, you can’t get into school, and you can’t get a loan, and you can’t get a job. MARIJUANA AS GATEWAY DRUG People are going to say that marijuana is a gateway drug. Europeans have taught me that the only thing ‘gateway’ about marijuana is when it’s illegal, you got to buy it on the street from some criminal who is not going card you, and who is going to offer you something that’s more addictive and more profitable. IMPACT ON DUI’S DUIs are a very important concern. In Washington state, we were not a pro-pot law, we were a public safety law. That’s why we got the endorsement of law enforcement. We had very, very strict DUI considerations in our law. It was so strict that our main opposition was from the left, not from the right. I don’t know anybody who believes that if somebody is driving intoxicated by anything – pills, marijuana, alcohol – we shouldn’t throw the book at them. But I don’t think there’s any real evidence that shows in any state — medical, legal, or no marijuana — a correlation between those states and safety on the roads. There are all sorts of people looking for an excuse to discredit this legalization movement, whose job is to be in the opposition. They can spin examples and say, statistically, “Look it, there were two more accidents in this county than before, fatalities have doubled.” But if you look at the broad picture, there’s no indication that medical or legal marijuana states show any difference from states that have not taken these steps. IMPACT ON OPIOID CRISIS Portugal and the Netherlands initiated their liberal policies on marijuana in order to deal with a serious opioid problem. After they got rid of their dictators, it was just a free for all. They had a horrible problem with hard drug addicts. They decided to take the marijuana out of the equation and focus on hard drug addiction. Their marijuana use has stayed the same, they do not have any drug tourism, and their hard drug addiction populace has been cut by 50%. If you’ve been to Amsterdam to see that neighborhood, it was a no-go zone when I was a kid traveling in the Netherlands. It was just completely owned by the hard drug dealers. Now, it’s gentrified, there are beautiful restaurants and cafes and there is a coffee shop on the corner. They’ve taken the marijuana off of the streets, they’ve turned it into legitimate businesses and they have targeted their hard drug-addicted population very successfully. IMPACT ON LAW ENFORCEMENT You can learn about our prohibition against marijuana when you look at how we struggled with the prohibition against alcohol back in the ’20’s and ’30’s. Mayor LaGuardia of New York said, “When a society has a law on the books that it does not intend to enforce consistently across the board, the very existence of that law erodes respect for law enforcement in general.” Take away the black market and generate tax revenue, then you can get your police to focus on serious problems instead of running down petty pot smokers and you can save a lot of money in law enforcement on top of the tax revenue. MARIJUANA AS HEALTH NOT A CRIMINAL ISSUE In Europe the word for addicted is “enslaved.” People who are drug addicts are not criminals. They don’t need cops, they don’t need lawyers, they don’t need judges, they need counselors and they need nurses and they need compassion. They need support. When you can take the crime out of the equation, you can see this is a health and education challenge, whether it’s hard drugs or a soft drug use and abuse.
Three nationally prominent physicians have just spoken out in a prestigious journal in support of marijuana legalization. The November issue of the American Journal of Public Health features an article by Dr. H. Westley Clark, Dr. Joyce Elders, and Dr. David Nathan titled “The Case for Marijuana Legalization.” Dr. Clark has a distinguished record as the Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment SAMSHA for 16 years. He is currently Dean’s Executive Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University. Dr. Elders is well known as the former Surgeon General under President William Clinton; she is now professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Dr. Nathan is a psychiatrist in Princeton, New Jersey and serves as the Director of Continuing Medical Education for the Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS). In 2015 he joined with colleagues to found Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (DFCR), described in the article as “the first and only national physicians organization dedicated to the legalization and regulation of the adult use of cannabis.” “The unjust prohibition of marijuana has done more damage to public health than has marijuana itself,” according to these three experts. They point to the high number of marijuana arrests—about 575,000 every year in the United States; the disproportionate impact of marijuana laws on African Americans; and the fact that the implementation of current marijuana laws leads to increased poverty, itself a public health issue. The authors argue that prohibition has failed: “over 22,000 million Americans use cannabis each month.” They note that “both marijuana and alcohol can adversely affect brain development in minors.” But they point out that prohibition has not prevented underage use; in fact, it misleads by sending a message that marijuana is dangerous for everyone, which youth “know is not true.” The authors believe that decriminalization (treating low-level marijuana possession as a civil offense, comparable to a traffic ticket), is a welcome step. Decriminalization does not, however, end the need for regulation, which enables individuals to know what they are using, protects against a contaminated product, and can constrain bad marketing practices, such as targeting youth. The article offers a set of recommendations about how marijuana should be legalized, including government oversight of production, testing, distribution, and sales, rigorous standards of labeling, clear information about amount and content of what is being consumed; and other measures. Here is the full text of the article.