The Campaign To Decriminalize Pot

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Jun 24, 2001.

  1. By Jamie Pietras
    Source: Columbus Live

    I asked George W. Bush a simple question-why is marijuana illegal?-and I never got an answer. Nor did I get a response to the same letter sent to Governor Bob Taft and Mayor Michael Coleman.
    Activists often contend that voters are ahead of politicians when it comes to drug policy reform. As this small experiment illustrates, from the White House to City Hall, the silence over the drug reform debate is deafening.

    As constituents weigh in through grassroots ballot initiatives, only the usual, vociferous drug warriors and an even smaller handful of coming-out-of-the-closet drug reformers have entered the debate with any kind of muscle.

    And while many wonder why activists make such a big deal out of marijuana law reform-it's just a drug to get you stoned, stupid-the question may be better asked of lawmakers.

    Why care so much about a plant that the U.S. government's own reports have proven to be not physically addictive and virtually impossible to fatally overdose on? The same couldn't be said of alcohol, that other recreational drug this country chose to demonize in a 13-year colossal failure known as Prohibition.

    The cost of the government's well-financed war against a natural herb is immoral, reformers say, considering other ways in which the money could be spent.

    When calculated by the PBS documentary series Frontline in 1999, the cost of combating marijuana in the United States was a staggering $10 billion a year, or about a fourth of the annual budget for the war on drugs. In 1997, the Washington Post reported that the “war on drugs” had cumulatively cost Americans $290 billion-as much as the current defense budget and more than the 1998 trade deficit, according to Joel Dyer's 2000 book The Perpetual Prisoner Machine.

    This year, the Office of National Drug Control Policy budget saw a $760 million increase from 2000 funding, bringing the total drug war piggybank to $19 billion. But spending doesn't always mean results. To no one's surprise, marijuana remains the most popular illicit substance in the United States. According to the latest data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 11.2 million Americans surveyed had used the plant recreationally in the last month.

    Marijuana prohibition seems to be, by many accounts, a failed experiment. Critics call it an investment with no return. No matter how much money we dump into the losing war, people still have an insatiable desire to toy with drugs. From the football tailgater with his six-pack of Michelob to the Somali immigrant who quietly chews on a few qaad leaves with some friends, human beings worldwide have always found ways to escape their routine states of mind.

    But how America handles such folks is a different-some would say ethnocentric-monster indeed.

    While he may be exponentially more likely to start, say, a mindless campus riot, your football beer-guzzler is engaging in an accepted coming-of-age passage. The Somali qaad-chewer, on the other hand, might be deported away from his family because of his drug of choice. The marijuana smoker has to go quietly about his business or end up with a $100 fine, a revoked driver's license and the possibility of losing his or her financial aid for college.

    “People would like to be able to publicly use it, I think,” said Ohio State University student Ben Williams. “Or use it without being secretive.”

    But not in America, land of the free.

    “The herb is naturally found in the earth,” added Columbus resident Ijah Tafari. Beer, a man-made product of fermentation, is the “real drug,” he said.

    Ohio: The heart of reform:

    Activists who see Washington, D.C.'s drug war as expensively futile and unnecessarily punitive are fighting back at the city level. If Big Brother has no place in our bedrooms, certainly he has no place in our living rooms when we're trying to hang out quietly and smoke a joint, they argue.

    In part to send a message to the rest of the country, and in part to protect OSU students from losing financial aid, activists in local reform group For a Better Ohio (FABO) are busy collecting signatures to put a measure on this November's ballot that would decriminalize marijuana in small amounts in Columbus. So far the group has 7,252 of the 10,000 signatures they hope to collect (they need 7,213 valid signatures).

    It wouldn't be the first such city-level reform, but by virtue of Columbus's unique reputation as a national test market, it would be a reverberating warning shot to hard-line drug warriors across the country.

    In California's Mendocino County last year, voters approved by a 58 to 42 percent margin a measure that allows the cultivation of up to 25 pot plants for personal use.

    In 1974, Ann Arbor voters amended the city charter to create one of the country's most liberal laws for marijuana possession. It set the fine at only $5. That was increased in 1990 to $25 for a first offense, $50 for a second offense and at least $100 for further offenses.

    Now, if FABO can garner enough signatures and voter support, the group hopes to effectively decriminalize marijuana in misdemeanor amounts here. In other words, if you're caught with less than 200 grams, or seven ounces, in the city of Columbus, you won't be ticketed, fined or have it on your criminal record.

    Sound like legalization? Well, you still can't go around selling it.

    “On a personal level, I do believe [in] legalization,” FABO President Kenny Schweickart explained. “As an organization, we don't take any position on legalization because there are questions to be raised when discussing legalization. Will it be sold like any other agricultural crop at the supermarket? Or regulated and taxed like alcohol? If so, where will those revenues be spent? It's a completely different issue than decriminalization, so we choose not to take a position on legalization at this point.”

    Schweickart points out that his group is not encouraging marijuana use.

    If Franklin County Municipal Court numbers are any indication, such decriminalization legislation would have quite an impact on a growing number of Franklin County residents. Someone caught in Columbus today with less than about 3.5 ounces of pot would typically be charged under state statute with a misdemeanor drug abuse charge.

    In 1990, 383 Franklin County residents were charged with misdemeanor drug abuse-about half under city statute and half under state statute. The number of charges increased steadily each year and by 2000, 1,783 people had been charged with misdemeanor drug abuse in that year alone, most under state statute.

    Nationally, most indices reveal the same thing. People just aren't saying no-marijuana use is steadily climbing-and more pot users are getting caught and punished.

    It's a phenomenon that's causing conservatives like William Buckley, Milton Friedman and, perhaps most visibly, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, to call for the drug's legalization. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, Johnson has argued, then the war on drugs certainly fits that definition.

    According to the 2001 National Drug Control Strategy Report, drug use for the most part either went up or stayed the same from the beginning through the end of President Bill Clinton's administration. According to the January 4 report, the number of Americans who use marijuana rose from 9.7 million to 11.2 million from 1992 to 1999.

    The data is revealing. That is, if you trust it. It's taken entirely from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which more or less gauges a person's willingness to admit to their drug use on a federal government survey.

    Still, the numbers are interesting when you consider the same president who admitted on the 1992 campaign trail that he smoked dope but “did not inhale” as a young man stepped-up anti-marijuana efforts to new extremes.

    During the Clinton administration, the federal, state and local prison population ballooned from 1.3 million to 2 million inmates. This was in no small part due to increasing numbers of drug offenders being locked up. After California and Arizona voters legalized the use of medical marijuana in 1996, Clinton enlisted the help of federal agents to make criminals of doctors who dared prescribed it.

    And, during the Clinton administration, Reefer Madness-style hysteria so swept Congress that the 1994 crime act actually called for the death penalty for those involved in the cultivation or distribution of 60,000 marijuana plants or 60,000 kilograms of marijuana.

    After he spent record amounts of money to fight drugs both here and abroad and after marijuana arrests reached an all-time high, the non-inhaler decided to fashion a hipper, more progressive marijuana stance in an exit interview with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner. In the now-famous December 2000 article, Clinton conceded that pot should be decriminalized in small amounts and that “we really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment.”

    For Schweickart and other like-minded young activists, the baby boomer generation has failed. Hair chopped off and tie-dyes traded in for neck ties, many like Clinton and Al Gore, who admitted to using marijuana during his Vietnam years, have hypocritically overseen Draconian and far-reaching efforts in the name of the war on drugs.

    The problem is, the government has deep pockets. Activists are lucky to round up some spare change for their reform efforts.

    “It's hard to do it without any money behind it,” said For A Better Ohio's Sean Luse. But he said a sway in public sentiment is helping efforts like his. “It is becoming more mainstream...politicians are becoming more comfortable using terms like ‘harm reduction.'”

    If FABO can round up enough people who wouldn't otherwise have voted, explained FABO volunteer Andrew Ball, the drug policy reform group could “rock the vote” this November.

    Schweickart estimates that 50 percent of the signatures collected so far have come from voters registered through FABO's own efforts. No pun intended, it is indeed the definition of grassroots democracy in action. “I expect very little from any politicians, honestly,” Ball concedes.

    Crime and pot-smoking punishment:

    Drug reformers have reason to be weary. While voter-led initiatives have steered in the direction of more liberal drug policies, most governmental activity has taken the opposite course.

    Take the Higher Education Act amendment of 1998, one of the key reasons For a Better Ohio is seeking relaxed marijuana laws in Columbus. The law passed by Congress states that anyone convicted of a drug-related offense can lose federal financial aid for a year if they have one offense or two years for two offenses. For the third offense, financial aid can be suspended indefinitely.

    It's an interesting concept-punishment by denying education. It's also one that groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and others have decried as being unfair to working-class and minority students.

    Since it just went into effect for the 2000-2001 school year, it's hard to gauge the provision's success in weeding out drug users. Confusion caused many students to leave the question about drugs on the federal financial aid application blank.

    “I don't think I'm being ungenerous in saying it was so poorly written that students didn't understand it and left it blank,” explained Ohio State University Financial Aid Director Tally Hart.

    At Capital University, no students have lost financial aid because of a drug conviction, according to Financial Aid Director June Schlabach.

    While drug war opponents have capitalized on the opportunity to attack the provision, it isn't without room for negotiation. Students who participate in an acceptable drug rehab program that includes two unannounced drug tests can re-qualify for financial aid.

    Hart, like other financial aid directors, doesn't necessarily agree with the anti-drug provision. “It's the law. And our obligation is to be sure that we comply with the law so we continue to get federal aid,” Hart said. “As a totally personal view, I have a problem with any requirement that differentiates access to college between those who need money and those who don't.” While she thinks anyone receiving federal aid should be held accountable to federal law, someone busted under city or state statute doesn't deserve to have federal aid withheld, she said.

    But displacing crime and punishment is one of the rules of engagement in the drug war. In Ohio, those convicted of most drug offenses can have their driver licenses revoked for up to five years, even if their crime had nothing to do with driving.

    Talk to doctors about medical marijuana and many support the issue. Talk to farmers about industrial hemp and they tell you it could help their livelihood and provide a more eco-friendly means of paper and textile production. Talk to cancer and AIDS patients about marijuana and they might tell you it helps them eat or relieves pain.

    But talk to the White House and they tell you it's a gateway drug to harder substances.

    Never mind that the 1999 Institute of Medicine report-which was commissioned by the federal government's Office of National Drug Control Policy-debunked the popular “gateway theory” that's been propagated in no small part by the government-funded Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

    “There is no evidence that marijuana serves as a stepping stone on the basis of its particular physiological effect,” the report concluded.

    But then-Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, when asked last year about the incongruities between government policy and the government's medical research, denied that the report refuted the gateway theory.

    “The report's on my website. I paid for the report. Like a lot of things out of a committee, it was a brokered deal. It was odd what they actually said,” McCaffrey told Columbus Alive. “They didn't say it wasn't a gateway in the sense that they recognize that the biggest determinant statistically of whether you're going to have chronic drug abuse problem as an adult is heavy pot use as an adolescent. What they said correctly was there is not yet scientific evidence that says if you smoke pot in the ninth grade, you use heroin in the 12th grade, and you can't make that scientific connection.”

    But, McCaffrey continued, “You can say unequivocally to a mom and dad, if your ninth grader is smoking pot on weekends, be warned the likelihood of them encountering serious trouble in their educational development and their physical and moral development is enhanced...I tell people the most dangerous drug in America isn't heroin or methamphetamines, it's a 12-year-old boy or girl smoking pot on weekends, because that youngster is 79 times more likely to have a drug abuse problem than one who isn't.”

    The “statistical correlation of enormous significance” McCaffrey speaks of was criticized heavily in Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, a meticulously researched book published by the Lindesmith Center in 1997. As a telling analogy, the Lindesmith Center authors applied such a “gateway theory” to motorcycle use: Just because most people who have ridden a motorcycle rode a bicycle first, doesn't necessarily mean that bicycle riding causes motorcycle use.

    Science and reason get stoned:

    Critics charge that science and reason have fallen by the wayside in the marijuana debate. Tobacco and alcohol survived the temperance movement, save 13 years of failed alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. But marijuana-that peculiar green herb with its most visible history grounded in the American jazz movement of the '30s and '40s and hippie and yippie anti-war activism of the '60s and '70s-remains a criminal substance, on par with crack cocaine and heroin in the eyes of the government. Many have called for a rescheduling of the drug, into a classification considered to have some medicinal value. Others advocate all-out legalization, once was the case.

    The plant family cannabis, strains of which produce the flowering buds known as marijuana and others of which are cultivated for the sturdy, non-psychoactive fibers used to make hemp products, was useful medicinally and for manufacturing into the 20th century. But pressure from newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and DuPont Chemicals caused politicians to see marijuana in a new light. (DuPont was developing chemical pulping paper as part of a multimillion dollar deal with a timber holding company and newspaper baron Hearst in the 1930s.)

    Complicating the issue was the fact that Mexican immigrants were smoking marijuana recreationally in the late 1910s and 1920s, and when the Great Depression hit, Mexicans and marijuana became an easy, albeit unjustified, scapegoat for crime and health problems. In fact, “marihuana” or “marijuana” was the more insidious, foreign name that predominantly white drug warriors dubbed what was previously called “hemp” or “cannabis.”

    As jazz music gained popularity in Northern black communities, racist attitudes toward African-Americans were displaced to the weed as well. Pot use among jazz musicians infuriated U.S. Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger, who pushed for the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which regulated marijuana, and the subsequent Marijuana Transfer Tax Bill, which prohibited industrial and medical uses of cannabis and labeled its flowering tops a narcotic.

    Anslinger's concern with African-American music was so deep-rooted that in September 1943 he sent a confidential letter to his San Francisco District Supervisor that asked the office to help coordinate a sting of jazz musicians. “Because of the increasing volume of reports indicating that many musicians of the ‘swing band' type are responsible for the spread of the marijuana smoking vice, I should like you to give the problem some special attention in your district,” the narcotics commissioner wrote.

    As Reefer Madness permeated the U.S., newspaper accounts offered stories of poor, Mexican families suffering irreversible insanity after eating cannabis. A 1937 American Magazine article penned by Anslinger detailed the story of a boy who ax-murdered his entire family after smoking some “muggles,” or marijuana cigarettes.

    In a 1995 speech to the California Judges Association's annual conference, University of Southern California Law School Professor Charles Whitebread recounted the unexpected surprise he received when he asked the Library of Congress for a copy of the transcript from the Marihuana Tax Act hearings. It took four months for the library to honor his request; the hearings were so brief, the slim transcript had slid to the bottom of the bookshelf and federal employees literally had to break the bookshelf open to retrieve it.

    With a recent history already forgotten in most Americans' minds, the socioeconomic effects of marijuana prohibition linger today. But with the dawn of the Internet and the success of citizen-led ballot initiatives, the government's war on drugs is facing some surprise obstacles. The soldiers are starting to shoot back. And the politicians thought they were all on the same team.

    Indeed, there's dissent among the ranks in the drug policy debate. A 1996 Erney and Busher Associates poll found that 73 percent of Franklin County voters thought legalization and regulation of marijuana for adults to use socially was a “bad idea.” But more recent national polls show more promising numbers for reformers. According to a poll of Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center in February 2001, 46 percent of Americans favor decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, with 49 percent saying it should remain a criminal offense.

    Couple For a Better Ohio's effort to decriminalize pot possession in small amounts in Columbus with the fact that a treatment-over-incarceration initiative similar to California's Proposition 36 could be headed for Ohio, and the Midwest could be the litmus test to gauge how serious the anti-drug war counterinsurgency really is.

    City Attorney Janet Jackson couldn't comment on FABO's ballot initiative, as enough valid signatures have not yet been presented to the city.

    Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, as well as sources in the city attorney's office, question whether the city pot decriminalization initiative would pass legal muster. “I think it's a waste of time,” O'Brien explained. “The city cannot permit what state law prohibits.”

    When asked about his stance on marijuana decriminalization, O'Brien said, “I don't have a position. It's not going to affect what we do.”

    FABO's Kenny Schweickart said his legal research indicates home rule can be used in Ohio to overturn misdemeanor pot laws, and he is willing to take the legal challenge as far as it needs to go. He said he's found examples of case law that indicate city law superceding state law on misdemeanor offenses.

    Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge President Bill Capretta said he hadn't heard of FABO's decriminalization effort yet, and the local FOP hasn't taken a stance on the issue.

    The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is keeping its eyes on Columbus, as it does anytime a reform initiative starts gaining steam. For more than 30 years, the national group has been fighting to educate the public and politicians about marijuana prohibition.

    Over the years, NORML has learned that fighting the stoners-and-hippies stereotype associated with marijuana is almost as hard as fighting the drug war itself. “The ink that gets printed, as we see over and over devoted to furry freaks,” said NORML Foundation Director Allen St. Pierre. “There's nothing interesting about a 50-year-old guy with red suspenders and a seersucker suit” discussing marijuana reform.

    Ohio Patient Network activist John Precup, a multiple sclerosis sufferer who has been fighting for medical marijuana rights in Ohio for more than four years, illustrates the point for Columbus. “Look at this journey for justice that we did,” Precup says, referring to a 1997 demonstration to protest state lawmakers' repeal of an Ohio medical marijuana law.

    “We marched 140 miles in wheelchairs from Toledo to Columbus to protest the repeal of this law. We're out in front of the Statehouse. I'm sitting there in my wheelchair. Dan Asbury is sitting out there in his wheelchair. What shows up on the Channel Six news? People in dreadlocks, nose rings, tie dyes and stuff like that. They didn't interview the patients. They wanted to show...what sells I guess.”

    FABO's Schweickart said the truth will prevail over any stereotypes. “My generation is going to be controlling things very soon, and the status quo politicians better get ready for that,” he said. “Because many in my generation think that they failed us and ignored our needs.”

    Note: Once a legal drug, marijuana's prohibition comes from a legacy of racism and corporate greed.

    Next week, Columbus Alive's two-part series continues: Ohio farmers support industrial hemp production, and the renewed effort to let doctors prescribe medical marijuana.

    Source: Columbus Alive (OH)
    Author: Jamie Pietras
    Published: June 21, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Columbus Alive, Inc.

    Related Articles & Web Sites:


    For a Better Ohio:

    Ohio Patients Network:

    America's War on Marijuana:
  2. This is good reading, thanks SJ.
  3. Freaking awesome, you always post such great stuff SuperJoint!
  4. 7 year bump! :eek:

    Still, worth every bit. Excellent read.

    Still, I couldn't help but notice this seems to be from a United States point of view, but SuperJoint's location is listed as Amsterdam. If so, it would be interesting to get his/her anecdote on how that came to be, how it has been, and why he/she did it.

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