This week’s winners: Sheriff John Urquhart, the American people, and common sense.
The week’s losers: Kevin Sabet, prohibitionists, and their irrational arguments.
by Randy Hencken, Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform
The debate took place on September 10, 2013 at the US Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, entitled “Conflicts Between State and Federal Marijuana Laws.” Speaking on behalf of Washington state residents, the majority of American people who believe it is time to legalize marijuana, and common sense, Sheriff Urquhart testified, “I have been a police officer for 37 years, and I was elected as King County Sheriff last year. During my career I've investigated everything from shoplifting to homicides, but I also spent almost 12 years as a narcotics detective. My experience shows me that the war on drugs has been a failure. We have not significantly reduced demand over time, but we have incarcerated generations of individuals — the highest incarceration rate in the world. So the citizens of the state of Washington decided it was it was time to try something new, and in November of 2012 they passed initiative 502 which legalized recreational amounts of marijuana, and at the same time created very strict rules and laws. I was a strong supporter of initiative 502 last year and I remain a strong supporter today. There are several reasons for that support. Most of all I support 502 because that's what the people want. They voted for legalized marijuana. We the government have failed the people and now they want to try something else. Too often the attitude of the police is, ‘We’re the cops, and you're not, don't tell us how to do our job.’ That’s the wrong attitude, and I refuse to fall into that trap.”
Standing on the wrong side of history, obfuscating data and reason, prohibitionist zealot Kevin Sabet of Project SAM (ironically, the acronym for so-called ‘Smart About Marijuana’), made the poor case for federal involvement in state marijuana laws by claiming that the sky will fall if we allow a relatively non-dangerous substance onto the regulated market. Under Sabet’s tortured logic and twisted reasoning, he claims:
• That Americans should be scared of for-profit cannabis producers and sellers. This in spite of both Washington and Colorado’s reasonable regulations, which prevent businesses from selling to children and generate revenue for the public good. What’s the alternative? Leaving the for-profit sales of marijuana to the underground criminal market. No matter what, someone is going to make money on marijuana. Why don’t Sabet and other prohibitionist accept that it would be better for us all if these transactions took place in the light of day, in a regulated market, with some revenues going to the public good?
• That Americans should be scared that legal marijuana will harm public health. “The (Department of Justice’s) new guidance endangers Americans since it will facilitate the creation of a large industry for marijuana use, production, trafficking, and sale. The (Controlled Substances Act) is an important tool for promoting public health. By keeping marijuana illegal, its use is lower than the use of our legal drugs. About 52% of Americans regularly drink, 27% use tobacco products, and yet only 8% currently use marijuana, though this number has been rising in recent years (about 25% since 2007) as we have become more accepting of marijuana as a country.” Perhaps Sabet has his head in the sand and doesn’t understand that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. Some people partake in substances, others don’t. If people who currently use alcohol and tobacco opt to use marijuana, or better yet reduce their use of alcohol and tobacco in favor of marijuana, the overall health of the public will improve. Not to mention public safety, considering how many victims there are of drunk driving and alcohol fueled violence.
• That Americans should be scared because we are deviating from our outdated stance on draconian international drug laws that have resulted in violence, death, and black markets around the world, without reducing the demand for drugs. He claims Mexican officials asked him, “How can your government keep telling Mexico to stop producing and trafficking marijuana when your government is now openly approving and facilitating an increase in marijuana demand?” Whether he was really asked the question or not, we can give him the benefit of the doubt. But there is no doubt among intellectuals, drug war scholars, and those of us with simple common sense that the best thing for Mexico would be for the US to end its war on marijuana, and consequently defund a major revenue source for Mexico’s violent cartels, which have devastated the country with more than 70,000 homicides since 2006.
• That Americans should be scared because kids will have access to marijuana through similar channels they use to gain access to alcohol. While it may be true that marijuana use among teenagers has risen in Colorado over the past few years with the overwhelming acceptance of medical marijuana, Sabet is ignoring the realities of the school yard. Again, some kids use substances, others do not. Protecting a child from drug use is a parental obligation, more than it is the duty of the state. While no one is advocating for cannabis use by minors, the reality is that between illegal alcohol use and illegal marijuana use, marijuana is much less likely to lead to death, teen pregnancy, or violence. Marijuana has been decriminalized in Portugal and the Netherlands for many years now and the children haven’t had their lives ruined by easier access to a regulated substance. In fact, fewer children in the Netherlands or Portugal try marijuana than children in the US, where marijuana has been illegal for 80 years. Sorry, Sabet, your scare tactics aren’t that smart in this case either.
• That Americans should be scared because revenue from medical marijuana sometimes still goes to criminal enterprises. It’s easy to cherry-pick examples of bad actors, and the system hasn’t been perfect in medical marijuana states. Nonetheless, the majority of medical marijuana producers, retailers, and users try to comply with their state laws. If we continue to legalize marijuana across the nation we will continue to reduce the ability of criminal enterprises to profit from illicit activity. If we reverse course and head back toward prohibition, we will only continue to spawn a criminal underground. Prohibition has taught us that demand for marijuana stays the same, black market profits are attractive to criminals, and all of society is hurt by an unwise policy.
• That Americans should be scared because marijuana will be diverted from a legal state to a non-legal state. Sabet hammers that this is already happening from medical marijuana states to nonmedical states. Well, you know what? Marijuana has been trafficked among states the entire time it’s been prohibited. For the time being, as long as some states still prohibit marijuana, we have laws that allow police to interdict illicit traffickers — the same as it ever was.
• That Americans should be scared of an epidemic of drugged drivers. Every state already has laws against impaired driving. Marijuana legalization advocates do not advocate for drivers to be impaired while they drive. There is no evidence of increased risk on the roads because of marijuana use in any of the medical marijuana states or in Colorado or Washington, or in The Netherlands or Portugal for that matter. If someone is too impaired to drive on marijuana, alcohol, prescription medicines, or any other drugs, they shouldn’t get behind the wheel, period. Legalizing marijuana does not diminish law enforcement's ability to prevent impaired driving.
• That Americans should be scared for our children. Sabet gives a laundry list of harms that can happen to a child and and a developing brain. We all agree that young people should not abuse marijuana. We also all know that about half of Americans tried marijuana as a teenager, and nearly all of them survived into their adulthood without long-lasting health problems or evident intellectual impairment. We can continue to educate and parent our children under a legal regulated market. And parents will be able to rest better knowing that their children’s futures won’t be ruined by the criminal justice system if they do happen to try marijuana.
• And lastly, Sabet claims that Americans should be scared because figuring out how to regulate a plant that has been illegal for a 80 years isn’t easy. Sabet focuses in on some of the difficulties states have had moving to a regulated market. Should we be surprised that after years of prohibition, and under a prohibitionist federal government, that it’s been difficult for states to move to a regulated market? These difficulties are part of the normal process of ending the the criminalization of marijuana use. Over time, these challenges will be sorted out. As Sheriff Urquhart said in his testimony, “Is legalizing and regulating the possession and sales of marijuana a better alternative? You know, I think it is, but I am willing to be proven wrong. The only way we will know, however, is if we are allowed to try.”
So our hat is off to Sheriff Urquhart for being a forward-thinking representative of his constituents. And shame on you, Mr. Sabet, for standing in the way of progress by manipulating facts to make your irrational arguments while championing the failed status quo.