The winter solstice is here: the day on which the night stops growing and the days start lengthening with their promise of eventual spring. From the beginning of history, cultures in the European tradition have marked this date with festivals of hope and renewal. The Romans had their Saturnalia that the Christians turned into their Christmas. The heathens and Druids – and the modern Wiccans – celebrate this date with lighted fir trees and mistletoe. They all looked forward to a growing light and a hopeful future.
Those drug law reformers who have found themselves in the deepest chill of winter since the early 1980s may finally passed their solstice and find the warming rays of dawn breaking early. The thaw seems to be on the horizon.
The first ray of light was California’s adoption of a medical marijuana referendum in the mid-90s, now followed by thirteen other states. Two more states have passed medical marijuana bills, only to see them vetoed by recalcitrant governors. At least six states now have bills under active consideration.
By 2004, California had seen the need to regulate a system for the medical marijuana the people had mandated. The legislature created laws governing marijuana dispensaries. In Los Angeles today medical marijuana dispensaries outnumber McDonalds or Starbucks. Three other states – Colorado, New Mexico, and Michigan also have dispensaries operating, and Rhode Island and Maine have passed a law enabling them, although the first one is yet to open in either state. At least one governor has vetoed a dispensary bill. Their rate of growth in Colorado seems to be following that in California.
Public opinion has followed the spread of medical marijuana. By 2005, opinion polls nationwide had swung so that medical use was favored by a majority of voters. The favorable opinion has continued to grow since then. Michigan voters in 2008 approved medical marijuana by 62%.
Opinion also is swinging toward legalizing the possession of marijuana even without medical need. Surveys now consistently show around 45% in favor of legalization; and in California, where legalization will probably appear on the 2010 ballot, 56% of the voters are in favor.
In fact, state action on legalization is the hot topic of conversation. In addition to the referendum petition, the California legislature has a legalization bill before it this session. A similar bill, but with more sponsors, has also been filed in Oregon. Passage of either of these bills is unlikely, but they have generated editorial page conversations across the country. This topic was unheard of just a few years ago, and now it is discussed as a routine matter, with a surprising part of the comments being favorable.
Massachusetts is a bit of a wild card when it comes to legalization. It decriminalized possession of less than one ounce through a 2008 referendum. All of the other states that have decriminalized did so in the mid- to late-1970s, so one has trouble deciding whether Massachusetts is showing a liberalized attitude tending toward legalization or a retrograde move to the past.
But the real crack in the cold grip of Drug War winter is happening in Washington, D.C. Both the executive and the legislature seem to be loosening their death-holds on prohibition.
The executive branch has moved on three fronts. Shortly after his appointment, the new Attorney-General announced that the United States would abstain from prosecuting those acting in compliance with state medical marijuana laws and followed that with a formal memorandum so instructing U.S. Attorneys. So far, the USAs seem to be acting in compliance with that memorandum. The new head of ONDCP quickly announced that the concept of “War on Drugs” would no longer be used. So far, he has refused to go further in public, but his new assistant director has a professional background in treatment and rehabilitation, not in enforcement. The State Department has also lowered the temperature of discourse and seems to be looking at international alternatives to the failed source suppression policies.
The administration’s main failure has been its neglect in filling judicial vacancies and replacing U.S. Attorneys. However, Obama’s reluctance to face Senatorial filibuster battles over these lower level appointments is understandable.
Congressional action this year has been the most surprising. With no fanfare and little dissent, both houses approved funding for needle exchange programs as part of the pending health care bill and removed the legislative obstacles to medical marijuana in the District of Columbia. Both houses have pending bills to establish National Commissions, the Senate bill covering penal law and policy, including drugs; and the House bill aimed specifically at drug policy. In addition, bills have been filed in the House to decriminalize possession of personal amounts of marijuana and to recognize state medical marijuana laws. Some of this activity should result in some kind of more progressive drug legislation in this session.
The solstice of the long winter of drug prohibition has passed. Light is creeping back into some of the dark corners of oppression. Soon spring will be here. It is time to celebrate.