Sunday, November 25, 2012

Washington's I-502 Marijuana Reform Initiative Issues

As most of you know by now, Washington State passed the I-502 "marijuana reform initiative” legalizing possession of marijuana under one ounce starting 12/6/12.  Many people have been confused about this law.  It is still currently illegal to purchase marijuana unless you have a “green card” for medical reasons.  It is still unknown at the time of this printing how the federal government will respond to the law’s passage.  Seventeen other states and Washington, D.C., have also eased laws on marijuana which means more states could go the way of Washington and Colorado in the near future.  Regardless of what happens, we will briefly examine marijuana use in this country, why it was outlawed, how the recent state law is opposed to federal law, and how it may affect things both in this country and in Mexico, meaning politics, policing, product distribution, and criminal organizations.  I am not pushing for or against the measure, just discussing some of the related issues.   
Of course, I am not the only one doing so, Seattle Police Department’s Blog on this subject has gone viral:
A little background information if you don’t already toke up:  Hemp is the plant from which marijuana comes from and has been grown for thousands of years.  One variety of hemp, Cannabis Sativa produces mild hallucinogenic effects and has often been used in this country as a recreational drug.  Some claim it also has medicinal use, especially for nausea.  The main chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is what gives Cannabis Sativa its dreamy effect. There are also other strains like Cannabis Indica.  The effects of Sativa are well known for its cerebral high, hence it is often used in the daytime, while Indica is known for its sedative effects in products like tea and is preferred by many users at night.
Aside from a subjective change in perception, most notably a mellow mood, the most common short-term physical and neurological effects can include increased heart rate, paranoia, increased appetite and consumption of food, lowered blood pressure, impairment of short-term memory, psychomotor skills, and concentration.  People who smoke marijuana can also have impaired vision, drooping eyes, and “red eye”.  Long-term effects are not clear as few long-term studies have been done.  There are no known deaths attributed directly to marijuana usage, and there is no physical withdrawal, although there may be psychological withdrawal problems.
Regulations and restrictions on U.S. sales of Cannabis Sativa as a drug began in the mid-1800s.  Increased restrictions and labeling of marijuana as a poison began in many states from 1906 onward.  Outright prohibitions began in the 1920s.  By the mid-1930s, Cannabis Sativa was regulated as a drug in every state, including thirty-five states that adopted the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act.  This law was enacted after many people became alarmed over increased marijuana usage in the U.S. and after the movie “Reefer Madness” came out in 1936.
The United Nations estimates there is frequent consumption of marijuana by about 5% of the world’s population. This has been mostly for medicinal use, while in the United States rates are believed to be significantly higher with more recreational smokers.  It is one of the most commonly used drugs in the world but is still illegal in most countries. Canada, Spain, Netherlands, and Austria have legalized some forms of Cannabis for medicinal use.  The U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved marijuana for any medical condition or disease, largely because the FDA claims good quality scientific evidence for its use from studies is currently lacking.
One big problem with marijuana dispensaries in the U.S. is absence of uniform regulations.  There are also a lot of documented robberies, and probably even more undocumented robberies, of licensed and unlicensed marijuana grow ops in the U.S.  Many times these “dope rips” are committed by street gang members as few of these operations have good security.  For years, “B.C. Bud” from the greater area of Vancouver, Canada, has been sought by local users and it is often shown on the front covers of magazines such as “High Times”. Recently, Southeast Asian Organized Crime Groups have set up large "B.C. Bud" grow operations, often in ranch style homes in the Northwest.  Of course, with so many users and with marijuana still being illegal for the most part, Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) also provide supply for the demand, sometimes even growing it on this side of the border via U.S. Forest Lands.  
During arguments for the passage of I-502, many people, including some high profile people who have worked in the criminal justice system, said that the law would help undermine the notoriously ruthless Mexican Drug Cartels and cut into the huge profits that allow them to exist.  Some experts estimate the money made by Mexican DTOs to be over $40 billion per year. But, some people are arguing legalization of marijuana will have little effect:
Outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon states, “It has become necessary to analyze in depth the implications for public policy and health in our nations emerging from the state and local moves to allow the legal production, consumption and distribution of marijuana in some countries of our continent.”  Some Mexican politicians have stated that they may now turn a blind eye towards big marijuana grow operations in Mexico, which likely means bigger profits for large scale drug organizations like the Zetas and Sinaloa Cartels.  This could also mean that other narcotics, such as heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, could get a free pass at the Mexican border.  In great part to please the United States during his six year term, outgoing Mexican President Calderon waged a hard fought war against the drug cartels with more results than all of the previous Mexican administrations put together.  Calderon did so at great cost to Mexican civilian lives, the police, and military.
With the remaining 48 states prohibiting marijuana today, there could still be huge future profits for Mexican marijuana importers.  "While the criminal organizations that are a threat to both of our countries make a lot of money off of heroin and cocaine and methamphetamine, the vast majority of their money to buy guns, bribe, corrupt and destroy lives is from marijuana", said John Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.  Others critics argue that if marijuana was made legal across the entire United States, criminal groups would just focus on other illegal contraband.  Perhaps they would build more labs to create new, more addicting, and more dangerous drugs?  American street gangs would still distribute other illegal drugs, guns, and remain involved in other crimes.
Mexican officials have grown frustrated with the mixed messages, “It seems to me that we should move to authorize exports,” said Cesar Duarte, governor of the violence-plagued State of Chihuahua, which includes Ciudad Juarez. “We could therefore propose organizing production for export, and with it no longer being illegal, we would have control over a business which today is run by criminals. And which finances criminals.”
Supporters of I-502 helped convince a majority of voters to pass it by saying the measure could raise over $500 million in tax revenue for cash strapped state coffers.  Some of that money is supposed to be used to help fight violent crime.  The Washington State Liquor Control Board would be the regulatory body of marijuana, however; it would still be illegal for youth under 21 to purchase it.  Some people have argued that with legalization youth may be more prone to experimentation with other drugs and there’s no guarantee any money will go towards treatment:
Reelected President Barack Obama’s administration so far has rejected calls from across Latin America, including the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, for drug decriminalization as a means to crimp cartel profits and stop gangland violence.  “It’s worth discussing, but there is no way the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy”, Vice President Joe Biden said during a March, 2012, visit to Mexico City.
There are many who argue that our drug laws and the drug war have not worked.  Like alcohol prohibition in the last century, they say marijuana prohibition has helped fuel violent crime across our country.  Perhaps it is time to reexamine policy on these matters, but it should be done on a nationwide basis, taking into account police concerns, border security, schools, medical needs, and other stakeholders to build a consistent and safe system for all of our citizens.