Running up the white flag on drug prohibition

Apologies for the (foreshadowed) lack of blogging this week, but it’s worth taking a moment to remark on the breaking news from the United States that the federal government will no longer seek to directly challenge the legal supply of marijuana under state laws, and in particular will not interfere with the legalisation programs being introduced in Colorado and Washington.

A memo from deputy attorney-general James Cole promises that as long as state regulatory regimes guard against “the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health, and other law enforcement interests,” federal prosecutors will not seek to pre-empt them. Attorney-general Eric Holder apparently confirmed this position in a phone call to the governors of Colorado and Washington.

The new federal position holds on to the theoretical stance that marijuana possession and supply is illegal across the country, but surrenders its substance. It represents a concession that the legalisation genie is now out of the bottle, and the administration is not willing to spend resources and goodwill in trying to stuff it back in.

A few months ago I remarked on the way that a number of reformist social trends in the US went into reverse around the 1970s and 1980s and have only recently regained some momentum. Abolition of capital punishment is an obvious case, and legalisation of marijuana is another. In both cases, the intellectual debate is essentially over; almost no-one who has seriously studied the subject continues to support marijuana prohibition (although there is no consensus on the appropriate model for legalisation).

The problem is in building political support and overcoming populist resistance. But it seems as if positions that were regarded as a political death sentence a decade or so ago are finally entering the mainstream.

Marijuana is also another cause where the Republican Party seems determined to put itself on the wrong side of history. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, one of the front runners for the 2016 Republican nomination (and by no means the most conservative in the field), attacked Holder’s decision, saying it was “a mistake” and something he “would never do in New Jersey.”

But even that opposition is less sweeping than it seems; New Jersey itself has a medical marijuana program (signed into law by Christie’s Democrat predecessor), and such programs – controversial a few years ago – now enjoy overwhelming public support.


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