In a historic move, Colorado and Washington have become the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Fifty-two percent of voters in Colorado supported Amendment 64, which will amend the state constitution to allow those 21 and older to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana at specially regulated stores, and permit adults to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes. Meanwhile, in Washington, Initiative 502 passed by a 10-point margin. Now marijuana reform advocates are preparing for a showdown with the federal government, which still considers the plant a dangerous drug. "Maybe with, state by state, city by city, voters stepping up and saying, even as the federal government is sticking to its line, 'We want something different,' there’s a hope out there that this message is going to get through to the federal government and they’re going to start doing things differently," says our guest, Mick Dumke, a reporter for Chicago’s alternative newspaper, the Chicago Reader. Dumke also notes the Chicago city council recently passed an ordinance that allows ticketing for low-level marijuana possession, but that has not stopped police from arresting people in certain neighborhoods. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
DR. ALFRED CARROLL: [played by Joseph Forte] It must be stopped. You and all the school-parent groups about the country—and you must stand united on this and stamp out this frightful assassin of our youth. You can do it by bringing about compulsory education on the subject of narcotics, in general; the dread marijuana, in particular.
AMY GOODMAN: More than 70 years after the film Reefer Madness stoked hysteria over marijuana usage, Colorado and Washington have become the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. In a historic move, 52 percent of voters in Colorado supported Amendment 64, which will amend the state constitution to allow those 21 and older to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana at specially regulated stores. Adults would be permitted to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes. Meanwhile, in Washington state, Initiative 502 passed by a 10-point margin.
Now marijuana reform advocates are preparing for a showdown with the federal government, which still considers the plant a dangerous drug. On Wednesday, marijuana reform activists in Colorado and Washington said they hope to provide a model for the rest of the country.
BRIAN VICENTE: Colorado rejected the failed policy of marijuana prohibition and made a positive step forward towards regulating this product, taking it off the streets, putting it behind the counter and taxing it. We really feel that Colorado can be a model for the nation in how to sensibly regulate marijuana policy.
ALISON HOLCOMB: Today, the state of Washington looked at 75 years of a national marijuana prohibition and said it is time for a new approach.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, here in Chicago, the city council recently passed an ordinance that allows ticketing for low-level marijuana possession. But our next guest reports that hasn’t stopped police from arresting people in certain neighborhoods.
For more, we’re joined now by Mick Dumke, a reporter for Chicago’s alternative newspaper, the Chicago Reader, where—which covers political issues, including drug policy.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!
MICK DUMKE: Thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s first talk about the significance of Colorado and Washington state. You’ve been covering these issues for quite some time.
MICK DUMKE: Well, I think the main issue is that people appear to want a change in drug policies, particularly as they apply to marijuana. And as the federal government has sort of, you know, been standing pat, states and municipalities across the country have been making their own moves.
AMY GOODMAN: During our election night coverage, I spoke with Brian Vicente—he’s the executive director of Sensible Colorado—and asked him how advocates there succeeded in becoming one of the first two U.S. states to approve regulating, taxing and controlling marijuana similar to alcohol. This was his response.
BRIAN VICENTE: You know, we just reached out to supporters. We ran local ballot initiatives to build support. We, you know, got money from small and large funders. And I think we tapped into a vein of consciousness and a passion where a lot of people realize that marijuana prohibition has been a colossal failure. It’s like alcohol prohibition. It did not work. All it did was fuel an underground market. And Coloradans believe that if you move this product behind the counter, take it off the streets, it’s tougher for kids to get, and it produces a lot of tax revenue for the state. So, the drug war has been an abysmal failure, and we’ve really taken a positive step forward to change that today.
AMY GOODMAN: After Colorado’s marijuana legalization measure passed, Governor John Hickenlooper said in a statement, quote, "This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly," he said. Governor Hickenlooper has also said he has called Attorney General Eric Holder to reconcile his state’s amendment with federal law.
GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: We have a call into Eric Holder, so in the next 24 hours, I think it’s scheduled, I think, for right around right after lunch tomorrow to look at that. And I’m not a lawyer, so my sense on this is that we are—that it’s unlikely that the federal government is going to allow states, one by one, to, you know, unilaterally decriminalize marijuana. But I have not heard that from Eric Holder.
AMY GOODMAN: Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known as NORMAL, says there’s not much the Feds can do right now. He wrote in the Daily Caller on Wednesday, quote, "[I]t is possible that the federal government [...] will try to use its limited resources in these states to prosecute marijuana possession offenses under federal law," but lack of "manpower, political will, and public support to engage in such behavior" may instead make legalization "the impetus for the eventual dismantling of federal pot prohibition." That’s the words of the deputy director of NORMAL. Mick Dumke, your response? How is this going to play out, when state law defies federal law?
MICK DUMKE: I think everybody is waiting to see. I mean, we’ve seen in the last few years with states that have passed medical marijuana laws that the federal government still has felt compelled to move in and shut down dispensaries and enforce, you know, people that they felt that were violating U.S. tax laws and so forth. So, people are really waiting to see what happens with this next stage of the reform process.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to one of the ads that ran in Colorado urging voters not to legalize marijuana, to vote against Amendment 64.
NO ON AMENDMENT 64 AD: Hey, guys, I’ve heard a few of you mention that marijuana is less harmful to your bodies than alcohol. I really care about you guys, so I thought you should know a few things about pot. A recent study came out proving that, over time, marijuana use causes a huge drop in IQ, especially if you start when you’re a teenager. Marijuana can cause permanent changes in brain structure and functioning. I guess being silly and stupid while high isn’t just a temporary experience. As you probably know, marijuana affects alertness, concentration and reaction time. But did you know it is the most commonly identified illicit drug in fatal car accidents? In addition to psychosis, chronic marijuana use has been associated with an array of psychological effects, including depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and personality disturbances.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to play a comment from Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, who explained why her group opposes a legalization of marijuana use.
KERRIE DALLMAN: As an educator and a classroom teacher, I saw students come into my classroom who had been using marijuana, and I could see over the course of a semester or over a year their motivation decrease dramatically. And I could begin to see the real effects of depression begin to set in. And that had real and lasting impacts on their success in school, in my class, and throughout their four years at Pomona High School. It’s for this reason and others that our organization has endorsed the No on 64 campaign. We remain incredibly concerned about the impact that having additional access to marijuana would have on our students and our schools.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Kerrie Dallman. Your response, Mick Dumke, these—those opposing the legislation?
MICK DUMKE: Well, I haven’t heard anybody, you know, say that it’s a great idea for teenagers or children to be using marijuana or any other drugs, for that matter. That’s not really the issue, I think, that’s on the table here. First of all, from what I understand, high school students who want to get marijuana can get it now in places where it’s illegal. So, you know, that’s a whole different issue. An education campaign probably is necessary to continue to tell people what’s going on. We’re talking about consenting adults, whether they should have the freedom to use something that a lot of people do feel is less harmful than—than alcohol, excuse me. So I think—I really do think that when we start talking about access to children and stuff like that, it’s—you know, it’s really kind of drifting from what the issue is here on the table with these ballot initiatives.
AMY GOODMAN: When you look at President Obama and the Attorney General Eric Holder, they’ve both expressed their admiration for The Wire, right? David Simon’s series on HBO. The significance of that and what The Wire represents?
MICK DUMKE: Well, both of these people obviously are very bright guys. They understand what the war on drugs has done to communities in—especially in urban America, but not exclusively. Look, there’s political realities out here. With everything that’s been on the attorney general’s, the president’s plate the last four years, they just haven’t felt like this is an issue that they can take on politically. Maybe, you know, with—state by state, city by city—voters stepping up and saying, even as the federal government is sticking to its line, "We want something different," you know, there’s a hope out there that this message is going to get through to the federal government and they’re going to start doing things differently.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s happening here in Chicago, Mick Dumke?
MICK DUMKE: Well, the city of Chicago passed an ordinance that essentially decriminalizes low-level possession of marijuana, so it gave police officers the option of issuing a ticket, a notice of violation, instead of taking people back to the station and booking them for a full arrest. The problem is that it’s an option. And I’ve looked at the data, and it turns out that since this law went into effect, police are still making arrests at a 10-to-one rate over tickets. So most of the people getting caught with low-level possession are still getting arrested, if they’re getting anything at all. And what I mean by that is that a lot of police officers are telling me the ticketing process is actually just a pain in the butt. So, in some cases, they’re deciding just to let people go, but in other cases they’re saying, "I’m going to go ahead and take this person to the station and arrest them."
And it seems to break down along racial lines. Almost eight of every 10 people who are being arrested are African American, even though we well know that that’s not how usage rates break down. So, essentially what we have here is what we call a "grass gap." It’s continuing. And this law that’s—that gives officers the option of not making an arrest isn’t really being used. So it doesn’t appear to be a solution to the fundamental problems.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you see this happening now around the country?
MICK DUMKE: Yeah, cities—I mean, there’s like 90 cities just in Illinois alone that have defied state law, that have defied federal law, and issued their own—excuse me, passed their own laws and ordinances that give police officers the right to issue tickets, because they’re—it’s clogging the courts. It’s not only an issue of justice, but it’s an issue of resources. We found that the city of Chicago’s policy of arresting people for marijuana possession is costing local taxpayers $78 million a year, conservatively. And that’s just here. You start doing the math, it just adds up to an astronomical use of resources. I think researchers found it was like $300 million over the last 20 years or 30 years in Washington state just to process the arrests there. So we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars around the country that could be used on so many other things, including drug education.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, interestingly, it turns out that incoming Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto may adjust Mexico’s approach to tackling marijuana production in his country in response to the votes here. The AP reports the head of President Peña Nieto’s transition team "told Radio Formula that the Mexican administration taking power in three weeks remains opposed to drug legalization. But he said the votes in the two states complicate [Mexico’s] commitment to quashing the growing and smuggling of a plant now seen by many as legal in part of the [United States]."
MICK DUMKE: Yeah, if you translate the political speak there, what that really means is they see an opening to potentially change policies. There’s extraordinary pressure from United States on the Mexican government to maintain the status quo. I just sat down with the top DEA official in the Midwest last week, and he was sort of openly rooting for the next Mexican administration to continue working with the United States in the way it has. So, I really do think that these two states passing this law—you know, I think that there are some people in Mexico who are pretty happy about that.
There was actually a study that just came out from a respected nonpartisan organization in Mexico that found that just these states passing the law could cut the profits of cartels—on marijuana profits, that is—by like 30 percent. So we’re talking about a huge issue. Look, the status quo gives money to people working in the black market. That’s a key issue that’s fueling violence along the Mexican border within Mexico. So I really find it hard to believe, especially for the Mexican—incoming Mexican president, who campaigned on a promise of reforming drug policies—I really find it hard to believe that he doesn’t welcome the news from the United States this week.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mick Dumke, I want to thank you very much for being with us, reporter for Chicago’s alternative newspaper, the Chicago Reader. He covers political issues, including drug policy.
This is Democracy Now! We’re on the road in Chicago. When we come back, we’ll be joined here in our studios by Dr. Cornel West and PBS host Tavis Smiley. Stay with us.
MICK DUMKE: Thanks a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.