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The Fight against Drug Prohibition Ain’t Over Yet

By: Nick Zaiac - @NickZaiac - Mar 19, 2015, 9:47 am

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José Niño recently wrote an excellent post in this space, claiming that the end of marijuana prohibition would be not only inevitable, but would come swiftly. He calls others to action to tear down the wall of prohibition with their words, to unite, to fight to end the drug war now.

All of this is noble, but it is also important to be clear that prohibition will not end tomorrow. It will be a process that will take years of work by professionals who organize campaigns, who meet with legislators, who work within the government to implement the regulations that are key to public support for the end of cannabis prohibition.

Energy is not enough. It must be channeled in ways that prove to the public that the benefits are real.

Many grassroots reformers take the tides of social change as inevitable. In this case, I think they are. Cannabis prohibition will end in the United States, whether prohibitionists would prefer that or not.

Yet, that “inevitable” does not mean now, it might not even mean this decade. José rightly notes that public support sits at about 52 percent on any given day, and that this is far higher among younger people than older people.

Still, it will take years for the less supportive older generation to pass away and the more supportive younger generation to become dominant. At best, it will take a decade and some lucky political wins to bring the era of cannabis prohibition to a close. At worst, it could grind to a halt in the short term if something “goes wrong,” like a surge in crime in a legalizing state that laymen voters attribute to the change.

Outside of Washington, DC, successful measures have passed with an average of about 54 percent support, and that is with the considerable efforts and money of legalization backers nationwide. Success brings complacency among volunteers and donors who, at a point, may see legalization as inevitable, and spend their time and money on other priorities.

Moreover, legalizing a drug is complicated. There is a reason that legalization ballot measures generally follow the word “legalize” with “regulate.” Some subset of public support hinges on just that angle. They would not want to legalize cannabis without it being controlled by the state either directly or through regulation.

A recent study by the RAND Corporation commissioned for the governor of Vermont outlines 30 different parameters, ranging from allowing sale of cannabis-infused edibles to whether stores may advertise, on which states generally regulate. Successful regulation must be part of any realistic discussion about ending cannabis prohibition.

All of this is to say that prohibition will not go quietly into the night. It will take sustained effort to ensure that more states, and eventually the federal government, bring the dark days when poor people were harassed for a minimally harmful drug to an end.

Majority support for legalization is slim, and will be for the immediate future. This is a future whose success or failure will ultimately determine the fate of cannabis prohibition in the United States. Activists must be careful that they are not doing more harm than good, that they treat the issue as seriously as prohibitionists do.

It will be hard. It will be selling ideas to people whose interest in the drug begins and ends with the harms that both prohibition and the end thereof will have. This is not a child’s game; ending the War on Drugs and overcoming its powerful backers will not be fun if it is done right.

The end of prohibition is coming; now, let’s try not to mess it up.

Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

Nick Zaiac Nick Zaiac

Nick Zaiac is a public-policy researcher in Washington, DC. He also serves as a policy analyst at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His column, The DC Leviathan focuses on the often-ignored bureaucratic agencies, from the Department of the Interior to the General Services Administration. He has been published in the Baltimore Sun, City AM, CapX, and other outlets. Follow @NickZaiac.