"The Phelps saga may soon be regarded as the moment when all of that changed, the unforeseeable, yet inevitable moment when the invisible hand of America's marijuana culture finally became a fist."
-- Scott Morgan, "Kellogg's Stock Takes Big Hit After Phelps Controversy," Feb. 24, 2009, DRCNet Chronicle.
In 2008, I made a bold (and probably borderline insane) prediction that marijuana would be legalized in the U.S. before the end of the year 2010 ["Legalize by 2010.," Apr. 3, 2008, Gauntlet]. If such an event does come to pass, 2009 will be remembered as the year when things started to get interesting . . .
Earlier this week, California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano submitted a bill that would effectively legalize cannabis within the state. Producers would pay a $50 per ounce tax, which in turn would generate $1 billion annually in state funds while effectively reducing the cost of cannabis by providing a legal environment in which to sell it and establishing a price floor for a product presently worth more by weight than gold. While it is anyone's guess whether the bill will be dropped like a ton of mexibricks or actually embraced in this dire economic time, the full-scale legalization of cannabis in California would be an enormously powerful statement for the drug reform movement. It would also push the issue of the federal criminalization to the forefront of political consciousness within the U.S.
President Barack Obama's team has seemingly gone to some effort to prevent drug reform from becoming a national issue-- its lukewarm response to the massive outpouring of support for legalization discussion on their own website, Change.org, perhaps indicates this almost as well as Obama's unfortunate choice of Jim Ramstad for drug czar-- which is understandable, in that focusing on social justice initiatives is somewhat silly when everyone's freaking out about the economy. The reality, however, is that cannabis legalization is one of the most politically-salient issues of this decade, with a recent Zogby poll showing that 58 per cent of west coast Americans now favour legalization, 44 per cent nationally. If California legalized cannabis, Obama would be in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to continue the raids by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in opposition to state law, maintain the schedule one classification of cannabis (and merely ignore individual states deviating from federal policy), or remove cannabis altogether from the DEA's list of America's most prohibited drugs. At a point in time where one in four Americans live in a state where medicinal cannabis use is allowed (laws that are in all actuality in conflict with federal laws), clarification is needed from Washington as to what the role of this administration will be in pursuing litigation against people who are merely acting in compliance with local decision making. Were the politicians in power to realize that cannabis legalization would not only greatly reduce incarceration costs, but also generate massive tax revenues in a time where they're staring at a recession, it would be a decision that would probably cause far less controversy than has been traditionally anticipated. Legalization in California would be like a glowing "Exit" sign for politicians caught in the smoky corridor of this economic situation.
Meanwhile, the curious case of Michael Phelps ["Hits from da bong," Savannah Hall, Feb. 12 2009, Gauntlet] is still attracting headlines while cannabis users the world over await his reinstatement on the Corn Flakes box to be able to once again purchase Kellogg's S'mores Pop-Tarts. Perhaps more than anything, the spontaneous and decentralized boycott by the cannabis community against Kellogg's indicates how close the legalization movement is to becoming mainstream. Since the beginning of the boycott, Kellogg's stock has dropped 13 per cent and the company has gone from ninth to 83rd in the Vanno Reputation Index, which measures a company's value in consumers' eyes. While the drop in stock prices is perhaps more resultant of the current economic situation than anything, the massive drop by Kellogg's in the Vanno index shows that while cannabis smokers may not yet have a powerful effect in politics, they are being felt by business. This may just be the first time in history that pot smokers have made a tangible impact in the square world of mergers and acquisitions; if it is, I am doubtful it will be the last.
Will legalization happen by 2010? I'm still optimistic.
UPDATE: Apparently my criticism of the Obama administration was premature.
Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the DEA would follow the policy outlined by Obama's campaign promise to end raids on med pot dispensaries, thus minimizing the federal government's role in the issue substantially. This is only good news for the cannabis legalization movement because it shows this administration is at least open to the idea of legalization, or rather, making it a state decision.
Also, a correction (Thanks to commenter Patrick); Gil Kerlikowske, not Jim Ramstadt, was chosen for drug czar, which is also a favourable improvement. It just might be that government has finally caught up to public demand...