As seen in a steady spate of headlines over the past six months, we're talking about the failed drug war and the ever-widening patchwork of individual state laws with a measure of honesty and common sense that's not been heard since the 1970s.
None of which is to say the trend is inexorable. But this may be the moment. If we don't see an end to marijuana prohibition in the next decade or so, it's reasonable to say that there's a fair chance it'll never happen. And that, as some are wont to say, would be an enormous harshing of one's mellow.
Yes we cannabis
In the '70s, as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Barney Frank filed a bill that sought to allow possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. It went nowhere.
Then last April, as a US congressman, he co-sponsored, with Ron Paul, the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008, which would have lifted federal penalties for possessing 3.5 ounces or less. That bill never made it to committee. This past month, though, Frank and Paul introduced another bill that did reach the committee stage, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009, which would end the ban on cultivation of non-psychoactive hemp.
"I think people have gotten more skeptical of government intervention," says Frank. "And I think people have seen the ineffectiveness of the all-out-war approach to all this. Third, we have concerns about the costs, about overcrowded prisons and overstretched law enforcement. So I think things are moving. But the basic thing is that Americans are better understanding now of personal freedoms."
"A lot of things are being put on the table that people couldn't imagine until just recently," says Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which seeks an end to the worldwide war on drugs. "I would not have predicted five months ago that we'd have this explosion of sentiment. I'm stunned."
Mirken, too, is cautiously optimistic that we may be laying the groundwork for substantial progress. "We'll know for sure five years from now," he says. "But there's certainly much more intense interest in and discussion of whether our marijuana laws make any sense than I've seen since I was a kid — i.e., when Nixon was president."
Indeed, back in the heydaze of Cheech and Chong, the prospects for legalization looked promising. "There were a bunch of states that passed decriminalization statutes in the '70s," says Mirken, including New York, Colorado, and even Mississippi. "Then basically everything ground to a halt in the Reagan era. The pendulum had swung in one direction in the '60s and '70s and then swung back."
It may have swung back yet again — perhaps for good this time. "Back then [in the '70s, pro-legalization] public opinion never topped more than 30 percent," says Nadelmann. "And there was a whole generation that didn't know the difference between marijuana and heroin. Now, support is topping 30 percent nationally."
"We're not yet there, but look at the number of states who voted for medical marijuana," says Frank. "Then you had the referendum in Massachusetts last year over the objection of almost all law-enforcement people. There is movement."