When the People Lead, Politicians Must Follow

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August 21, 2013 - By Christopher Soda

We’ve all heard the timeworn arguments against legalizing and regulating marijuana from politicians. There’s nothing new on that front.

What is new, however, is where the public stands on this issue.   Americans have fundamentally reevaluated how they view cannabis, with legalization now claiming a majority of American support. “It appears the nation has moved from the abstract matter of ‘if’ to the more tangible debate over ‘how,’" said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center and co-author of "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know."  The discussion about what to do with marijuana has resultantly become more nuanced than a yes vs. no debate about legalization.

Have we reached a tipping point?

Consider the government response to the dramatic shift in public opinion. Rather than prosecute Colorado and Washington for violating federal law, the government has remained silent, instead prioritizing a drug policy that focuses on reducing harm and protecting public safety.  Even Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske admitted, “I know we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.” Much of this may be lip service, but there appears to be a subtle government recognition that the foundations of drug prohibition are deteriorating.

“Just this week, on the heels of CNN's Sanjay Gupta’s reversal of his stance on medical marijuana,” writes Eliot McLaughlin, “Attorney General Eric Holder announced an initiative to curb mandatory minimum drug sentences and a federal judge called New York City's stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional.”

The progress we are seeing with cannabis is an example of how we attain political and social change in the U.S.  “That’s been the story of this country,” says historian Howard Zinn. “Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens and not politicians.  They didn’t just moan.  They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary.  They did all sorts of things to bring their situation to the attention of people in power.”

If the federal government does try to block these changes, it will find itself going against a cultural force, and as Colorado federal judge, John Kane says, “You simply cannot legislate against a cultural force.”

I think Mr. Zinn would be quite pleased.

Christopher Soda is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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