People & Power

Marijuana Wars – Part One

We investigate attitudes towards legalisation, and ask if the Americas are reaching a tipping point in the war on drugs.

Filmmaker: Bob Abeshouse

After the recent legalisation of marijuana in two US states, campaigners hope the rest of the country will follow suit.

But their opponents believe that would open the floodgates to greater narcotics abuse of all kinds. 

In the first of two special reports, People & Power’s Bob Abeshouse asks who is right and if the US has now reached a tipping point in its war on drugs.

Watch Part Two here

Filmmaker’s view

This past January, adults in Colorado began buying recreational cannabis in retail shops, and legal marijuana sales are scheduled to start in Washington State soon. In November 2012, voters in the two states approved ballot measures to legalise the sale of the drug in the same way that alcohol is sold, and efforts are underway to add 12 more states by 2016. Many believe that the end of marijuana prohibition in the United States is now inevitable.

Campaigners hope that marijuana legalisation marks the beginning of the end of the ‘Drug War’. Launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the US’ 40-year-old war on drugs has cost the federal government over $1tn at home and abroad. But the cost of drugs has come down, while the quality and number of users has gone up. In addition, the drug war has contributed to a huge expansion of the nation’s prison population, from 400,000 in 1970 to more than 2.3 million today.

The fiscal pressures that cities and states are facing in a post-recession era are generating new support for cannabis legalisation in the US. It is estimated that lawful retail sales would produce about $9bn a year in government revenue and create thousands of jobs.

We've hit the tipping point because of what Colorado and Washington did .... We're building a political movement. When we started we were on the fringes, barely, of American politics. Now we still got one foot on the fringe but the other foot's solidly in the mainstream because we're changing real law in the state level and the federal law. We're winning ballot initiatives.

by Ethan Nadelmann, Drug Policy Alliance

According to Kayvan Khalatbari, the owner of Denver Relief, a marijuana dispensary in the city’s downtown area, financial incentives played a central role in the success of the cannabis legalisation effort in Colorado.

“Money was a big part obviously,” said Khalatbari. “The first $40m that we are collecting on a yearly basis on sales tax on marijuana is going directly to Colorado school renovation and construction.”

John Hickenlooper, the governor of Colorado, recently announced that the state’s tax revenue generated by sales of marijuana would reach nearly $100m for the current fiscal year, exceeding expectations. Colorado is also benefitting from a ‘green rush’.

“We had a pretty crippling industrial sector as far as our real estate was concerned here in Denver and it was really on the verge of collapse,” says Khalatbari. “This industry moves in, it’s estimated that we’re taking up two million square feet of warehouse space in Denver that would have otherwise stayed empty.”

Colorado already had a system for medical marijuana sales before the recreational measure passed. In fact, 20 states and the District of Columbia allow medical sales of marijuana, which must be authorised by a physician, and the policy has the support of 85 percent of Americans, according to public opinion polls. However, the rapidly growing public support for marijuana legalisation for recreational use has transformed the debate. According to a November Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans are in favour of marijuana legalisation, marking the first time a majority of Americans told Gallup the drug should be legalised.

“We’ve hit the tipping point because of what Colorado and Washington did,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and one of the leading voices of the nation’s anti-drug prohibition movement. “We’re building a political movement. When we started we were on the fringes, barely, of American politics. Now we still got one foot on the fringe but the other foot’s solidly in the mainstream because we’re changing real law in the state level and the federal law. We’re winning ballot initiatives.”

Supporters of the movement say they are dedicated to rolling back the drug war by replacing criminal health justice solutions to drugs and replacing them with public health and harm reduction strategies.

“For decades and decades people have been led to believe marijuana is much more harmful than it actually is,” said Mason Tvert, the former campaign director for the Colorado legalisation initiative, Proposition 64. He now works with the Marijuana Policy Project, an organisation working to legalise marijuana in 12 more states by 2016.

“We’re going to have to go about ballot initiatives in some states but also through the legislature in some states,” Tvert said. “When it comes to the legislature, a lot of it will be northeastern states like Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland. And then when it comes to ballot initiatives we’re really looking at Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine, Montana, Massachusetts.”

But, despite the unprecedented momentum towards legalisation, many hurdles remain.

The war on drugs

The vast majority of law enforcement officials and prosecutors across the country remain committed to a war on illicit drugs. The drug war offers economic incentives to cash-strapped police departments and marijuana arrests are amongst the easiest arrests for officers to make. 

According to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report, ‘The War on Marijuana in Black and White’, released last summer, some 889,133 arrests, more than half of all drug arrests in the US in 2010, were for marijuana. Almost 90 percent were for possession.

Bob Bushman, who spent 30 years as a narcotics enforcement officer in Minnesota, fears that marijuana legalisation will be particularly harmful to youth. “When you relax regulation or you relax laws you’re going to have more use and you’re going to have more abuse. You’re going to have more people trying it out. I think that’s one of the things that sends a signal to young people that maybe it’s not so bad.”

Bushman now serves as president of the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations’ Coalition, a volunteer-run organisation that lobbies Congress for legislation on behalf of roughly 50 law enforcement groups representing about 60,000 federal, state and local drug enforcement officers across the country. Last August, he joined other leaders of major law enforcement associations in challenging a US Justice Department decision to allow Colorado and Washington State to proceed with their legalisation plans. “We’re starting to see scientific information now that shows that young people using marijuana show the effects during brain development.”

Some doctors and drug treatment professionals also oppose marijuana legalisation because of concerns that its use can lead to depression, anxiety, and mental illness. The scientific evidence behind these claims remains inconclusive, but the National Institute for Drug Abuse, the federal government’s official drug research arm, maintains that cannabis has no medicinal value and insists that marijuana use among minors can lead to memory loss and improper brain development.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions and I think this is one place where we need to do the research first. Come down to some scientific certainties before they [states] move ahead with putting it out there and then going backwards like we did with alcohol and cigarettes,” Bushman said.

Bushman is solidly in the majority of law enforcement officers who support drug prohibition, but there is a growing contingent of active and retired law enforcement officers who have called for an end to the drug war.

Terry Nelson fought the drug war for 32 years as a federal agent and is now committed to ending it. He is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organisation of ex-cops, federal agents and judges who share his mission. Nelson says law enforcement has a powerful self-interest in perpetuating cannabis prohibition.

“It’s all about the money,” said Nelson. “If a police officer arrests a kid today, he goes to court tomorrow he’s going to get three hours of overtime just for showing up and testifying. Many police departments, their overtime pay is almost as much as the police officer makes normally. It’s a money train.” 

Stop and frisk

New York is one of the states with the most marijuana arrests. Between 2004 and 2012, the NYPD stopped and frisked roughly 4.6 million people, 85 percent of whom were either African American or Latino, and 356,000 of them were arrested for possessing small amounts of the drug.

Joseph Hayden, a Harlem resident and social activist, was determined to stop the practice by filming it. He founded All Things Harlem, a neighbourhood media company that uploads videos of stop and frisks to the web.

When you relax regulation or you relax laws you're going to have more use and you're going to have more abuse. You're going to have more people trying it out. I think that's one of the things that sends a signal to young people that maybe it's not so bad.

by Bob Bushman, National Narcotics Officers' Associations' Coalition

“Everywhere we looked in the community we saw flashing lights, people being pulled over and kids lined up against the wall,” said Hayden, who filmed most of these encounters himself. “At first it was difficult. They challenged every step of way. But we stood our ground.”

The practice of stop and frisk can be traced back to a law enforcement management tool that measures police performance, known as CompStat. Promotions, job assignments and other benefits depend on whether officers make their summons and arrest numbers, according to John Eterno, a former NYPD captain and expert on CompStat.

“CompStat most definitely led to quotas in New York City,” Eterno said. “If they don’t meet their quota, officers can be given a very unpalatable work assignment …. The sergeant can also deny you a vacation.”

Eterno says that when police officers are pressured to make arrests, they will make marijuana collars because they are one of the easiest. In New York, less than 0.5 percent of stop and frisks led to a gun arrest; but marijuana arrests became the number one arrest in the City.

The pressures on NYPD officers were so great that some actually secretly recorded their superiors in squad meetings, which were introduced in a federal lawsuit last year. The judge in the case, Floyd v. City of New York, ruled that the stop and frisk programme amounted to a policy of “indirect racial profiling”.

Ezekiel Edwards, the lead author of the ACLU report, says that around the US, “blacks were almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites despite equal usage rates. If you go to many major cities from Sarasota Florida to Chicago you’ll see that blacks were 10, 15, sometimes 20 times as likely … basically we found that blacks were more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than whites virtually everywhere.”

Marijuana arrests influence the funding that police departments and narcotics task forces receive from the federal government. “Marijuana arrests are a very easy form of drug arrest to generate,” said Edwards. “So it looks like they’re being productive for federal funding, to say, see we implemented this drug programme and look at the all misdemeanour and felony arrests we made.”

Medical marijuana

In Arizona, the top recipient of federal money from the state’s criminal justice commission is the Counter-Narcotics Alliance, a multi-jurisdictional drug task force in the Tucson area. Leonard Re became well acquainted with the Counter-Narcotics Alliance after they broke down his door in July 2012 and forced him to leave his home. Someone had reported that Re had an illegal marijuana grow room and was smoking the drug with his teenage son.

Re and his son had medical marijuana cards that allowed them to use cannabis to help them cope with Osteochondroma, a condition in which benign tumours of cartilage and bone form in the joints.

Under Arizona’s medical marijuana law, Re could grow 12 plants for himself and 12 for his son. A friend with a medical marijuana card also had eight cannabis plants in Re’s grow room. 

The Counter-Narcotics Alliance charged Re with four drug-related felonies and had his son and daughter removed for child abuse. They also emptied his home of all his property under a controversial practice known as civil asset forfeiture.

Last May, a judge ruled that the Counter-Narcotics Alliance had raided Re’s home with an illegal search warrant. All the charges against him were dropped, but he never got his property back.

“I felt that they went after me especially hard because they knew I couldn’t fight. I couldn’t pay for the filing fees anymore,” said Re. “I lost everything.”

Civil asset forfeiture is a mechanism by which the state and federal government can seize people’s property without having to convict them of a crime. “There are police departments, driving cars and using equipment that they basically confiscated or paid for through civil asset forfeiture,” Edwards says. “If you didn’t have marijuana prohibition then many of the reasons that the police used to say that this property was connected to illegal activity would disappear.”

In 2012, US law enforcement authorities seized $4.2bn through civil asset forfeiture, the vast majority in drug cases.

Bushman insists that economic incentives “are not the driver behind” law enforcement opposition to marijuana legalisation. “It’s the problems with drug abuse,” he said. Enormous social costs are “going to show up in all the tragedies and the things that happen with using the drug”.

The former narcotics officer also takes issue with the claim that there is a racial component to the war on drugs. “We respond to complaints from the community we respond to tips that people give us,” he said. “They call 911, they call the police and they expect us to do something about it. When we respond we do what’s appropriate.”

But Edwards argues that the legalisation of marijuana is critical to addressing the racial aspects of the drug war, and that prohibition is deeply engrained in law enforcement practices. “Police have been fighting fiercely a drug war for 40 years and a huge component of that is marijuana. I don’t think you can just overnight change that culture,” he said. “It’s going to take time.”

Next week, part two in People & Power’s series Marijuana Wars explores the attitudes toward cannabis legalisation in southern states of the US, like Louisiana, where possession can result in life behind bars. It also examines legalisation efforts in Latin America aimed at combatting drug cartel violence.


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