When it's finally written -- if it's finally written -- the history of the American drug war will begin and end in the same town: San Francisco. The city passed the first anti-narcotics law in 1878, specifically targeting not opium, but opium dens, and aimed at their Chinese proprietors.
Other towns, counties and states liked San Francisco's new law, and found others to pile on top -- it was a way to satisfy voters' anti-immigrant moods, hostility to people of a different race and that fundamental American desire to control the behavior of our compatriots. That impulse has been strong since the first colonists settled here -- as has been a rival desire -- that for liberty and rugged, individual expression. The two strains have been at war with each other since before the founding of the nation and we have seen the tension expressed most violently in the war against drugs -- or, more accurately, the war against drug users.
A little less than a year ago, I wrote about the battle between these foundational American influences in the book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America. Judging by America's relationship with drugs and drug policy over the years, I wrote that if we as a people ever did legalize drugs, the laws would be undone the same way they were done, city by city, state by state.
The pace has quickened since Obama took office.
The arc of American drug policy began to bend in the 1970s, with 13 states decriminalizing marijuana, but even as that arc bent back up again in the 1980s, San Franciscans were at work reversing the history they had sparked. In 1991, city voters passed Proposition P, which ushered in the medical marijuana movement. Five years later, the state passed its now-famous medical marijuana law.
Thirteen more states have followed and even the nation's capital is writing final rules to allow legal marijuana dispensaries that members of Congress will walk past on their way to work. Maryland, New York, Illinois and a host of other states are considering similar legislation, and the momentum is thanks to Obama's announcement that he would not raid shops or patients operating within state laws.
The next stage is in process, too: California voters, in 2010, will be asked to legalize marijuana for all adults, not just the ill. The potential for tax revenue and job creation have become central to the debate, just as they were when Americans repealed alcohol prohibition. Meanwhile, activists in Oregon and Washington state are gathering signatures for similar ballot initiatives.
Here's an overview of some steps various states have taken to reform their drug laws: