(Pot)litics

Top of the evening to you wherever you may be!

Okay if you live in the United States then surely by now you may or may not have voted in the recent mid-term elections. If you didn’t, then this still concerns you because America is about to get more friendly very soon. Can anyone say munchies? If you did vote then good for you, same thing though. Today’s post is not to berate you about the importance of voting in a democracy- or whatever you consider a democracy to be- or to congratulate you for voting for virtually the same two dysfunctional party politics that we’ve had since the… what seems like forever ago. Nope, today we’re gonna be taking the high road; we’re gonna be stoning our way through these questions; today, we will get… you know what? fuck it, today we’re talking about pot. Yes, marijuana. Mary J. The sticky icky. Today we talk weed politics. Potlitics. See what I did there?

Marijuana American Flag

As of a few weeks ago only two out of fifty states had legalized recreational marijuana, Washington and Colorado. Which makes sense and it’s funny at the same time for obvious reasons. Washington because let’s face it, that’s about the most exciting thing to happen there other than the Twilight movies, and that’s saying a lot. And Colorado because… well basically for the same reason. And about time if you ask me, and about 58% of the American population. But we’ll get to that.

With the full approval of the government, except at the federal level (it’s called irony), those two states pretty much got a pass from the DEA to conduct a “semi-experimental trial” to produce, sell and tax marijuana for recreational purposes. So without the pesky DEA looking over the shoulders of recreational users who before used to sneak around behind black market deals or bought from dispensaries as a “medicinal” option, now they are allowed to buy without intrusion as much pot as they want- as long as its only under 2 grams at a time, and you are over 21, and you agree to a hefty tax. But otherwise, you are as free to consume as much pot as you want.

Well, that could very well change very soon. Not only did these past elections show the way most American voters feel about the fate of recreational marijuana, but it has proven that the dynamics of the political world in regard to controlled substances are changing.

However, not everyone is happy that the little green leaf (categorized as a Schedule I drug– comparable to LSD and heroin)- is going to become as legal to consume as Cheetos- the basic food of any pothead.

Colorado’s governor John Hickenlooper (D) is one of these unhappy campers. He himself has said that it was a mistake for Colorado to have been one of the very first states to adopt recreational marijuana, even though Coloradans approved of the measure with a majority of 55%.  Today it seems that the adoption of Amendment 64 was not such a bad idea after all, as Colorado is expected to sell up to $1 billion worth of pot with a state tax benefit of $114 million, much of which will go towards education and medical research. This only puts into perspective the fears of those who wish marijuana to remain an illegal substance without taking a hard look at the alternative.

Until now, Republicans have been adamant to accept that eventually Marijuana will be legalized in all fifty states, and that now that momentum is too strong for them to stop. More than fifty percent of the American public now favors legalization of Marijuana, and a large number of Americans now believe that the War on Drugs is a miserable failure. And as an aging population decreases and with it their hopes to turn back the clock, the new progression of Gen X-ers, Gen Y-ers and Millennials are the ones pushing for this legislation to be adopted everywhere.

But then we have, reality. It’s no secret that Republicans kinda hate change. As such, they hate everything associated with progress, especially in the War on Drugs, which aside from wasting the public’s dollar, or about 100 billion for that matter, it allows for very lucrative business.

It’s difficult to know exactly why marijuana became illegal in the United States, some point towards the hemp industry directly competing with the textile and paper industry. Others say it was just the next stage of prohibition. Other say it was a poison, or a harmful substance, even though no medical studies had been conducted at the time to prove that theory. But what most sources seem to agree on was xenophobia- or the hatred of immigrants.

In the early 1900s when Mexican immigrants started moving north, they brought, along with their food and traditions, marijuana. Back then it was a relaxant and nothing more than a recreational mind-altering substance like opium was for the Chinese or the different alcohols for whomever drank them. But the hatred for the newcomers spread beyond their customs and soon enough one of the ways to easily identify them, detain them, jail them and deport them became marijuana- even though Marijuana, or Cannabis, was encouraged to be grown by the early settlers and up to that time many people still had cannabis in their homes as a medicine for nausea and other illnesses. Marihuana as it was known then became what the opium had become for the Chinese, just another tool of repression. Over the years this campaign of hatred spread throughout the country and eventually the good ol’ government stepped in and declared it illegal for everyone. [1] Way to ruin the party you guys.

The thing is that it did become illegal, the plant which had been around for thousands of years suddenly became severely stigmatized, and compared with much more harmful poisons even though it only has a clinical dependency rate of 9% and a toxicity level that is very low.

Well now, after decades of study, the American public is starting to realize that perhaps the hash ain’t that bad after all, I mean since 47% of adults have tried pot at one time or another in their lives. Well, with that in mind, these past elections saw a huge change in the conversation Americans had about marijuana and it’s effects not only on the body or the freedom to put anything you want in your own body (provided you cause no harm to anyone else), but also in the economy.

Here’s what YOU the voter showed us in these past elections-

  • In Oregon, Measure 91 legalized the possession, use and sale of recreational pot for adults 21 and up.
  • In D.C. Initiative 71 legalized up to 2 ounces and home cultivation of up to six pot plants for personal use. Of course Representative Andy Harris (R-Md) has vowed to stop the measure in its tracks (big surprise).
  • In South Portland, Maine penalties for possession of up to 1 ounce of pot are removed.
  • In Santa Fe, New Mexico pot was decriminalized back in August and whatever penalties there were, were reduced to a $25 civil infraction
  • In California- the state where everyone thought pot would become legal first- as many as 100 thousand prisoners could be considered for early release from reclassification of the drug to equal to a misdemeanor.
  • Measure 2 in Alaska also legalized pot for up to 1 ounce for adults.
  • And in Florida, even though the majority of the population there (57%) approved legalizing marijuana, Amendment 2 did not pass for failing to gather the required 60% vote. I call bullshit on that one. [2]

And there you go, two years after Colorado approved legalization of marijuana in a landmark decision, three more states joined the list of states that have in some way removed the penalties for personal consumption (is there any other kind?).

So why is it that a drug that is less harmful than cigarettes and alcohol get so many roadblocks in trying to become more mainstream?

It is no secret that lobbies move the current in Washington. And every new business opportunity that creates a buzz of potential growth- especially in the pockets of shareholders- has to have a lobby in D.C. It is the way that big companies influence the political decisions that ultimately affect you. As noble as you believe the movement to be, the marijuana lobby is no exception and in fact, apart from being represented by legitimate organizations that seek to create businesses and fight to create an industry that will help the economy, it has also started to become a victim of lobbyists and opportunists,. Of course, the stink will always attract the flies. With the sort of buzz that it’s been creating lately, I’m actually surprised a serious effort to commercialize selling the idea of pot to you hasn’t happened sooner. And yet, not a lot of political aides and staffers have rushed into the arms of the brand new lobby in Washington- and one poised to grow like weeds (pun intended)- Big Pot. However there are some who have seen the benefits of joining an age-old industry in these times of modernity and are seeking to join the bandwagon solely for the purpose of making that green- no, not pot, the other green.  Still, Big Pot is still not big enough to attract any major players to the cause, but perhaps as more and more states redefine their drug laws, that could eventually change.

Okay, we all know about lobbies and how they constantly work to influence the public’s decision through our elected officials. It’s important to note that these lobbies can work for or against an issue. And it just so happens that cannabis- just like every other industries- has people lobbying for and against it. At the moment it seems that the groups lobbying for continued prohibition are strong and plenty, while those that lobby for legalization and regulation are less strong. It seems that, too, is changing.

Currently in the United States, one of the fastest growing industries is the private prison system, with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) leading the pack. Working in tandem with politicians in Washington, the private prison industry is making a killing incarcerating hundreds of thousands of prisoners all over the country.

In addition to their very own lobbyists in D.C, the CCA alone has hired 272 lobbyists from three different lobby firms from 2003 to 2012, and spending a total of $21 million from 1998 to 2014. And it seems their efforts have paid off. In 2014, five Republicans and one Democrat in the House of Representatives received political contributions totaling $20,000. And $30,000 going to six Republicans and one Democrat in Congress, with Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee receiving the most cheese at $10,000. [3]

Basically the issue of private incarceration in the U.S. boils down to a simply math problem.

The CCA recieves approximate about $300 million from the government for using its facilities to incarcerate inmates. With 40,00 inmates incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes, and 10,00 of those going to private prisons (out of the 1.5 million inmates jailed for non-violent drug-related crimes alone- more than half of all the prisoners incarcerated in the U.S.) then if we run our little thought experiment correctly, then that means that if all marijuana-related laws in the U.S. are rescinded, essentially there is absolutely no need for private prisons to exist.

With the tax breaks and private contracts that the CCA and its competitors receive- not to mention their very own tax-evasion system- then one could say that the private prison system enjoys a vast amount of leeway when it comes to affecting public policy. In effect, their political power is immense even though the rate of return seems moderately modest. It is no surprise then that the prison lobby will obviously oppose any legislation that means less people going to jail, which means that the marijuana initiatives will be harshly fought by lobbyists from these massive corporations that have ties to politicians in Washington and vampires in Wall Street.

But there are also other groups that benefit from keeping the drug illegal. This article by the Republic Report investigates the top five groups that benefit from keeping the leafy green under the shadows. They include police unions, the already mentioned prison lobby and others that perhaps you wouldn’t have imagined have a stake in the war on drugs. Most people don’t realize that aside from wasting the taxpayer’s money, the War on Drugs has built careers and continues to fund jobs that are depend on keeping these substances illegal and that legalizing them would have to shift those jobs into new economic sectors and that perhaps a lot of those people (judges, police, prosecutors, drug counselors, etc.) would either adapt to the changing political environment or lose out. Not to mention drug cartels themselves, who no doubt benefit greatly from keeping the drugs illegal.

If drug policy shifts to a more relaxed state, then that would mean less of a burden for the taxpayer’s pocket and more control to the federal government. Realistically speaking there really is no need for the government to hire private prisons if marijuana laws alone are reformed. Which means that a lot of prisons would empty out, making room for the real violent criminals.

It’s unclear just how much of a dent the legalization of marijuana will affect the private prison industry, but no doubt they will make up for the shortfall- mainly by incarcerating illegal immigrants, as they have been doing. But that’s another story.

But then there’s also the other side of that coin. On the pro side of the marijuana effort to get it legalized there’s also a major overhaul in the lobbying for marijuana, although those efforts are not as ambitious as those to keep it illegal. However, the marijuana industry is growing at such a fast rate that we are now seeing former politicians and political aides considering joining the marijuana lobby, something that in years past would’ve meant political isolation. Although the lobbies and the initiative groups are not large enough to pay what an oil or an alternative-fuel consulting job would pay, some of these staffers know the difference between them in the sense that they recognize that this- rather new- industry is growing fast and that is gathering a lot of support very quickly.

 

 

But that’s the ticket. In 1969 the number of Americans who supported full legalization of cannabis was only 12%. Last year that number jumped to 58%- the first time that a majority of Americans supported legalization- and although the number decreased this year to 51%, it was still evident that the majority of Americans still support legalization. This is extremely significant in the way that citizens view the changing landscape of the drug war and its failure in American culture, or simply that weed is not as harmful as they would be led to believe at the turn of last century.[4]

When any industry becomes a recognized lobby in Washington, that usually means it is accepted enough or big enough to enter as a conversation into mainstream politics, and a lot of people in Washington and mostly outside of it now believe that it is a conversation to be had. But unlike the movements of the 60s and 70s, this is a serious conversation where the actors sitting at the table will discuss things like regulation, taxing, and what to do with the profits, but not anymore at the town-assembly level, but rather at the national level where serious politicians are considering serious options. Well, I suppose with four states having already legalized the drug for recreational purposes and one more decriminalizing it, we are already there.

Marijuana[1]

 

It’s interesting to see what will become of marijuana in the coming years especially in Washington where cannabis regulation is still a little bit of a touchy subject. And while everything is decided there, it seems that the American population has made up their minds about the future of marijuana, and it has shown in the polls and at the voting booths.

Since the internet, it has been easier for people to find out exactly where the money goes, and it seems Americans don’t want to see their money go to a failed project like the drug war has been, so in the interest of saving Americans a few billion bucks per year, we all think it’s about time to make a few changes and to have that serious conversation we have been asking for.

 

Considering the Factors

 

There are a lot of things to consider in the fight to legalize hash, things like what to do with the revenue of those sales, and the control that’s going to be exerted on the players of that newly-created legal industry. Then there’s things like age-regulation, and enforcement on the existing laws concerning the black market , which let’s face it, will never go away.

It’s true that most people want to take the legal road even if buying means that the government will regulate the drug as it sees fit and even if it means paying a little more. Currently, the black market, even in states like Colorado and Washington, still makes a lot of money in spite of legalization. That’s because a lot of people don’t see legalization as a major change in the way that people consume the drug and they see the existing laws against pot as a small inconvenience that is part of the game. It’s no secret that legalization will bring in a hefty tax which will make it expensive- which is the whole point. But until the states bring the tax down and make it more affordable, there will always be a substantial black market.

While some say that legalizing the drug doesn’t increase use, others say it does, however the jury is still out on that one. This is another factor to consider. And there are dozen others that will make this experimental period an interesting one.

From our history on prohibitions, we can conclude that criminilizing anything doesn’t really work for anyone’s benefit. Of course there are things that should be crimes, such as theft, murder, arson, and the like. But there are others that are better off being merely regulated, and drug use falls into one of those categories of personal freedoms that as long as they don’t affect others, they should be legal. Since Portugal decriminalized all drugs over 10 years ago, and created programs to treat drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one, many changes have occurred, most of them positive. Drug use among the population has maintained constant, or risen slightly. STDs as a result of intravenous drug use has decrease; and obviously prison population and prison sentences are low.

Perhaps it is time for America to have that conversation and search for a better alternative to this expensive and inefficient War on Drugs that has done little to curve any of these ills as it was intended to do. Perhaps this conversation is worth having, but let’s have it instead of ignoring the problem. Perhaps it is time to ignore the old stigmas and focus on progress. In other words, perhaps it is time we take the high road.

And now I leave you with this hilarious and informative little gem. Enjoy

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Bibliography

[1] A Brief History of How Marijuana Became Illegal in the U.S. (MIC.com 15, Nov. 2014) http://mic.com/articles/78685/a-brief-history-of-how-marijuana-became-illegal-in-the-u-s

[2] Voters Change Marijuana Policy in 2014 Midterm Elections. (Huffington Post, 15, Nov. 2014) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/05/marijuana-policy_n_6104636.html

[3] Corrections Corporations of America (sourcewatch.com 15, Nov. 2014) http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Corrections_Corporation_of_America#Lobbying

[4] Majority Continues to Support Legalization in U.S. (Gallup.com 16, Nov. 2014) http://www.gallup.com/poll/179195/majority-continues-support-pot-legalization.aspx

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