2009 will go down as the beginning of the end of the United States drug war. I have worked at the Drug Policy Alliance promoting alternatives to the war on drugs for 10 years, and I can say without a doubt that there was more debate and movement toward sensible drug policies this year than in the last 9 years combined! Here are 10 stories that contributed to the unprecedented momentum to end America's longest running war.
1) Three Former Latin American Presidents Call Drug War a Failure (February)
In February, the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Drug Policy - co-chaired by three distinguished ex-presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico -issued a groundbreaking report that declared the drug war a failure. The report further advocated the decriminalization of marijuana and the need to "break the taboo" on an open and honest discussion of international drug policy. The release generated hundreds of articles around the world and continues to be referenced by elected officials in Latin American and around the world.
2) Michael Phelps and the Bong Hit Heard Around the World (February)
The photo of Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps taking a "bong hit" at a party in South Carolina was plastered across the front pages of newspapers around the world in February. The image of Phelps inhaling marijuana, just a few months after setting a record for most gold medals won in a single Olympics, dealt a powerful blow to the lazy, "couch potato" stereotype of pot users. Kellogg's promptly dropped Phelps as a spokesperson, badly misreading public sentiment. Dozens of columnists slammed Kellogg's for this decision, and a major AP story reported on groups calling for consumers to "Drop Kellogg's" for dumping Phelps. A few weeks later, the advertising trade magazine Ad Age reported that Kellogg's brand favorability had tanked since it dropped Phelps - even more than when the company instituted a massive recall due to a problem with salmonella in its peanut butter.
3) Obama Justice Department Says No More Raids on Patients and Caregivers in States with Medical Marijuana Laws (March)
During his campaign for president, then-Senator Barack Obama promised that if elected, he would end the raids on medical marijuana patients and dispensaries that were acting in compliance with their states' laws. In March, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder affirmed this pledge, and in October the Justice Department issued new policy guidelines codifying the change. Patients and caregivers breathed a sigh of relief, and President Obama received almost universal praise in media around the United States and the world.
4) Drop the Rock! NY's Draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws Finally Reformed (April)
After 35 years, New York's harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws were finally brought down in April, when Gov. David Paterson signed historic reforms eliminating lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses. The reforms, which took effect in October, restored judicial sentencing discretion in most drug cases, expanded alternatives to incarceration and invested millions in drug treatment programs. Advocates who fought for years to secure these reforms are now working to turn New York from a model of everything that is wrong with drug policy to an example of what is possible when we deal with substance abuse as a health matter instead of a criminal justice issue.
5) Governor Arnold Calls for Debate on Legalizing Marijuana: Voters to Decide in 2010 (May)
California is ground zero when it comes to the debate over taxing and regulating marijuana. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger generated national media in May when he said that marijuana legalization is an idea that should be considered and debated. The issue garnered more national attention with the introduction of a bill pending in the California Legislature to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Meanwhile, some Oakland, Calif., activists aren't waiting for their legislature to act; they have drafted a voter initiative to tax and regulate marijuana and are gathering signatures to qualify it for the 2010 ballot. Recent polls show 56% of Californians support taxing and regulating marijuana.
6) Drug Czar Calls for End to the Drug War (May)
White House drug czar Gill Kerlikowske, in an interview with Gary Fields of the Wall Street Journal, called for an "end to the war on drugs." "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product', people see a war as a war on them and we are not at war with people in this country," Kerlikowske told the Journal. He added that the Obama Administration is likely to deal with drugs from a public health perspective rather than as a criminal issue and would favor treatment over incarceration to reduce illicit drug use.
7) Mexico and Argentina Move to Decriminalize Marijuana and other Drugs (August)
Mexico and Argentina both made international news in August with major changes to their drug policies. Mexico, plagued by a devastating, violent drug war, passed a law eliminating criminal penalties for small amounts of drugs -including heroin, cocaine and marijuana -considered to be for personal use. In Argentina, meanwhile, the country's Supreme Court effectively decriminalized personal marijuana possession when it struck down a law that imposed penalties of up to two years in prison for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Ruling in a case involving several young men caught with marijuana cigarettes in their pockets, the court said the government should go after major traffickers and provide treatment instead of jail for marijuana users. Although the court decision dealt only with marijuana, the core arguments apply to other illicit drugs as well, so the ruling could open the door to broader drug law reform in Argentina.
8) The Results Are In: Portugal's Decriminalization Law of 2001 Reduced Transmission of Disease, Cut Overdose Deaths and Incarceration, While Not Increasing Drug Use. (August)
Facing an epidemic of drug-related overdose deaths and disease transmission from dirty needles, the Portugal government took a bold step in 2001 and decriminalized the personal use and possession of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. The police were told not to arrest anyone found taking any kind of drug. In 2009, the results of Portugal's decriminalization were released, and the results were striking: Drug-related problems, including the transmission of diseases, deaths from drug overdoses and incarceration, all decreased dramatically, while drug use did not go up. Portugal's experience is instructive; it showed the world that the sky did not fall with decriminalization and took the debate from theory to practice.
9) Coming Out of the Closet: "Stiletto Stoners" Explain Why They Like Marijuana (September)
Need more evidence that marijuana has gone mainstream in America? On the Today Show in September, Matt Lauer did a piece on so-called stiletto stoners -- educated, professional women with killer careers and enviable social lives who favor marijuana as their intoxicant of choice and are increasingly comfortable admitting it. The TV piece drew its inspiration from an article titled "Stiletto Stoners" in the September issue of Marie Claire Magazine. The story raised the question: Why are so many smart, successful women lighting up in their off hours? The sympathetic article and TV piece feature interviews with a wide range of successful women who wind down at the end of the day with a joint instead of a martini.
10) The Marijuana Legalization Debate Hits the Mainstream (Fall )
Emblazoned on the cover of the September issue of Fortune Magazine was a photo of actress Mary Louise Parker, star of the popular Showtime hit series Weeds, teasing the lead story: "How Marijuana Became Legal: Medical Marijuana Is Giving Activists a Chance to Show How a Legitimized Pot Business Can Work. Is the End of Prohibition Upon Us?" There have been dozens of thoughtful stories in 2009 on the growing momentum to end marijuana prohibition, including major pieces in prestigious outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, CBS News, CNN, the Economist and dozens of others! Last Month there was a revealing Washington Post story entitled: "Support for Legalizing Marijuana Grows Rapidly around the U.S.: Approval of Medical Use Expands Alongside Criticism of Prohibition." The story referenced a recent Gallup poll showing that 44% of Americans favor taxing and regulating marijuana, with the numbers higher than 50% is Western States like California, Washington and Oregon.
The Drug War Grinds On, but Change is in the Air (December)
For all the recent progress, drug policy reformers are under no illusion that the drug war will end any time soon. We know that drug prohibition and our harsh drug laws - fueled by a prison-industrial complex that locks up 500,000 of our fellow Americans on drug-related offenses - are poised to continue for some time wasting tens of billions of dollars a year and leading to the deaths of thousands of Mexicans and Americans every year due to prohibition-related violence. But we are clearly moving in the right direction, toward a more rational drug policy based on compassion, health, science and human rights. We need people to continue to join the movement to end this unwinnable war. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)
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