The Obama administration, already overtaxed with two foreign campaigns, made headlines this past week when it waved a white flag in a fight much closer to home. Gil Kerlikowske, the White House's newly minted director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — the so-called drug czar — called for an end to the "War on Drugs."
Granted, Kerlikowske wasn't signaling an intention to lay down arms and pick up a pack of E-Z Widers. His was a semantic shift — a pledge to abandon gung-ho fighting words and imprisonment in favor of treatment. But it was newsworthy nonetheless. As Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project — the biggest pot-policy-reform group in the country — puts it: "Can you imagine [Bush administration czar] John Walters saying that? The Earth would open up!"
It wouldn't be surprising if Kerlikowske's speech was actually a subtle testing of the political landscape surrounding the marijuana question, as we find ourselves, quite suddenly, at a pivotal moment in the push for pot legalization. The horrific violence of Mexican cartels, which make perhaps as much as 75 percent of their money from marijuana (in Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard's estimation), has started ebbing across our Southwestern borders. The budget meltdown in California has led state pols — even, once unthinkably, GOP governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — to reconsider the tax revenues ($14 billion, according to Time) that could be harvested from the Golden State's biggest cash crop. Politicians, no longer confined to the left and libertarian right, are increasingly willing to say that legalization makes sense.
Nearly every day offers another object lesson in the merits of marijuana reform. And the American people seem to be noticing. At least four polls in the past three months have shown a greater uptick in the public's receptiveness to legalization than ever before. One Zogby poll released earlier this month found that 52 percent felt pot should be regulated and taxed. Among the more than 13,000 questions submitted to President Barack Obama's online town hall in March, the Los Angeles Times reported, the top six questions in the "budget" category had to do with legalizing and taxing pot (thanks in part to prodding from groups such as NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
So far, the president — who supported decriminalization when running for Senate in 2004, but not when running for president in 2008 — hasn't exactly been a profile in courage. (His answer, at that town hall, to the question of taxing marijuana was wincingly flippant.) But that may not matter all that much. "Obama is against gay marriage, at least nominally, yet that issue is moving forward, too," statistician Nate Silver, founder of fivethirtyeight.com, tells the Phoenix. "Once one state does something, then other states start to think about it."
Even if Obama isn't yet bumping Pineapple Express to the top of his Netflix queue, then, this much seems clear: the thoughtfulness he's brought to Washington — zealots out, pragmatists in — is evident. And suddenly, whether his fingerprints are on it directly or not, "change" may be more than just a buzzword.
As seen in a steady spate of headlines over the past six months, we're talking about the failed drug war and the ever-widening patchwork of individual state laws with a measure of honesty and common sense that's not been heard since the 1970s.
None of which is to say the trend is inexorable. But this may be the moment. If we don't see an end to marijuana prohibition in the next decade or so, it's reasonable to say that there's a fair chance it'll never happen. And that, as some are wont to say, would be an enormous harshing of one's mellow.
Yes we cannabis
In the '70s, as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Barney Frank filed a bill that sought to allow possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. It went nowhere.
Then last April, as a US congressman, he co-sponsored, with Ron Paul, the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008, which would have lifted federal penalties for possessing 3.5 ounces or less. That bill never made it to committee. This past month, though, Frank and Paul introduced another bill that did reach the committee stage, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009, which would end the ban on cultivation of non-psychoactive hemp.
"I think people have gotten more skeptical of government intervention," says Frank. "And I think people have seen the ineffectiveness of the all-out-war approach to all this. Third, we have concerns about the costs, about overcrowded prisons and overstretched law enforcement. So I think things are moving. But the basic thing is that Americans are better understanding now of personal freedoms."