On Election Day, both Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use – a giant leap for the legalization movement and a step toward slowing down the skyrocketing incarceration rates in the United States. This is the first time that marijuana usage for non-medical reasons has been approved through ballot initiatives, and it signals a growing acceptance of marijuana culture in the country. Twenty-four states now have some authorized legislation that either allows marijuana use for medicinal purposes or decriminalizes possession of the substance in small quantities. However, we also note that Oregon’s legalization initiative failed, and Montana approved a plan to further restrict medical marijuana operations.
Rhode Island House Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, has introduced legislation that would allow marijuana to be taxed and regulated like alcohol, rather than remain at the mercy of the black market. Though the same bill never went to a vote in both the 2011 and 2012 sessions, there is growing acceptance in New England, especially in Rhode Island and Maine, for the cannabis legalization movement. Medical marijuana has been legal in Rhode Island since 2006, and decriminalization takes effect in April 2013. As such, legislators would be ill-advised to ignore the trend toward cannabis legalization. The regulated distribution of cannabis for recreational purposes in Rhode Island can decrease criminal activity, raise desperately needed state tax revenue and largely dissolve any complicity of Rhode Island’s cannabis enthusiasts in the organized drug trade.
Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, representing a distinct dissonance between federal and state law. Substances classified as Schedule I are described as having “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision and a high potential for abuse.” Given the definite federal animosity toward cannabis, which is inextricably linked to illegal drug trafficking across the Mexican border, some policy experts are anticipating pushback by federal authorities against the substantial legalization measures in Colorado and Washington.
It is unclear how the administration will react to completely legalized marijuana distribution, especially at the outset of President Barack Obama’s second term. The recent legislation affords the Obama administration a golden opportunity to change the federal government’s attitude toward marijuana.
Mexico’s outgoing president, Felipe Calderon, told the Economist this month that the United States has an obligation to either “drastically reduce … consumption of drugs (or) at least have the moral responsibility to reduce the flow of money towards (Mexico’s criminals).” Within our borders, the drug war is destroying our cities and cramming our prisons. From 1980 to 2012, the U.S. prison population quadrupled from 150 inmates per 100,000 adults to 760. This staggering rise is a direct result of America’s misguided policies in the war on drugs, especially regarding cannabis. More than half of America’s federal inmates are imprisoned on drug charges, while 80 percent of the 1.66 million drug charges in 2009 were for possession alone.
There is an enticing economic impetus for cannabis legalization in Rhode Island, especially given the state’s dire financial position. Regulated cannabis would essentially mimic the alcohol market. But while this argument may be necessary to make marijuana legislation more appealing to state lawmakers, there is a more pressing ethical crisis that Rhode Island must evaluate. At the federal level, Obama will be hard-pressed to find direct legislative support for national legalization. One critical measure Obama does control, however, is the classification of marijuana. A move by Rhode Island toward legalizing marijuana will give even more reason for Obama to remove cannabis from the Schedule I list.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Daniel Jeon and Annika Lichtenbaum, and its members, Georgia Angell, Sam Choi and Rachel Occhiogrosso. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.