Cato Unbound: Ending Cannabis Prohibition in America

Originally published @ Cato Unbound, as part of a series of essays on ending the government’s failed war against cannabis

Ending Cannabis Prohibition in America

The now forty-year-old organized effort to reform cannabis laws in America is on the precipice of major socio-political reforms with approximately fifty percent of the population no longer supporting the nation’s seventy four-year-old Cannabis Prohibition. While reformers have made tremendous gains, notably at the state level, which have placed them at this crossroads, obstacles to full cannabis legalization are abundant and deep-seated in Congress and the federal government.

This paper seeks to identify important areas of concern for cannabis law reform, highlight the factors that have created a positive environment for reform, recognize who are the last and largely self-interested factions in society who fervently defend and/or prosper from Cannabis Prohibition’s status quo, and what are some of the strategic decisions that reformers can implement that will hasten an end to Alcohol Prohibition’s illegitimate, long-suffering cousin.

Important Areas Of Concern For Cannabis Law Reformers

There are several areas of concern for reformers, notably the federal vs. state disconnect in Washington, D.C.; citizens’ illogical fear of cannabis more than alcohol; and the political box canyon potentially created by medical cannabis.

Federal vs. State Government Disconnect –

On a recent video essay broadcast October 20, CNBC host and former senate staffer Lawrence O’Donnell lamenting about Cannabis Prohibition said ‘that only in the U.S. Senate can there be zero discussion about a policy change fifty percent of the country supports’. In a nutshell, despite 14 states having decriminalized cannabis possession, and 16 states and the District of Columbia ‘medicalizing’ cannabis, the U.S. Congress and the executive branch (along with a federal judiciary that is totally deferential to Congress’ intent and will regarding anti-cannabis laws) have a near total disconnect between what the governed want vis-à-vis reforming cannabis laws and elected policymakers on Capitol Hill who strongly support the status quo.

The numbers that frame this political quandary: 75% of the public support medical access to cannabis; 73% support decriminalizing cannabis possession for adults and now 50% of the population support outright legalization (California, where one out of eight U.S. citizens live, nearly passed a legalization voter initiative last fall, only losing by three percentage points). So it can be asserted with confidence that ‘soft’ cannabis law reforms of medical access and decriminalization enjoy overwhelming public support and that the ‘hard’ reform of legalization has now moved into the majority (The recent Gallup poll showed only 46% of citizens continue to support Cannabis Prohibition).

However, even with clear polling data to help guide them away from restrictive policies no longer supported by the public, the Obama Administration’s fifth attempt this October since he took office to introduce ‘digital democracy’ into policymaking decisions by creating a public website where citizens and organizations can post online petitions seeking changes in the ways government works, the president was once again confronted by the publics’ number one question: Why do we have Cannabis Prohibition in 2011? Shouldn’t it be ended as an ineffective public policy?

Unfortunately, like the previous four opportunities to confront public unrest about Cannabis Prohibition, despite the NORML petition being number one with 72,000 signatures, the Obama Administration once again totally rejected any public calls for cannabis law reforms and re-asserted the federal government’s primacy over the states in enforcing national Cannabis Prohibition laws (see discussion below).

Cannabis’ Fear Factor –

Recent polls and focus group data gathered by cannabis law reform advocates post last year’s near-victory in California for Prop. 19 (the initiative that would have legalized cannabis) revealed an important and troubling public perception that reformers need to largely overcome to be successful: Almost fifty percent of the general public in California—where the issue of reforming cannabis laws have been vetted like no other place on earth since the late 1960s— illogically fears cannabis more so than alcohol products.

Forgive the pun, but reformers have to do a better job ‘normalizing’ cannabis use such that its responsible use causes no greater concern in the public’s eye than the responsible use of alcohol. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine cannabis becoming legal anytime soon if fifty percent of the public fears the product and the consumers who enjoy it.

Medical Cannabis’ Political Limitations –

While NORML is the sui generis of medical cannabis in the United States (first suing the Drug Enforcement Administration to reschedule cannabis as a medicine in 1972, NORML vs. DEA), the organization recognizes that absent substantive changes in the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act (and controlling International treaties envisaged and championed by America at the United Nations), qualified medical patients accessing lawful cannabis with a physician’s recommendation in states that authorize such is an untenable conflict with the existing federal laws that do not, under any circumstance, allow for the therapeutic possession, use or manufacture of cannabis.

This state and federal conflict regarding Cannabis Prohibition laws came into full view this year despite previous attempts otherwise by the Obama Administration to slightly modify the federal government’s historic recalcitrance in allowing states greater autonomy to create cannabis controls, and in some cases such as Colorado, to establish tax and regulate bureaucracies specifically for medical cannabis.

Federal actions against medical cannabis in 2011:

*US Attorneys in California deny the city of Oakland the ability to set up a city-sanctioned arrangement with medical cannabis industry to cultivate and sell medical cannabis;

*The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ruled that medical cannabis dispensaries are not legitimate businesses under federal law and therefore can’t take standard business tax deductions;

*The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) sent a memo to all gun dealers in the U.S. warning them not to make any sales of guns or ammunition to medical cannabis patients, even those who possess a state-issued ‘medical cannabis patient’ card. In effect, this federal action has rendered medical cannabis patients with no Second Amendment rights;

*Federal banking regulators regularly harass and threaten local and state banks not to do business with commercial medical cannabis businesses, even if the businesses have state and city-issued licenses to sell medical cannabis;

*US Attorneys in California and the DEA sent warning letters to otherwise state-compliant medical cannabis businesses that are properly zoned under local laws to shut down or move away from federally-funded schools, day care or recreation centers within 1,000 feet of the dispensary;

*These same US Attorneys are now threatening to legally pursue newspapers and magazines that advertise what are otherwise legal, state and city-authorized businesses and their lawful commerce.

Also, under numerous state Supreme Court decisions, lawful medical patients can be denied employment; along with driving privileges (which was recently overturned in California), child custody, Section Eight housing, university residences, and even be denied a life-saving organ transplant.

With so many onerous institutional discriminatory practices and restrictions—and the price of medical cannabis remaining inordinately high because of the existence of Cannabis Prohibition—patients who genuinely need access to this low toxicity, naturally occurring herbal medicine would be far better served by ending Cannabis Prohibition in total than trying to carve out special legal exemptions to existing prohibition laws.

Why Cannabis Reform Is More Popular Now Than Ever Before

The rapid increase in public support for cannabis law reform is made possible by five factors:

1) Baby Boomers are now largely in control of most of the country’s major institutions (media, government, entertainment, education and business) and they have a decidedly different perception and/or relationship with cannabis than the World War II generation (AKA, the Reefer Madness generation), who, were largely abstinent of consuming cannabis.

2) These crushing recessionary times have forced many elected policymakers to drop their support for rigorous enforcement of Cannabis Prohibition laws. Numerous states and municipalities have adopted half measures towards legalization, notably decriminalizing possession or adopting a lowest law enforcement priority strategy.

3) Medical cannabis first becoming legal in 1996 by popular vote in California. After the nation’s largest and most politically important state adopted medical marijuana guidelines, sixteen states and the District of Columbia have followed suit setting up a terrific state vs. federal government conflict that has already visited the U.S. Supreme Court twice (2002 and again in 2005).

4) The advent of the Internet in the mid 1990s allowed citizens to communicate directly with each other at very low costs, create large social networks of like-minded community members, avoid mainstream media (which readily serves as a lapdog, rather than government watchdog in the war on some drugs) and educate themselves with verifiable and credible information about cannabis (rejecting government anti-cannabis propaganda programs like the controversial DARE program in the public schools and the Partnership for Drug-Free America’s ineffective ad campaigns in the mainstream media).

5) Americans are apparently (and finally!) becoming increasingly Cannabis Prohibition weary after seventy-four years. In comparison, America’s great failed ‘social experiment’ of Alcohol Prohibition lasted about a dozen years.

Who Actually Wants Cannabis Prohibition To Continue?

One of the principle lessons in the Art of War is to ‘know thy enemy’. Therefore, it behooves cannabis law reformers to understand what small, but powerful factions in American society actively work to maintain the status quo of Cannabis Prohibition:

1) Law enforcement – There is no greater strident voice against ending Cannabis Prohibition than from the law enforcement community—from local sheriff departments to the Fraternal Order of Police to State Police departments to federal law enforcement agencies.

2) Federal and state bureaucracies born from Cannabis Prohibition itself – Washington, D.C. and most state capitals have created dozens of anti-cannabis government agencies to both maintain and enforce existing Cannabis Prohibition laws. Examples: Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of National Drug Control Policy (AKA, drug czar’s office), DARE, Partnership for a Drug-Free America, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, National Drug Control Information Center, etc…

Many of these bureaucracies in turn provide most of the funding to so-called ‘community anti-drug organizations’ to create the false appearance of local grassroots opposition to any cannabis law reforms.

3) Alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies –

Historically, alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals companies play both ends of the middle when opposing cannabis law reforms for the simple reason that all of these industries will lose a portion of their market share to legal cannabis.

4) Private corporations that prosper from Cannabis Prohibition

Numerous private companies donate significant funding annually to anti-cannabis politicians and organizations to maintain the status quo. Examples of such are private prisons, drug testing companies, rehabilitation services, communication companies, contraband detection devices, interdiction services and high-tech companies.

Reformers can hasten the end of Cannabis Prohibition

Cannabis law reformers need to better politically organize via the Internet, resolve to no longer vote for pro-Prohibition candidates, and to fund and champion pro-reform candidates.

Bipartisan support to end Cannabis Prohibition is a political given. However, since the 1990s every single major cannabis law reform initiative that has been successful has been funded by one of two liberal, politically divisive billionaires (George Soros and Peter Lewis). Reformers need to achieve greater political and funding diversity to significantly advance cannabis law reforms in today’s highly divided national political landscape.

Recognize that most all of the major policy reforms are first achieved at the local and state level, in time putting due political pressure on the federal government to follow suit.

Cannabis law reformers need to better work in concert with other like-minded political and social organizations that also oppose failed government programs or seek redress for grievances against the government.

Reformers need to create a far more simpler reform narrative that juxtaposes ‘pot tolerant’ citizens against ‘intolerant’ citizens in the same manner that Alcohol Prohibition pit ‘wets’ against ‘drys’.

Reformers need to continue demonstrating the tremendous cost to taxpayers of maintaining Cannabis Prohibition; the loss of needed tax revenue and the genuine lack of social controls that enhance public safety.

Reformers need to keep directing public and media attention to the serious de-stabilization of the country’s borders created by the tremendous illegal succor of Cannabis Prohibition in countries like Mexico.

Continuing what cannabis law reformers have been successfully achieving for forty years, which is to say winning a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign in the population, and recognizing that elected policymakers in Washington are not going to be able to lead the country out of it’s long-suffering Cannabis Prohibition without public advocacy that is derived from effective, politically diverse and bottoms up grassroots stakeholdership.


25 thoughts

  1. We have to learn from the laws of alcohol, Bars in particular. When it is legalized, we have to have regulations already in place for establishments that will offer a good buz. Age should be 18 yrs or older, (anyone that can die for this country can smoke or drink). Breaking this law would mean instant removal of permission to distribute. And, it’s an old joke, but, if it is illegal to drink and drive, why are there parking lots for bars. No parking lots, if you want to party, walk or get a ride. Anyone caught driving while impaired will loose their license, period. We have to show the public that we are serious about being safe. There are many more items to be addressed, but I think you understand my feelings.

  2. @Mike Linn, You hit the nail on the head with that comment. I’m not sure about the 18yrs or older part. I think it should be 21yrs or older. Everything else is spot on.

  3. I agree with you Mike! Certain laws should be put in place to show that many consumers are responsible enough to choose the right decision. I also feel that it’s much larger than just being responsible. Our government has turned a cold shoulder toward the moral principle which is:

    Whatever a citizen consumes, whether it be any substance at all, if that citizen creates no influence or negative reaction to the community around them, the citizen should not be subject to any enforcement of any kind.

    In other words, no harm, no foul. This is the basis for my personal debates with others because the government is not allowed to tell me what I can ingest in my own body. That’s my choice. It’s a judge of humility now. How far will our government go before they finally listen to the responsible people of this country? There are no fancy excuses for cannabis prohibition, only the shear ignorance to positively react from the countless billions lost in tax dollars to an unwavering supply of cannabis. My message to government: It’s time to put on the “Honest Abe” top hats and remember that you too are an American citizen like anyone else. Humility is part of being an adult and admitting when you’re wrong (even after 70+ years) is a step toward bettering your self-worth. As a public official, it’s time to take care of the public. Let’s have some responsibility!

  4. This article couldn’t be more right. Cannabis reform starts with drawing the lines clearly. I read lots of propaganda about Prop 19 which I’m sure discouraged voters because they alleged bull such as “workers will be able to get stoned on the job” which was totally false. Keep the initiatives clear and make this plant free to grow.

  5. I completely agree with you Mike, but the majority of medical marijuana users would have to drive to get to work, run errands, etc.. So why create a double-standard? I would simply label the package like a perscription: “This drug may impair the ability to drive or operate machinery. Use care until you become familiar with its effects.” Honestly, I drive blitzed all the time, and I have never had a problem with it. It makes you more cautious if anything in my opinion.

  6. Keep running the economy into the ground!

    Sequestration, the automatic cuts to the federal budget, might get the pro-legalization movement some traction, but I’m not getting my hopes up. The feds would let poor folks starve rather than give up cannabis prohibition, it seems. We’ll see about that.

    The only way they will legalize cannabis is if they have no other choice.

    They have no other choice if they need the money saved and the money earned.

    State and local governments want the income and savings. That’s how state politicians have been moved to overlook the status quo.

    Keep starving the Beast!

    Keep running the economy into the ground until cannabis is legalized.

  7. I have a question, is there or is there not a roadside test available now that determines impairment. If legalized and a person gets stopped by law enforcement, I understand there is a ph strip, or saliva test that can be administered to determine recent use, this is critical, also in its relation to employers. As everyone is aware of the long lasting metabolites the get even the casual smoker burned due to their lingering in the system for days or weeks after even one good smoke.
    Urine tests obviously do not work for this application. Thanks for the article.

    [Paul Armentano responds: Impairment tests like SFTs measure behavioral impairment. Breath tests for alcohol or saliva tests for drugs don’t measure impairment; they are detection tests — as they are strictly detecting whether or not something is present in the blood or saliva. That is hardly the same as determining whether or not someone is under the influence and/or impaired to drive. I cover this issue extensively in my white paper here:

  8. @stump Quang Duc

    I’m a smoker. I’ve driven high before. It actually scares the hell out of me. Makes the calming effect flip on me, I get paranoid. I’ve never been in an accident because of it before, but… I could see it happening to other people who has similar effects. I’ve been in a car before with someone stoned driving, never seen any accidents with anyone. However… I think saying that you drive “blitzed all the time” would be more harming to the cause.

  9. If our “presidents” would read their Holy Bibles they hopefully own they should know this great verse.
    “The Lord said unto me, ‘I will take my rest and I will consider in my dwelling place like a clear heat upon herbs.’ ” — Isaiah 18:4-5

    God gave us every herb bearing plant for the service of man, how can the gov. lock people up for a plant, and possibly block the work ordained to them by God.
    Just let “We the People Smoke”, we were endowed with our Creator with certain unalienable rights…” Is not one of these rights that herbs shall be meat for us.
    The Marijuana Plant has been around so much longer than America for about 5,000 years it was used in 90% of all shipping vessels, so without marijuana alot of our great great grandparents might have not made it to the NEW WORLD. So really every one owes this plant a long awaited Thank You,… It is eventually going to heal the nations broken economy It would help get AMERICA out of this debt, help clear out the prisons, and get people that smoke into jobs working either on their own plants or by running a business and paying taxes to help with the falling economy. What ever happened to the youths religous freedoms of consuming an herb,in the name of God and giving him thanks for all his blessings. A relgious sect. known as the Dyamahiests, are allowed by law to feed their infants DMT, to bring in to a closer mind state with their God. Whats so diffent about the Marijuana plant, In my personal oppinion it is the mistakes of the hippies, that took it to far by causing a seen of chaos on televisions. What needs o happen is all religious views need to be accepted. In California Marijuana is legal to a certain aspect but they will alow Satanic Churchs who mock the true God, in their cerimonies. Why cant a devout Christian, use a plant for whatever purpose they see fit, to service them in the many ways the Marijuana Plant does!! I wish someone could explain why the National GOv. is allowing states to take over the Illegalizagion, instead of going ahead and stop the so called War on it’s unmedicated citizens. I belive that there are to many benifts it would make those who are above us know that the citizens would have control of this upconing market, yet they can go to the states where it is legal and raid and take all of the money I guess that is how they make up for the loss of the other states profits we could bring in. The Drug Classification system does not make logical sense if you are not an idiot, the Marijuana plant has so many uses but is not being allowed by alot of institutions to be studied as possible cures for diseases that are rampid. One such amazing curee is that of BRAIN CANCER, Scientist injected a dose of ACTIVE THC “A Physcoaticive mollecule produced by the plant.” It caused the Brain Cancer to go into a stage where it eats away at the cancer but leaves every healthy cell in tact, without damage, it also may act as a nueroprotectant and actually stimulates brain cell growth. Man our Government lies so hard about a plant that has so many postitive benfits there must be something to this Does anyone else agree? Marijuana isn’t not a medicinal plant needs to be changed, the government is encarerating normal unharmful, marijuana consumers who could be self medicating themselves. So lock up the sick, and give all the money to those who are unable to get jobs, when the Cannabis Industry is to strong for even America to tame, obviously or they would have changed some laws when Naion was saying Obama Change”. Mr. Presidet lied to the whole entire medical cannabis section of this country when saying that his mother suffered so horribly during her death with cancer that he would do anything to help out any one else that possible could get it from a plant. Although their would come gov. regulaion at least we wouldn’t be peranoid every 32 sec’s because every 32 sec’s someone in the world is being arrested for a Marijuana offense, and they ask question like it can cause stress and that it will if you let the governments lies and persicution continue.
    SO ANY ONE FROM SOUTH CAROLINA TAKE A STAND BECAUSE OUR GOVENRMENG IS SlEEPING ON THE IDEA, when their is no purpose, its like they are fufulling prohecy’s “In the later times, some shall … speak lies in hypocrisy … commanding to abstain from meats which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” (Paul: 1 Timothy 1-4) This not just the way the governement is respecting religous view, and many other views, their are 50,000 different applications for the Marijuana plant, Henry Ford’s Model T the very first one was made from Marijuana and it also ran off a fuel from the plant, and it traveled around the entire nation. WHY did they change his idea for Hemp oil for cars to go diging for Fossil Fuels and start wars, and destroy our oceans. Wow our country is blind Wake UP. and get in the WORD OF GOD. That is for you as well any politicians do you want to help pursicute children of God over a plant that is such a blessing its infinte with its power.
    So decide how you think about smoking your next bowl or doobie just remember God would also take his rest in a dwlling place like a clean heat on HERBS. So fellow Marijuana Users Try not to Let this twisted governemtn get you down praise him that we are able to be a part of something that is straight from his word and humble your self before him and pray for either help in the gov. or help from the citizens, cause right now thats what the government obviously is wanting . So Be at Peace and Smoke Up Till The Day He COMES.

  10. I think driving thing could be solved if the technology comes about to detect actual impairment like alcohol and have a set standard

  11. I agree with Mike. To make progress we have to be seen to be responsible and take full account of the fears and concerns of those who do not use or understand cannabis.

    That means leaving behind the “hopeless hippy” idea of “Legalise It”. America is far further on in this than we are in the UK but the sooner we dump the “stoner” image and make cannabis mainstream and respectable the sooner we will achieve reform.


  13. EBAYER7….It is true our right have been takings away from us that our fathers went to war for (ww2) In the 1987 they put together a comity of law and ex law men to come up with a plane to stop cannabis . Drug testing. Taking your property from some one saying u are selling drugs. And o yes my frind they can stop search u if they feel u are haveing drugs on u. I know cop that will hold u till the dogs come are u give him the right to search your car or home if they want. they do have the law with them

  14. I agree with you mike. However, we must also educate the general public with ” legitimate studies.” This will help the people who have been given false information. A example of what I mean is the movie: Reefer madness.
    There are some people that really believe the propaganda that they are bombarded with. A genuine unbiased study of the benfits of marijuana would help people that have never been around it to better understand it. There are still alot of misperceptions out there. Educating the public with true facts should be part of the plan. It helps with my cronic pain so well. I don’t know what I would do without it. I was previously on oxycontin ( for 10 yrs), and the prolonged use nearly killed me.
    ” TORCH “

  15. The people that want to use cannibus are already doing so. There is no law on the books that can stop it. Down with the corruption and stupidity that has become our federal gov. We all need to step up and be heard. Good luck and God bless all of you. Get busy livin or get busy dyin.

  16. Or e can just continue letting the government bankrupt our country until the only federal bureaucracies left are the drug warriors,,they just keep building more prisons and we just keep filling them.

  17. Puffer, they have been the whole time.

    Mike, alchol makes people impaired, period. Marijuana makes a small percent of people impaired to drive. They aren’t the same, and so should not be treated the same.

    “Honestly, I drive blitzed all the time, and I have never had a problem with it. It makes you more cautious if anything in my opinion.”

    You can see how it doesn’t sound good, but really that is a good thing. When you are blitzed on alchol, you can barely walk let alone drive. People “blitzed” on weed can walk, carry a conversation and most can also drive. If someone is impaired, they need to A) not drive, failing that B) remove them from the road ASAP. Alchol messes with your judgement and so the drunker you are, the less likely are you to think you’re impaired!!! If you don’t believe this, please find out for yourself. People smoking weed know when they are too buzzed to get behind the wheel, unless they have been drinking too. Alchol turns off something in our heads and pot does not have this affect.

  18. Puffer, they have been the whole time.

    Mike, alcohol makes people impaired, period. Marijuana makes a small percent of people impaired to drive. They aren’t the same, and so should not be treated the same.

    “Honestly, I drive blitzed all the time, and I have never had a problem with it. It makes you more cautious if anything in my opinion.”

    You can see how it doesn’t sound good, but really that is a good thing. When you are blitzed on alcohol, you can barely walk let alone drive. People “blitzed” on weed can walk, carry a conversation and most can also drive. If someone is impaired, they need to A) not drive, failing that B) remove them from the road ASAP. Alcohol messes with your judgment and so the drunker you are the less likely are you to think you’re impaired!!! If you don’t believe this, please find out for yourself. People smoking weed know when they are too buzzed to get behind the wheel, unless they have been drinking too. Alcohol turns off something in our heads and pot does not have this affect.

  19. I don’t understand how we got here. Why is this an issue? Too me the government shouldn’t even have a say. Who are they to tell private, supposedly free citizens what we can or can’t do with our own life. Our government has gone too far! What’s next, a United States dress code!

  20. Follow the money. No one talks about the amount of money it must take to buy off two presidents that were historically sympathetic to the cause and also past users. This goes all the way to the top and it must be big bucks.

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