Many drug law reformers are frightful over who President-elect Donald Trump will appoint to his cabinet to oversee the war on drugs. Might there be a crackdown and reversal of marijuana law reform? While a president’s cabinet choices are always a concern, a big picture analysis shows that efforts to legalize and decriminalize drugs are spreading and going global. The war on drugs is shrinking, not expanding.
Under federal law marijuana is currently a DEA Schedule 1 drug just like heroin. Schedule 1 drugs are considered to have no medical value, are subject to abuse and there is no accepted safe use even under medical supervision.
In 1996 California passed Proposition 215, the first medical marijuana law permitting legal use with respect to state and local authorities. This measure essentially meant that the voters in California effectively nullified federal and international law. Since then 27 other states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico have joined California with their own comprehensive public medical marijuana programs.
More Recently 17 states have approved the use of low THC (which get you “high”), high cannabidiol (CBD) which does not, for medical reasons, limited situations, or as a legal defense. Some of these new laws are highly restrictive. For example, in Alabama it is restricted to test subjects at one university hospital research facility.
Additionally, the states of Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use with more states sure to follow. In fact, the only states where marijuana is completely illegal are Idaho, South Dakota, Kansas, Illinois, and West Virginia. These five states make up only 6.26 percent of the American population with Illinois being 4 percent of the total.
Attempts have been made by the federal government to enforce the war on drugs in legalized states, particularly in California, under both Presidents Bush and Obama, but those attempts created a political backlash. The DEA under President Obama also made plans to conduct raids in states such as Colorado, but they backed down because the overwhelming popularity of marijuana legalization, even among politicians and law enforcement.
A recent Gallup Poll shows that 60 percent of Americans support legalized recreational marijuana, up from 12 percent in 1969. Support is strongest among independent voters, young people, and highly educated people. Opposition is strongest among the elderly, the high-school educated, and Republican voters. These demographics mean that the trend is strongly positive for increased support for legal marijuana over time.
The only country that has legalized recreational marijuana is Uruguay, but in most countries marijuana remains illegal but the crime of possession of small amounts has been either decriminalized, not enforced, or both. People in most countries are either smart enough or poor enough to realize that spending money to imprison pot smokers is far dumber than smoking pot.
The hemp plant was also widely illegal as a member of the cannabis sativa family, even though it contains no or negligible amounts of THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana. It has been a valuable and versatile crop cultivated for millennia for its fiber and seeds. Most countries where it is economically feasible to grow have legalized it, along with a few US states.
When we turn to the harder drugs like cocaine are particularly heroin, we find a very big problem. Thousands of Americans are dying from black market heroin and the pharmaceutical versions such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. When Americans learn that this problem was created by pharmaceutical companies who funneled huge amounts of money to medical bureaucrats they open up to the idea of reforming all drug laws. The medical bureaucrats created new pain management guidelines for doctors to routinely prescribe these addictive prescription narcotics for ordinary injuries. Once these injured people heal and their prescriptions run out many unfortunately turn to heroin and death.
The country of Portugal had one of the worst illegal drug problems in the world in the late 1990s when an independent commission issued a new set of guidelines for illegal drugs. Their recommendations decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all drugs. In the years that followed the country went for one of the highest death rates from illegal drugs to one of the very lowest. Other social indicators, such as the spread of HIV/AIDS from dirty needles, also improved noticeably.
The success of these guidelines was noticed by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) which is headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal. One analyst who works at EMCDDA, Frank Zobel, calls Portugal’s policy "the greatest innovation in this field" and “that the policy is working. Drug consumption has not increased severely. There is no mass chaos. For me as an evaluator, that's a very good outcome."
It is unfortunately true that the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) 2016 issued a very disappointing, status quo report on global drug policy in April. However, it is also true that some countries that expected radical reform from UNGASS are now planning on ignoring the UN and nullifying the UN guidelines in their country. Ireland, for example, recently moved to legalize medical marijuana.
In November, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, consisting of nine former presidents and prime ministers as well as leaders such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, entrepreneur Richard Branson, former Fed Chair Paul Volcker and George Schultz (Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State) released a report “Advancing Drug Policy Reform: A new approach to decriminalization.” The report argues for decriminalization and legal regulation and against criminal prohibition of drugs.
Given that the war on drugs is so destructive and legalization is so popular with voters, it seems unlikely that President Thump would orchestrate a federal crackdown. Several cabinet members are involved in the war on drugs, primarily the Department of Justice, which houses the DEA and the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, which houses ICE and INS. Authority in the drug war is diffused and hard to coordinate. About the only thing they can coordinate is the photo op press conferences associated with big drugs busts made possible by threatening apprehended drug dealers to reveal their suppliers.
As President Obama realized, trying to reinvigorate the war on drugs is useless and would have been a severe threat to his political legacy. Let us hope that President Trump and his minions also realize the significance of the massive ideological change against the war on drugs and the demographic strength behind it. If he or members of his cabinet turns against this movement, then the people who supported state nullification of federal law can turn to jury nullification to make the drug warriors look foolish in court.
I recommend everyone read Tom Woods book Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century.