Opinion

The Great Debate

Postscript to California’s marijuana vote

From America’s mid-term elections, two noteworthy comparative results. A modestly funded ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in California drew 300,000 more votes than a billionaire businesswoman who spent well over $140 million of her own money to try to become the state’s governor. Both lost.

The hotly debated marijuana ballot measure attracted 3.4 million yes votes. Meg Whitman drew 3.1 million voters. It’s not clear whether she will run again but proponents of the marijuana measure, Proposition 19, are already planning to make another attempt in 2012. They think the California vote shows legalization is a matter of when, not if, never mind that this time they fell more than half a million votes short of success.

Proposition 19 would have allowed Californians over 21 to grow up to 25 square feet (2.3 sq metres) of marijuana and possess up to an ounce for personal consumption. It would have turned California, America’s most populous state, into the world’s first jurisdiction to formally legalize marijuana. (Not even the Netherlands, which has a system best described as schizophrenic pragmatism, has gone that far).

Legalization would have brought California state law in conflict both with federal law and the international treaty that underpins the global war on drugs, the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. It placed marijuana alongside powerfully addictive drugs such as heroin, a wrong-headed classification which became U.S. federal law in 1970.

Backers of Proposition 19 gave little thought to the international ramifications of the measure, which was closely followed in Latin America and particularly closely in Mexico, where more than 30,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the country’s drug cartels in 2006.

In drug war, the beginning of the end?

MEXICO/

Between 1971, when Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, and 2008, the latest year for which official figures are available, American law enforcement officials made more than 40 million drug arrests. That number roughly equals the population of California, or of the 33 biggest U.S. cities.

Forty million arrests speak volumes about America’s longest war, which was meant to throttle drug production at home and abroad, cut supplies across the borders, and keep people from using drugs. The marathon effort has boosted the prison industry but failed so obviously to meet its objectives that there is a growing chorus of calls for the legalization of illicit drugs.

In the United States, that brings together odd bedfellows. Libertarians in the tea party movement, for example, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of former police officers, narcotics agents, judges and prosecutors who favor legalizing all drugs, not only marijuana, the world’s most widely-used illicit drug.

Drugs, elephants and American prisons

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate–Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

Are the 305 million people living in the United States the most evil in the world? Is this the reason why the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and an incarceration rate five times as high as the rest of the world?

Or is it a matter of a criminal justice system that has gone dramatically wrong, swamping the prison system with drug offenders?

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