Cannabis in the USA Part I: winning the battle…

Ambitious reforms to cannabis policy in the US are long overdue, with cracks finally appearing in the edifice of the failed ‘War on Drugs’

Matthew BishopDrug prohibition has failed utterly. It has neither stemmed demand nor supply, while creating powerful mafias and a desperate trail of violence. It is not based on evidence or logic. As regularly noted by Professor David Nutt, the former ‘drugs tsar’ under New Labour in Britain who has consistently fought the ignorance of politicians, the illegality of different substances is a product of hysteria, not a sober assessment of danger to public or personal health. Were it otherwise, alcohol and tobacco would be illicit: they are more dangerous and addictive than many banned drugs.

As recounted in Johann Hari’s stunning book, Chasing the Scream, the misguided ‘War on Drugs’ is a relic of a peculiar form of American morality that emerged from the disastrous era of alcohol prohibition. Some people will always use drugs recreationally – just as we all have vices that induce excitement by psychoactively altering our state of mind – but only a small proportion will ever become abusers. Like gambling addiction or alcoholism, this is frequently a symptom of deeper problems: poverty, social exclusion, stress or relationship breakdown. Addicts require compassion and help, not piety and punishment. Demand is difficult to reduce, beyond creating healthy societies that require less self-medication (the alienated youth of Iran, to cite one example, number six million or more heroin or crystal meth addicts). Attempts to restrict supply simply force up prices and raise the stakes of violence in black markets senselessly handed to vicious crooks.

At last, however, reform is finally occurring.

Uruguay led the way by exploring cannabis legalisation in 2012. Then a number of Latin American leaders petitioned the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN) to begin the debate on a more sensible approach in 2013. Jamaica, a country with a large Rastafarian population possessed of a unique relationship with cannabis, also subsequently initiated decriminalisation reforms. Most crucially, legalisation plebiscites were held in a number of US states (Colorado and Washington, followed by Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC, with more to come) after ‘ballot initiatives’ whereby citizens can provoke a public vote on a constitutional amendment. Since then, American public opinion has only gone one way.

All of this forced the hand of the Obama administration. It could have pushed back aggressively with the full weight of the federal judicial and foreign policy apparatus, but it heeded the Latin Americans and gave what one interviewee on a recent fieldwork trip to Washington DC and New York described to me as ‘a qualified green light’ domestically. The 2013 ‘Cole Memo’ (by Deputy Attorney General James Cole) effectively suspended federal law and enforcement of cannabis in those states that had legalised. It was followed in 2014 by the ‘Brownfield Doctrine’ (by William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Narcotics at the State Department) that called for ‘flexibility’ within the UN Conventions on narcotics. This was a classic fudge to a delicate diplomatic problem: legalisation and the creation of regulated markets for cannabis in Colorado or Washington – not simply decriminalisation, as in Jamaica – contravenes both US federal law and the very UN Conventions that American prohibitionists created in the 1960s and imposed on others!

But where’s the political economy in all of this? A confluence of four factors seems crucial.

First, opinion has hardened against the inequities of the way drug laws are enforced. As one policy analyst put it to me: ‘I’m a white middle-class man, so drugs have always been legal for me’. Something Hari wryly notes in his book is that the largest dealers and consumers of drugs are, in fact, middle-class white people; yet the authorities do not mount sting operations in leafy suburbs or on Ivy League campuses. Drug enforcement, he argues, is less about finding drugs and more about disciplining marginalised groups who cannot fight back. Young black men in many cities are considerably more likely to be stopped by the police (up to a dozen times more so, in some places). Possession equates to probable cause, with offenders frequently incarcerated with a felony conviction, their lives needlessly ruined. Structural discrimination in policing and sentencing mean that one in three black men in the US will go to prison in their lifetimes, overwhelmingly due – in the first instance – to drug possession convictions. This has crystallised in the public imagination, with disgust at the brutality meted out to – and lack of justice for – people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott. In short, reforms to cannabis laws represent an effective way of reining in the police and healing fractured race (and class) divides.

Second, the way that the US has dealt with the financial crisis by forcing deflationary policy on cities and states struggling with often-enormous debts and financial commitments – including, in the case of Detroit, even suspending democracy by enforcing bankruptcy – has paradoxically helped. Prison budgets have increased inexorably: many wonder, as one analyst put it, ‘why on earth we spend so much money warehousing people who pose no danger to society, and who then often emerge more dangerous and bereft of opportunity than before’. As states have trimmed budgets, the prison population has been an easy target for relief, something bolstered by the radical criminal justice reforms championed by Obama’s former Attorney General, Eric Holder, including reducing penalties for cannabis possession, cutting ‘mandatory minimum’ drug sentences and clemency for non-violent offenders.

Third, reforms have been distinctive in that the states themselves, led by people through the ballot initiatives, made the running. ‘People power’ can actually have meaningful effects in the US. Supporters of drug liberalisation tend to be young, liberal and politically active; opponents are older and more conservative, and the latter are losing the demographic battle: opposition – if not to drugs in general, certainly to a punitive approach to cannabis – is literally dying out.

Finally, there is increasing corporate buy-in. As legal markets for cannabis become established, emergent financial and business interests are seeking to engage in them; this is, according to one interviewee, ‘literally a race to see who captures the first-mover benefits’. Opportunities are numerous: medical marijuana research; industrial hemp; recreational cannabis products, from teas and cakes to candy and smoking paraphernalia; and, perhaps most controversially, new opportunities for declining tobacco firms to realign and re-invigorate their accumulation strategies. There is a dark aspect to this – corporate attempts at market enclosure that are evident in the current Ohio ballot initiative, for example – but the fact remains that, as the cannabis business lobby becomes more influential, reformists gain powerful support.

Obama – for me at least – deserves great credit for pushing these reforms, which are part of a radical second-term package that includes Cuba and gay marriage. They highlight that, no matter how log-jammed the US political system is, when something begins to move it can do so rapidly. This, in turn, speaks to the fearless radical progressivism of the US Democrats at present (something Labour’s supposed ‘moderates’ in the UK might well learn from).

However, cannabis reforms – as I discuss in the next post – are only partially institutionalised and remain deeply vulnerable.

My research on this issue is supported by the Drugs, Security and Democracy Program of the (US) Social Science Research Council in New York.