“Spark the Discussion” is a monthly Legal Connection column highlighting the hottest trends in the emerging field of medical marijuana law. This column is brought to you by Vicente Sederberg, LLC, a full-service, community-focused medical marijuana law firm.
In an impressive step forward in citizen activism, advocacy groups in both Colorado and Washington recently turned in ample signatures to place marijuana legalization measures on the 2012 Presidential ballot in their respective states. These measures, which seek to regulate marijuana like alcohol at the statewide level—limiting its use to those 21 and over and requiring sales to take place in strictly regulated stores—would shake the foundation of the nation’s long-standing and increasingly unpopular War on Drugs. And here’s the kicker: these measures are likely to pass.
Both national and local polling shows the country trending toward marijuana reform. For the first time in thirty years of polling, the Gallup poll showed a record-high 50% of Americans support making marijuana legal. This data is matched by a series of regional polls that show western states, in particular, are ready to end the decades-old policy of marijuana prohibition.
Why this surge in support? Increasingly, marijuana reform is being recognized as a pressing social justice issue that demands attention. At a recent drug policy reform conference in Los Angeles, Ira Glasser, former head of the national ACLU, gave an impassioned speech citing the Drug War’s disparate impact of people of color and likening the nation’s drug laws with Jim Crow laws. This sentiment has been echoed by the NAACP, who came out in support of a California measure to legalize marijuana in 2010 with Hilary O. Shelton, vice president of advocacy for the NAACP, saying “We are usually conservative in terms of the issues that we support, but disproportionate prosecution of [African-Americans for] drug-related offenses for marijuana has called us to fight for decriminalization in our community.”
Joining this call for reform are increasing numbers of Latinos, an important and growing section of the electorate, who are growing weary of racial profiling and the inescapable disproportionate racial impact of current drug laws. Studies indicate that Latinos are arrested for marijuana possession at much higher rates than whites, despite their lower usage rate. For major cities in California, the 2006-08 arrest rate for Latinos is two to three times higher than for whites. In New York City, the rate is almost four times higher. Minority communities are becoming increasingly weary of the collateral consequences experienced by those convicted of drug possession offenses, consequences like denial of federal student loan and housing benefits and lifelong difficulty in securing employment due to a lingering “criminal” record.
In Colorado, where 69% of people in state prisons for drug offenses are people of color, the pending Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act is inspiring a coalition of supporters that includes leaders in the Latino community like Kim Cordova, president of the state’s largest union, and civil rights organizations like the ACLU and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. Just last week, columnists from both sides of the political spectrum penned their support for legalization in both the conservative Colorado Springs Gazette and the mainstream Denver Post.
Together these groups represent the changing face of the drug policy reform movement with impacted parties, opinion makers, and civil rights defenders adding their voices to the call for systemic change. Given national opinion trends and a growing and diverse coalition in support of reform, it seems increasingly likely that this targeted push back signals the beginning of the end of the failed policy of marijuana prohibition.