Marijuana legalisation creates buzz

WASHINGTON, Mar 18 (IPS) - Due perhaps in part to the country's economic woes, but also a major shift in political culture, discussion of marijuana legalisation has risen to a level of openness and prominence previously unseen in the United States.

When the Kellogg Corporation cancelled the publicity contract for Olympic superstar swimmer Michael Phelps over a photograph of Phelps appearing to be smoking from a 'bong,' or water pipe, over 14,000 people joined a Facebook group vowing to boycott Kellogg.

Breaking from the policies of the George W. Bush administration, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have both promised that the new administration would not use federal resources to prosecute individuals for possessing marijuana consistent with their state laws.

Some states allow for possession of marijuana with a medical prescription, while in others, marijuana users are subject to only a fine.

'What the president said during the campaign, you’ll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we’ll be doing here in law enforcement… What he said during the campaign is now American policy,' Holder said in a recent press conference.

Previously, the federal government had been raiding medical marijuana dispensaries in California and prosecuting even sick patients who wanted to use marijuana for medical benefits.

'We’re still waiting to see how this will translate into policy and practice,' Dan Bernath, a spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalisation group, told IPS.

During Obama’s transition to the presidency prior to the inauguration, he solicited online comments from citizens about what they thought was the most important issue he should address. In a demonstration of Internet organising, supporting decriminalising marijuana legalisation received the most votes - more than reviving the economy.

California state legislator Tom Ammaniano has proposed that California completely decriminalise marijuana. Currently, medical marijuana is legal in the state and in most cases, non-medical users are only subject to a fine. Ammaniano's law would end fines and replace them with taxes.

California’s Board of Education chair, Betty Yee, supports the measure, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. Legalisation would generate an estimated 1.3 billion dollars in annual state revenues, including a 50-dollar retail tax which would be levied for each ounce legally purchased. And when taken out of the underground economy, the street price of marijuana would drop in half.

Meanwhile, 11 states are considering liberalising their laws towards marijuana in one way or another. Massachusetts last year reduced penalties for marijuana possession to a fine.

Marijuana legalisation advocates have been appearing on major network talk shows, and financial news channel CNBC ran a documentary on the marijuana industry in the U.S.

Marijuana is the nation’s largest cash crop, greater than corn and wheat combined, Bernath said.

'It's kind of amazing. Most people who have been doing this [advocacy work] over the last 20 years agree this is a very unique time and exciting time for reforming our marijuana laws and looking at the possibility of instituting some policies that will do a lot more good for our country,' he told IPS.

'There's been a slow realisation over the last couple decades that marijuana prohibition doesn't work. Arresting 872,000 Americans every year outweighs costs of marijuana itself,' he said.

Bernath believes that the struggling economy could be a motivating factor in policy decisions to decriminalise the plant. 'You're talking about a 36-billion-dollar per year cash crop,' he said, 'potential revenue we're giving to the drug cartels.'

'We have a real war over drugs south of our border, in Mexico, Latin America, and South America,' Bernath noted. 'With Mexico, 60 percent of that illegal business and violence that comes from it is because of marijuana. In that light, we're seeing growing frustration from our partners in Latin America and South America with our failure to reduce the demand in our country.'

Indeed, three former Latin American presidents - Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico - wrote an editorial this month in the Wall Street Journal, stating that, 'The war on drugs has failed. And it’s high time to replace an ineffective strategy with more humane and efficient drug policies.'

'The revision of U.S.-inspired drug policies is urgent,' the former presidents wrote. 'In this spirit, we propose a paradigm shift in drug policies based on three guiding principles: reduce the harm caused by drugs, decrease drug consumption through education, and aggressively combat organized crime.'

'We also propose the careful evaluation, from the public-health standpoint, of the possibility of decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use,' they added.

Latin and South America may not wait for the U.S. to take the lead, but a federal policy change may also be on the horizon in the U.S. as well.

Last year, Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts and chair of the House Committee on Finance, proposed legislation that would decriminalise marijuana for personal use in the U.S.

'I don’t think that it is the government’s business to tell you how to spend your leisure time. Now there are other things that people do that I don’t do, and I think they should be free to do those things,' Frank said at a press conference last July.

'The notion that we somehow have to either approve or criminalise all human activity is a great misunderstanding of what is needed for a liberal - liberal in a broad sense -government, where people are free to do as they wish,' he said.

Frank’s bill was referred to subcommittee, but did not receive a hearing. It will likely be reintroduced this session where it will have an uphill battle but an improved chance of success.