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Marijuana Legalization Wins Big in Elections, Is Federal Decriminalization Next?

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The push for reform of marijuana laws sweeps the nation as Gallup poll shows 58 percent of Americans support legalization.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On November 5, voters in four U.S. cities decided to legalize recreational marijuana use. In the Michigan cities of Lansing, Jackson, and Ferndale, it will now be legal for anyone 21 years or older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana on private property. In Portland, Maine, it will be legal to possess up to 2.5 ounces. And, of course, in the Centennial State of Colorado, where recreational marijuana use has been legal for a year now, they voted in a new measure that levies a 15 percent excise tax tax and a 10 percent sales tax on the product. With these cities amending their marijuana laws following the lead of Colorado and Washington State, one has to wonder which U.S. cities and states will follow. And what does this mean for the future of the so-called war on drugs?

Joining us now to discuss the recent marijuana legalization and taxation votes and the ramifications of all of this is Morgan Fox. He’s the communications manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, which is an advocacy group that works towards national legalization of marijuana.

And joining us in-studio is Neill Franklin. He is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, also known as LEAP.

Thanks so much for joining us, Neill.

NEILL FRANKLIN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, LEAP: Thanks for having me, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: And, Morgan, of course, thank you for joining us as well.

Let’s get right into it, Morgan, and start off with you. Are these recent results a surprise in any way, considering the Maine Legislature had passed a measure in 2009 making possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana a civil penalty punishable by only a civil fine. What makes the election results in Portland so significant?

MORGAN FOX, COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER, MARIJUANA POLICY PROJECT: Well, I think that they’re indicative of a national trend in thinking that is starting to say that marijuana prohibition is an utter failure. People are finally starting to realize this. And as of just last month, 58 percent of the American public feel that marijuana should be taxed and regulated similarly to alcohol. These measures are just an indication that that is really a truism across the country.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s get to you, Neill. Let’s talk a little bit about the ACLU report that recently came out. It found that in 2010 there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent a combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws. Will there be any savings to taxpayers in the cities where they have voted to legalize marijuana from cutting back policing and prison costs, things like that?

FRANKLIN: Well, there should be. It depends on how that city manages this new policy. But it’s definitely going to be a savings for law enforcement. They’ll be able to redirect their limited to resources to crimes of violence, which is a benefit for the citizens, obviously. So they’ll be up to focus on murder, rape, robbery, domestic violence. And I’ll tell you, from my experience, just about every city can use more attention in those areas. Over the past few decades, we’ve actually been solving less violent crime across the country than what we have in the past. You’d think that would be better with—you know, you’d think we would do better with more technology today. So this will free up a ton of resources for law enforcement to re-focus their priorities. Yeah.

DESVARIEUX: And, Morgan, I wanted to ask you about estimates of how much new revenue actually this will bring to the state of Colorado.

FOX: Well, that has yet to be determined. It really depends on exactly what the market begins to bear and whether or not these businesses are able to effectively implement their business plans, as well as to stick with the laws that are set forth by Colorado and the criteria that has been laid out by the Department of Justice. But it looks to be in the tens of millions of dollars throughout the state.

You know, estimates of this industry nationwide are at something around $30 billion, but that varies from estimates to estimate. But this is a huge industry. And right now we’re letting it be controlled by violent criminals instead of legitimate businesses. Colorado and Washington have taken the first steps towards changing that. And I think that these cities that just passed laws, while not regulating the marijuana industry or controlling supply, have indicated that they are headed in that direction. So we’re going to start seeing more and more cities and states start to take control of their marijuana markets, as opposed to enforcing these laws against nonviolent marijuana users and enriching criminal gangs.

DESVARIEUX: We can’t talk about legalizing marijuana without getting the other side of this issue. We actually had a former drug policy adviser to three U.S. administrations, Kevin Sabet, on The Real News, and we got into a debate about the topic. He opposed legalization and said that those with small possession, small amounts of marijuana are not actually being targeted. Let’s take a listen to what he had to say.


KEVIN SABET, FMR. SENIOR DRUG POLICY ADVISER IN THE OBAMA ADMIN.: Well, drug incarceration rates actually have fallen in the last couple of years. And, in fact, the growth in prison rate over the last ten to 15 years has not been mainly from drugs. It’s been actually from other—there was the growth in the ’80s, and since then it has gone down, from drug crimes specifically.


DESVARIEUX: So, Neill, what’s your response to this?

FRANKLIN: People do go to jail for small amounts of marijuana. And I can attest to that. We are arresting people today in Baltimore City for half a joint, for a roach. Whatever police officers find on someone, on their person or in their car, they are making the arrest.

Now, maybe Kevin is talking about we don’t have people doing long periods of time behind bars being convicted for the possession of marijuana. The mere arrest alone will prevent you from getting a job in the future because of technology today. Every arrest goes into cyberspace. Every arrest is therefore discoverable. Any employer who is going through applications to hire people, they have someone like me, a private investigator, do a background check, I find the arrest, and they put that person’s application aside and move on to the next group of people.

Not only that, when someone is arrested, they go to a detention center. Here in Baltimore, you’re probably going to spend a couple of days in the detention center before you can either make bail or before you get released on your personal recognizance. And very seldom do they release people on their personal recognizance. At the end of the day, spending a day, a few hours, a couple of days in jail, you can lose a job because you can’t report to work, you can lose your car, you can lose a lot of things. So I beg to differ with Mr. Sabet on that one.

DESVARIEUX: What do you say to people that say that essentially this is going to make it too easy for underaged people, youth, really, to get their hands on marijuana?

FOX: We have it reversed. Our current policies make it easier for our young people to get marijuana. Drug dealers today hire children to sell marijuana to other children. And they sell it in our schools. They don’t ask for ID. It’s not behind a counter. I don’t know if one liquor story—and the reason I say liquor stores is because that’s where states like Colorado and Washington state are moving to. For instance, Washington State, their liquor control Board is setting the policy. I don’t know of one liquor store that hires children to sell booze to other children. We have people selling marijuana on just about every corner in Baltimore. It is our current policies and that current condition and environment that puts more drugs into the hands of our young people.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Morgan, I wanted to ask you a question about the future of all of this. You know more and more Americans are actually in support of legalizing marijuana. There’s a recent Gallup poll that shows 58 percent of Americans support making marijuana legal. I want to get a sense of is there any upcoming elections or measures where legalization will be on the ballot? And where do you see the next changes coming from state or city wise?

FRANKLIN: Well, Washington, D.C., is actually considering a measure to remove criminal penalties for small amounts of marijuana, which is very timely, considering that it was recently revealed that that city has one of the highest rates of racial disparity in marijuana arrests of anywhere in the country that is disenfranchising an entire section of the population during a time of great economic growth.

But I think that we’re going to see a lot of, you know, cities following Portland and Ferndale and these other cities in Michigan over the next year. But we’re certainly going to see several ballot initiatives at the state level, definitely in Alaska, where MPP will be working with local advocates, and in California and Oregon as well. And then in 2016 there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’re going to see five or six more states make marijuana illegal legal within their states, at which point Congress will definitely have to address the issue, simply because of the number of states that are out of line with federal law.

DESVARIEUX: Neill, do you really think we’ll get Congress to address the issue anytime soon?

FRANKLIN: I think so. I think they have to. I don’t think they’re going to have a choice in this matter. This is—you know, I compare this to the end of alcohol prohibition in 1933. It wasn’t the federal government that moved to an prohibition. It was the states, the individual states. And right here in this wonderful state of Maryland in which I live, they never supported alcohol prohibition. So it’s the states that are moving the new marijuana policy, ending prohibition for marijuana. It’s going to move across the country. And then the federal government’s going to have to respond. And that’s the plan. That’s the key. Let’s not give them the choice. Let’s not give them an option. Let’s force them to do it.

DESVARIEUX: Well, we’ll certainly be tracking this story on The Real News. Neill, thank you so much for joining us in-studio.

FRANKLIN: Thanks, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: And, Morgan, thank you very much for joining us as well.

FOX: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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