"I loved when Bush [senior] came out and said, 'We are losing the war against drugs.' You know what that implies? There's a war being fought, and the people on drugs are winning it."
- Bill Hicks
As you may have heard, the Portland Greens are attempting to legalize pot. We are currently collecting signatures to get a city ordinance on the November ballot that, if passed, would legalize adult use of recreational marijuana in Portland. We have until the end of May to collect 1,500 signatures of registered Portland voters, though we ultimately plan to turn in closer to 3,000.
Since we embarked on this petition effort, we have naturally received criticism—most of it insipid and incoherent. Many have questioned the overall imperative of this endeavor, suggesting the issue does not rise to the importance of say, Maine’s hospital debt or the federal deficit.
Mark Usinger writes in regards to a March 5 Portland Press Herald article on the initiative—in that paragon of substantive, articulate insight known as the Comments Section—“Good to know we are paying attention to the ‘important’ issues…”
Clearly, Usinger and his conservative pals do not fully understand the issue.
For starters, marijuana is considerably safer than alcohol. Just consider the destructive hazards frequently associated with alcohol: Rape, violent crime, drunk driving, sexual assault, homicide, and cirrhosis of the liver. But it is hard to find any evidence of anyone ever dying from using too much marijuana. Yet, not only is adult consumption of alcohol legal, it is far more socially acceptable than pot. Indeed, some 60 years after the hippie counterculture popularized the drug, weed still suffers from a taboo stigma.
But the criminalization of marijuana and the overarching “War on Drugs,” have far broader and significant consequences. The war on drugs is now widely considered a colossal failure of money, substance abuse treatment and police resources. Even former president Jimmy Carter has called for an end to the war on drugs.
It is racist for one thing.
The drug war disproportionately targets minorities and people of color. African Americans constitute 37 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession nationwide, even though they only comprise a mere 14 percent of overall drug users, according to statistics from the Drug Police Alliance. Additionally, African Americans can spend as much time in prison for even a minor drug offense as whites would for committing a violent crime. The authors of the DPA’s online content compare such discriminatory treatment to the Jim Crow laws of the 1960s.
Higher arrest and incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use or sales in these communities, but rather of a law enforcement focus on urban areas, on lower-income communities and on communities of color as well as inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system.
Racial disparities aside, there is the broader concern of the overall policy of imprisonment for the nonviolent crime of drug possession. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and in 2011, 757,969 Americans were arrested for marijuana law violation, the DPA reports. Of those arrests, 87 percent were merely for marijuana possession.
And a new report by the DPA reveals the New York City Police Department devoted over one million hours to marijuana arrests from the decade of 2002-2012. The report states, “That is the equivalent of having 31 police officers working eight hours a day, 365 days a year for 11 years, making only marijuana possession arrests.” Does the New York P.D. truly have nothing more important to do with its time than bust people for smoking pot?
The war on drugs is also expensive. The U.S. spends more than $51 billion annually on this failed policy. That amount of money would not pay off the deficit entirely, but it would certainly put a large dent in it.
As a state, Maine is missing out on the potential revenue from a taxed and regulated marijuana industry. To her credit, Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland) has introduced a bill in the Maine Legislature that would do just that. As of this writing, Russell’s bill, LD 1229, has 35 co-sponsors. While the Portland Greens support her efforts (our referendum does not, specifically call for marijuana regulation and taxation), we are also not waiting around for Augusta to take action on this issue.
On a recent edition of MPBN’s noontime call-in show, Maine Calling (03/05/13), Russell spoke of the inevitability of legalization, insisting voters will face a statewide referendum in 2016.
Certainly, most Americans agree the time for this issue has come. A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this month found a clear majority of Americans (52 percent) support legalizing pot. This marks the first time in “more than four decades of polling on the issue,” the Center noted, “that legalized marijuana had won majority support” (Portland Press Herald, 04/05/13). Furthermore, marijuana legalization is that rare consensus issue that transcends party lines, showing strong bipartisan support among liberals, conservatives and independents. (Libertarian Republicans are especially supportive of the issue given their whole “live free or die” mentality.)
In other words, marijuana legalization is a completely mainstream position. It is the prohibitionists who are the real radicals.
If the ordinance gets on the ballot this fall, I have no doubt it will pass. As an added bonus, a city-wide marijuana referendum in a non-presidential election year is sure to drive youth and first-time voter turnout in an election most voters tend to skip.
If marijuana legalization is good enough for Colorado and Washington, it is good enough for the original “Portlandia.” The Green Party is once again taking the lead to create a sane, sensible drug policy. We are showing, through the power of local, civic involvement, that citizens have the ability to shift thinking and alter laws that are not working for citizens.
Look for Portland Greens in downtown Portland and sign the petition. Please understand you must be a registered Portland voter for your signature to be valid. Learn more about the Maine Green Party or the ordinance, here. And, as always, share this article widely if you like it.