Smoke-filled room? Legal marijuana debated at National Press Club

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 24, 2014 

— For Bill Piper, there’s no doubt that the nation’s war on drugs has failed, with 666,000 Americans arrested on marijuana charges last year alone.

“Should they be arrested or should they not? That is the key question,” said Piper, director of national affairs for the pro-legalization advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance.

Kevin Sabet, a legalization opponent, had a question of his own: Does the United States want to create a new multibillion-dollar industry, similar to “Big Tobacco,” that would create more drug addicts?

“These industries only make money off heavy users _ let’s be very clear. . . . We are naive to think that this is about a couple of hippies who want to smoke a joint once a week after work in their basement,” said Sabet, who leads the advocacy group Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).

In another sign of its new status in official Washington, marijuana got an airing Thursday at the National Press Club, a journalism institute that has been visited by every president since Theodore Roosevelt.

Piper and Sabet, two of the most prominent players in the growing legalization battle, squared off in a one-hour debate, highlighting issues that may soon face Congress and an increasing number of lawmakers and voters across the country.

They agreed on little, except for one thing: The issue clearly has momentum.

So far, 23 states have approved laws allowing medical marijuana, and Floridians could add their state to the list in November. While only Colorado and Washington have fully legalized marijuana, both in 2012, they could be joined by Oregon and Alaska, where votes are also set this fall. And just last week, the District of Columbia decriminalized marijuana, making possession of a small amount a misdemeanor with a $25 fine.

Legalization proponents are now targeting voters in states that they think will be easy to win this year, Sabet said, hoping it will help make the case that national legalization is inevitable, while leaving tougher targets such as California for 2016 or later.

“You go for the low-hanging fruit of Oregon and Alaska . . . and you keep going with this inevitability narrative,” said Sabet, who participated via Skype because of a family emergency. “If this is so great, why isn’t California voting?”

He predicted that legalization in Washington state and Colorado will backfire, causing voters in more states to reconsider. And he noted that more than 60 percent of Washington state localities are without marijuana stores, with cities deciding to opt out of their own state’s plan.

“You almost needed a couple of states _ and you may need some more _ to show the country this is not exactly what we were promised,” Sabet said. “I think people are waking up to the idea of let’s see what happens in Colorado and Washington.”

Piper said that polls show a majority of voters in states such as Texas and Louisiana now back legalization, “which gives you an indication of how far this debate has come.” He said that legalization backers even have unofficial support from the Obama administration, which is allowing Colorado and Washington state to conduct their retail sales so long as they do a good job policing themselves.

“The White House’s official position is still in opposition to legalization , but I think it’s pretty clear to everyone that they’re allowing legalization to move forward,” Piper said.

With public support eroding for a get-tough approach on drugs, Piper said, more Americans must decide whether it makes more sense to treat marijuana like alcohol, by taxing and regulating it, or to continue to allow drug cartels to conduct the business.

“We already have ‘Big Marijuana,’ they’re called drug cartels, and they cut people’s heads off. . . . Why let these thugs keep billions of dollars a year if we don’t have to?” Piper asked.

The nation’s war on drugs has unfairly targeted poor minorities, who are much more likely to get arrested than whites, Piper said. And he said legalization is the only way to prevent people “from entering this punitive, unjust, racist system,” calling it a struggle between social justice advocates and “drug war profiteers.”

“I think we’re winning that battle slowly. . . . Eventually, Congress is going to have to deal with this by changing federal law,” Piper said.

Sabet agreed that far too many Americans are incarcerated, but he said that less than 1 percent of the U.S. prison population is serving time for marijuana offenses. But he said legalization backers are still trying to sell their plan as “a shiny new object” that would somehow dramatically reduce prison costs.

“The idea that marijuana legalization is an answer is completely divorced from reality,” Sabet said.

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