With marijuana officially legalized in Washington, and Colorado set to join within the next 30 days, Americans are about to get a glimpse at what the future might look like with a radically altered drug war. But that progress also begs the question: Where does the movement to end prohibition go from here?
"I've been working 25 years at the tip of the spear on [changing the drug war] and it's really frustrating that we didn't seem to get much traction talking about civil liberties and social justice," Vivian McPeak, executive director of Seattle's annual Hempfest, told Raw Story. "We start talking about tax revenue and the other financial aspects and, boy, everyone starts to perk up. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter how we get there. These policies are hurting America way more than marijuana is hurting America."
Although Washington's new marijuana law is indeed groundbreaking, it's a misnomer to call it full legalization. Marijuana possession is legal, but sales are not just yet. Neither is production. In effect, until regulations are settled -- which could take up to a year -- marijuana users will still have to brave the black market if they don't already have a doctor's recommendation for state-sanctioned medical marijuana.
"Some people wanted the law to go further than it went and do things the law didn't get into," added Doug Honig, communications director for the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "The ACLU of Washington was a strong supporter [of the initiative], and the sponsors recognized that we needed to have a workable law that would get widespread support. It might not be perfect from everybody's standpoint, but it did get widespread support. The biggest impact was the fact that non-violent people were getting arrested simply for possessing marijuana."
He added that a recent report by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project found that the state of Washington arrested 240,000 people on marijuana charges over the last 25 years, and 79 percent of them were under the age of 34. Even more troubling: From 2001 to 2010, blacks, Latinos and Native Americans made up one-quarter of the arrests but just 14 percent of the population.
"We really wanted to see that ended, and that's now going to end for people who possess up to an ounce," Honig said. "In the wake of this passing, prosecutors dropped hundreds of pending cases on marijuana even though that wasn't required by the initiative, because they recognized it doesn't make sense putting these people in jail. They'd have a very hard time getting a jury to convict them."
One of the biggest problems cited by legalization supporters who campaigned against the law is its application of drugged driving laws to anyone pulled over suspected of driving while impaired. Because marijuana, unlike alcohol, stays in a person's system for weeks or months after their last time using it, the substance can be detected in the bloodstream long after the psychoactive effects pass. Without any sort of test to measure whether a person is actively impaired while driving, that means literally any marijuana user who also owns a car could face criminal charges for taking to the roads, even if they're not driving while stoned.
Even so, that didn't deter voters in Washington or Colorado, whose initiatives face an even bigger potential threat from the federal government. Even though the Obama administration has been mysteriously silent on this issue, the states could see vast sums of federal highway dollars leaving the state, or watch helplessly as Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents kick down the doors of state-licensed shops that sell marijuana for adult use.
Still, nothing is certain just yet, and activists are hopeful that President Obama will not direct the Department of Justice to attempt blocking the laws. The activists aren't alone, either. In the days following Colorado and Washington's historic votes, 17 members of Congress joined that chorus, signing onto a letter written by by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) that asks Attorney General Eric Holder and DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart to be cool, so to speak.
"The voters of these states chose, by a substantial margin, to forge a new and effective policy with respect to marijuana," they wrote. "The tide of public opinion is changing, both at the ballot box and in state legislatures across the country. We believe that the collective judgment of voters and state lawmakers must be respected."
"I think anytime there is social change of the magnitude that we have the privilege of being part of in Washington, there will continue to be refinements and new technology and new efforts to protect the people from a safety perspective," Greta Carter, executive director of the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, explained to Raw Story. "This is a first step and as a political activist, I'm dedicating my life, as others are, on the local and national level to continue to progress this plant. This is the first step in allowing us to do that."
Carter added that activists in Washington and around the country must now begin to focus on education, above all else. "Education is key. We want to protect people. I think that people want to comply with the law. A change of this magnitude is going to take some time to allow lawmakers to get the right ordinances and rules in place. We will, as we have been doing in medical cannabis, in the absence of regulation we will self-monitor and try to coach those that may not know what the laws are in order to allow them to operate within the framework of the law. The gist of it is, this isn't a new spot for us, not being clarity around the rules. We are committed to putting our best foot forward."
"[Activists should] keep at it," said John Davis, CEO of the medical marijuana dispensary Northwest Patient Research Center and chair of Seattle Events, which produces Hempfest. "I've been doing this for over 20 years now, and there's been moments where I've wondered, 'Why put myself through it?' But if you keep at it, you do make changes... The whole world is watching this experiment, and I am heavily invested in making sure this is not a failure. If we can show success, I think the rest of the world will follow. And perhaps because of that, it's better to start with a small, baby step."
As for Seattle's annual gathering of marijuana enthusiasts, both Davis and McPeak said they expect 2013's gathering to be an historic one.
"Every year I put it on, it is a history-making festival because it is always the largest it has ever been," Davis said. "I think you'll see a level of excitement [in 2013] because we've made the important, historic next step. As far as the form and function of Hempfest, it will still exist as a 'protestival' as long as people are being put in prison for a plant."
Photo: Flickr user Cannabis Culture, creative commons licensed.