I spent the evening of November 6 with some friends, intentionally notwatching US election coverage. There were only two plausible outcomes in the presidential race, and each was worse than the other, as one friend likes to quip. Another friend kept referring to the occasion as Halo 4 Launch Day, and we all pretended the release of that pvideo game was the most momentous thing happening on the world stage. We didn’t even tune in to see what humorous comments Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert might have come up with to lighten the sombre mood.
But along with the dark storm clouds that will continue to hang over the United States for at least another four years, there are other, lighter, more fragrant clouds that will be hanging over two states in particular: Colorado and Washington, whose voters approved ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana not only for medical purposes, as many states have already done, but even for recreational use. That’s right, in Colorado and Washington, you can now legally get high without a note from your doctor.
Two Steps in the Right Direction
I’ve written against the Drug War a number of times in the past, a fact that has led some people to think that I’m a big pothead. No, I assure them, this calm, laid-back demeanor is my natural, unaltered state of mind. I don’t write about ending drug prohibition because I personally want to smoke marijuana without fear of legal reprisals, but rather because drug prohibition is stupid and wrong. It’s stupid because it does not achieve its ostensible end of protecting us from ourselves by curbing drug abuse, and it’s wrong because protecting us from ourselves is not a legitimate function of government.
The Colorado Marijuana Legalization Initiative (aka Amendment 64) asked voters if there should be an amendment to the state constitution “providing for the regulation of marijuana” and “permitting a person twenty-one years of age or older to consume or possess limited amounts of marijuana,” as well as licensing production and taxing the proceeds. The Washington Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Initiative (aka Initiative 502) asked voters if the state should “license and regulate marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons over twenty-one; remove state-law criminal and civil penalties for activities that it authorizes; tax marijuana sales; and earmark marijuana-related revenues.” Both measures were approved, each receiving 55% of votes cast. This is a sign of the times, as more and more people are realizing that drug prohibition is as wrongheaded as alcohol prohibition was in the 1920s—although a similar measure was defeated in Oregon, receiving only 45% of the vote.
Now the Hard Part Begins
Of course, just because the people of Colorado and Washington decided to legalize marijuana production and consumption does not mean the War to End the War on Drugs has been won in those states. For one thing, other recreational drugs will remain illegal, so the government can keep right on kicking down doors and shooting family pets in its crazed search for those substances. (If you haven’t heard about such occurrences yet, check out this chilling music video for the song “No Knock Raid” by Toronto musician Lindy.)
But even when it comes to marijuana, a substance that by all accounts is less harmful than alcohol, the fight is not over. That’s because the federal government is unlikely to honour the democratically expressed wishes of a majority of voters in these two states to be left alone. Instead, according to two former U.S. drug control officials interviewed by Reuters, “the federal government could sue to block parts of the measures or send threatening letters to marijuana shops, followed up by street-level clampdowns similar to those targeting medical marijuana dispensaries the government suspects are fronts for drug traffickers.”
On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama, who has admitted to using marijuana and other drugs when he was young, spoke as if he were going to allow states to go their own way on the medical marijuana issue, breaking with the Bush administration’s policy of raiding pot dispensaries. “I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue,” he promised. Yet as President, he has broken that promise, cracking down even more than his predecessor on growers and dispensaries in the 16 states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes. There is little reason to believe that the Hypocrite in Chief’s reaction to the Colorado and Washington initiatives will be any more restrained.
We’re from the Government, and We’re Here to Help
The notion that prohibition could accomplish anything besides the empowerment of organized criminals is one that should have died with the Volstead Act in 1933. The notion that other people ought to have the power to tell you what you can and cannot put into your own body is one that should offend any individual with a modicum of self-respect. On the one hand, it’s discouraging that the Drug War drags on in this day and age. But on the other hand, the fact that voters in Colorado and Washington have, for practical or moral reasons, denounced this destructive, bankrupt policy is at least a little something for lovers of liberty to celebrate this election cycle.