Change is undeniably in the air when it comes to our country’s disastrous war on drugs. After 40 years of failure it seems that people are waking up and demanding change. Voters in Colorado and Washington State dealt an unprecedented blow to marijuana prohibition when they voted to tax and regulate it in November 2012. And the American public is backing them up, with the latest polls showing a solid majority of Americans supporting marijuana legalization.
What has been shocking until now is that politicians have been so far behind the American public when it comes to the drug war. While a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, not a single one of the 100 U.S. Senators and only a small handful of the 435 U.S. Representatives support it.
But there’s reason for hope. In the last week, President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie all made major news by speaking out for drug policy reform.
In an interview with the New Yorker published Sunday, President Obama spoke more candidly about the need for drug policy reform – and his own past drug use – than at any time during his presidency. While his statement that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol grabbed all the headlines, he also talked about racial disparities in marijuana arrests and said the new laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington are ‘important.’
“As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol," said Obama.
The president expressed concern about disparities in arrests for marijuana possession. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” Obama said, adding that people who use marijuana shouldn’t be locked up “for long stretches of jail time.”
In the interview, Obama also said he believes that Colorado and Washington’s laws are "important."
“It's important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished,” said Obama.
Last week, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid became the highest ranking elected official to support medical marijuana. “If you’d asked me this question a dozen years ago, it would have been easy to answer – I would have said no, because (marijuana) leads to other stuff,” the Senate majority leader told the Sun today. “But I can’t say that anymore.”
“I think we need to take a real close look at this,” Reid went on. “I think that there’s some medical reasons for marijuana.”
When asked about legalizing marijuana like alcohol, which Colorado and Washington State have done, Reid stopped short of endorsing legalization but said, “[w]e waste a lot of time and law enforcement going after these guys that are smoking marijuana.”
And today, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie just spoke out against the failed drug war in his inauguration speech. “We will end the failed war on drugs that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse. We will make drug treatment available to as many of our non-violent offenders as we can and we will partner with our citizens to create a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable.”
We are at a paradoxical moment in our country. We are clearly moving in the right direction, toward a more rational drug policy based on science, compassion, health and human rights. But the drug war remains entrenched in federal, state and local policies – in the U.S., more than a million people are still getting arrested every year simply for drug possession, and more than a half a million people are behind bars for nothing more than a drug law violation.
We need to step up our efforts, grow our numbers, and continue to win hearts and minds because the casualties from the war continue to mount every day. And as this last week shows us, if the people lead, the leaders will follow.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)