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Cannabis advocates eye end to prohibition as Colorado trade booms

Photo: AFP

Almost a century after Denver became the first US city to jail someone for selling marijuana, the same city is today making millions selling the drug through licensed stores, in a move that could precipitate the end of prohibition across the country.


The arrest and imprisonment of 58-year-old unemployed labourer Samuel Caldwell in 1937 for the sale of two marijuana cigarettes was only the first of what would amount to some 26 million arrests over the course of 77 years.

The Denver judge who sentenced Caldwell described marijuana as “the worst of all narcotics, far worse than morphine or cocaine”. His draconian judgement – four years of hard labour and a hefty fine – set the tone for what was to become a national war on marijuana, costing the country billions in law enforcement and affecting the lives of millions of recreational smokers.

But on January 1, the country’s decades-long crusade against the psychoactive drug showed some respite when smokers queued up outside three dozen “pot shops” across the state of Colorado to buy their first legal eighth of weed.

One of those in line was William Breathes, who is celebrated by the press as America’s “first marijuana critic” and writes exclusively on marijuana issues for Denver news site Westword.

Breathes skipped the snaking queues in Denver to make his own purchase in the run-down casino town of Central City, where he joined a shop full of customers waiting for their orders to be processed.

“The demographic of the crowd was interesting: a lot of older, graying couples; tourists from Hawaii, New Jersey and Texas; as well as a few scraggly mountain-folk locals,” Breathes wrote in a blog post describing his experience.

Buying in Colorado appears to be more of a clinical experience than in Amsterdam, where smoking marijuana (but not tobacco) is allowed in most licensed coffee shops. “Signs out front warned people against public consumption in Central City,” Breathes wrote, “and the few people I did hear talk about sneaking off for a toke walked out of sight”.

Breathes, 32, who has been reporting on pot since 2009, sees 2014 as the year when “the ball will really start rolling” in terms of widespread legalisation in the US.

“Already [this year] we are seeing other states where marijuana legalisation and decriminalisation measures are being proposed, like Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, Alaska,” he told FRANCE 24. “It’s not naïve to see this year as a major turning point.”

Breathes compares the evolution of legal recreational smoking, which he expects to result in a nationwide consensus – “eventually” –, with that of marijuana for medicinal purposes. “It seems like a long shot right now, but so did legalised medical cannabis at the state level for many years,” he said. Today, 20 of the country’s 52 states, along with the District of Columbia (DC), have enacted medical cannabis laws, and three more (New York, Minnesota and Florida) are expected to follow suit this year.

One of the most surprising marijuana advocates to emerge recently was Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, a state which imposes some of the country’s harshest penalties for marijuana offences. Perry came out in support of “policies that start us toward a decriminalisation” during a panel debate on drug legalisation at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Thursday, surprising those on both sides of the fence.

US public 'at a tipping point'

Breathes believes that conservative politicians like Perry are feeling the heat from ever-more powerful citizen-driven anti-prohibition initiatives, even in the traditionally pot-weary south.

An October Gallup poll showed that a record high of 58% of Americans now support decriminalisation, compared with 48% in 2012 (and just 12% in 1969, when the poll began).

“The US public is currently at a tipping point,” says Diane Goldstein of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition group, which campaigns for legalisation of cannabis. “A majority of Americans now acknowledge the failure of the war against marijuana; the massive cost of enforcing the law and the over-reach of the federal government into an issue that is more efficiently dealt with closer to home.”

Goldstein, 52, who is a retired lieutenant commander from the Redondo Beach Police Department in California, believes that Colorado’s experiences will provide reassurance to the undecided public elsewhere. “When people see the orderly lines, that there are no kids waiting in line, that people aren’t smoking everywhere, not to mention the millions of dollars being made in sales – it will show people that we have nothing to fear,” she told FRANCE 24.

In Colorado, the change in the law – which was approved in a state-wide referendum in 2012 – means the state is host to the world’s first fully legal, regulated marijuana industry. (In the Netherlands production is not regulated, while the government in Uruguay is still debating how to regulate it).

Colorado expects to bring in at least 70 million dollars in tax revenue through the sale of marijuana this year, almost half of which will be used to build new schools. The state demands a special 25% levy in addition to the standard 3% sales tax from each purchase, meaning an eighth of an ounce costs, on average, 64 dollars.

That’s a lot more than the average $25 paid on the street, but advocates are convinced that prices will drop – some 125 outlets are still awaiting their licenses from the state authorities – and most consumers would rather pay extra to purchase the drug legally anyway.

Stores are allowed to sell up to an ounce (28 grams) per day to Colorado residents and an eighth (3.5g) to non-residents. Clients must be aged 21 or over and require identification so that their details can be stored in a database until the following day, preventing each person from buying more than the daily limit.

Nonetheless, cannabis remains a “schedule 1” substance in the eyes of the federal authorities, notably the FBI, which places it in the same category as heroin and cocaine.

Retired officer Goldstein believes the federal authorities should now reclassify the drug so that law enforcement agencies – which are currently still obligated to treat a cannabis offence along the same lines as before, no matter what state law is in place – can focus their resources on more important issues.

“We have limited fiscal resources – we want our cops to be investigating violent crime rather than going after kids who are smoking pot,” she said. “Most of us [law enforcement officers] don’t feel that we need federal guidance on this. It’s something we can decide on locally and deal with locally.”

Like many pro-legalisation activists, Goldstein was pleased – though not quite satisfied – with President Barack Obama’s widely reported comments in last week’s New Yorker magazine, when he said that smoking marijuana was no more harmful than drinking alcohol.

Obama’s comments sparked outrage among prohibition supporters, but many of those pushing for change feel that the president – who has admitted to smoking pot himself in his youth – is dragging his feet on the issue.

“I don’t think Obama went far enough,” Goldstein said. “What he said was critically important – especially the acknowledgment that there is a racial disparity in the law enforcement of marijuana legislation – but he is treading too lightly, as are almost all politicians and law enforcement figures.”

“The public has created a safe space for politicians and law enforcement figures to address the policy issues surrounding marijuana prohibition,” she said. “And yet, trying to convince public figures to speak out in favour of legalisation is like trying to turn the Titanic.”

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