A poster of President Obama with the tagline 'Legalise, Yes, We Can-nabis!'

  • by Sarah Viggers

As many Amsterdam-bound travellers celebrate the decision to scrap the Dutch residents-only “weed pass” earlier this month, residents in Colorado and Washington have voted to pass initiatives making their states the first in the country to allow the recreational use of marijuana. In Colorado, more people voted for Amendment 64 – which legalizes and regulates recreational use of marijuana – than voted for Barack Obama.

While Colorado already has some of the most liberal medical marijuana laws in the country with more than 100,000 patients legally allowed to buy marijuana at hundreds of dispensaries (there are currently more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks buildings), there are signs of changing attitudes across the country. A medical marijuana initiative in Arkansas, the first of its kind in the deep-South, ended up narrowly defeated at 49 to 51 despite expectations of a landslide of opposing votes. This could be indicative of evolving attitudes even in the most conservative parts of the US.

Under the new initiatives, personal possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will be legal for anyone aged 21 or over in Washington and Colorado. While it was previously available for medicinal purposes at dispensaries, marijuana will also be sold and taxed at state-licensed stores. However, the new initiatives directly contradict federal law under which marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, which means that implementation is uncertain.

During his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney said he would fight the legalisation of marijuana “tooth and nail”. Despite talking openly about his personal recreational drug use throughout high school and college, Obama’s administration is also against the reformation of drug laws, and has been accused of waging a “war on drugs”. With regard to marijuana for medical purposes, Obama stated “I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law”. The same rules apply with regards to marijuana for recreational purposes, although since Obama made this statement there have been hundreds of raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where it is legal.

As well as internal pressures, the Obama administration is also facing a growing prominence of changing attitudes on a global scale. 2012 has been a momentous year for drug policy reform, with an abundance of firsts:

  • President of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, was the first head of state to formally and forcefully call for legalization of all drugs in January of this year
  • Drug legalization was placed on the agenda on the Summit of the Americas in April 2012
  • Uruguay announced its intention to legalize marijuana under state control in June 2012
  • Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico formally requested an open debate about drug policy reform at the 2012 UN General Assembly

On the other hand, the US has been the world’s prohibitionist leader for over a century. All current international treaties on illegal drugs having been produced and backed by successive US administrations over the past 50 years, and a complete U-turn seems unlikely. But with 18 states in partial violation of the international treaties and Colorado and Washington now directly opposing them, the “tough on drugs” stance seems increasingly unstable.

In a country weary of undue government intervention, it is hard to justify fighting the will of the people. The latest statement from the Department of Justice, “We are reviewing the ballot initiative and have no additional comment at this time”, gives nothing away in terms of what to expect for the future of these initiatives.

Sarah is a final year student, studying English Literature and American and Canadian Studies.

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