50 years ago, the Poor People's Campaign advocated for economic justice for poor Americans. What does that fight look like today?
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
As the national landscape around marijuana laws shifts dramatically, Maryland and D.C. are weighing legislation of their own. Maryland is considering several bills, including one to legalize pot, while the district considers measures to decriminalize it. But some, including many in law enforcement, are concerned that responding to fast-changing public opinion could translate into bad public policy. We consider local debates amid a national shift on the issues.
- Jonathan Rauch Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
- Jamin Raskin Member, Maryland State Senate (D- Dist. 20 Montgomery County); and Professor of Law, American University's Washington College of Law
- Mike Lewis Sheriff, Wicomico County, Maryland
- Kevin Sabet Director, Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana); Director, Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida; Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry.
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, California legalized medical marijuana back in 1996. And Washington State and Colorado set the stage just over a year ago for the next step, legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes.
MR. MARC FISHERNow, more than half of the states are looking at decriminalizing or legalizing the drug. That includes the District, which just yesterday passed a bill making pot smoking a civil, rather than a criminal, offense, cutting the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana to a $25 fine. And at this moment, the legislature in Annapolis is considering several bills that would move in the same direction, all of this as public opinion is shifting rapidly on the issue with a clear majority favoring legalization for the first time.
MR. MARC FISHERBut some are concerned that a rush into legalization could create bad policy. And to discuss this, we have a distinguished panel. Joining us by phone is Sen. Jamin Raskin. He's the Senate majority whip in the Maryland legislature and also a professor of law at American University. And Kevin Sabet is a professor of psychiatry and director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. He's also a director of Project SAM, which is a group that opposes marijuana legalization.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd here in studio, Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution in Washington, D.C. And let's start with Sen. Raskin. As we said, the District of Columbia just passed a bill yesterday decriminalizing marijuana, and the mayor intends to sign it, although it remains to be seen what Congress will do.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd House Speaker John Boehner, just this morning, said he didn't know the details of what the District proposed to do, but he'd be taking a look at it. So that can mean anything. But, Sen. Raskin, what does it mean that the nation's capital is now at the forefront of this national debate on a social issue of the kind that Congress has been known to get kind of hinky about in the past?
SEN. JAMIN RASKINWell, Marc, first, thanks for having us. You know, there are dramatic changes going on all across the country in terms of public opinion, in terms of legislative consideration of marijuana policy. And I think the fact that our next-door neighbors in D.C. had acted to decriminalize just gives further momentum to what's happening in Maryland. We've got three proposals on the table.
SEN. JAMIN RASKINOne is to do medical marijuana in a very strong way. We've done it in the past, establishing an affirmative defense for people arrested when they're very ill and using marijuana in conjunction with a doctor's orders. But now we're actually going to make it possible for them to access the drug legally without going into the black market.
SEN. JAMIN RASKINAnd I think that's going to pass. The second proposal is to decriminalize much in the spirit of what the D.C. Council just voted on yesterday. And the third proposal is to regulate and tax marijuana just like alcohol, to declare that our multi-decade experiment in marijuana prohibition has been a complete failure, totally counterproductive, destructive of our own people, a waste of money, and that the best way to go is to treat is as a public health problem, regulate it, tax it, keep it away from kids, let adults 21 and up make their own decision. And so there's a lot of ferment and a lot of discussion, and we're having a serious dialogue about it in Annapolis right now.
FISHERYou can join our conversation about marijuana and its potential legalization or decriminalization by calling 1-800-433-8850. Or email us at kojo--K-O-J-Oemail@example.com. And, Jonathan Rauch, as Washington and Colorado move to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, a number of other states are considering similar moves, certainly decriminalization even in more states. And that is happening as public opinion has moved to a majority in favor of legalization for the first time in half a century. You've organized a project at Brookings looking at the public opinion trends around marijuana. Why is this happening now?
MR. JONATHAN RAUCHMostly, Marc, because people think that the war on drugs, as applied to marijuana, has been a failure. This is not because people support marijuana, think smoking weed is a good idea. It's not primarily because they're libertarians and want the government out of their lives. It's because they think the existing policy just hasn't worked and that they've become persuaded it's time to try something different.
MR. JONATHAN RAUCHThe arguments for legalization, which is that you'll be able to tax it, get some revenues off it, and maybe reduce your -- and improve your allocation of policing resources, those are becoming persuasive to people. But it's a pragmatic feeling.
FISHERYou know, it's interesting, you compared, in one of the pieces you wrote, the trend toward support for legalization of marijuana to the movement of public opinion on same-sex marriage. And they have tracked each other in public opinion polling really quite closely, similar timeframe, similar dramatic shift in the way people think about these things. But what's interesting to me is that the -- although politicians have, for the most part, been very quick to come aboard on same-sex marriage, they've been much more reluctant to speak about marijuana legalization at all. Why is there that difference?
RAUCHGay marriage is a values issue. If you support it, you probably decide you think it's a civil right, just right and wrong, and that means opinions can shift very quickly on something like that when people begin to jump on the bandwagon. Marijuana's more about can we come up with a better policy that's going to work better? And I think there's going to be more of a wait and see attitude toward it. And I think actually that's appropriate.
FISHERKevin Sabet, from the University of Florida, you lead a group that is asking people to be a little more skeptical about these moves toward legalization of marijuana, Project SAM. Tell us about Project SAM and why you feel it's so important to slam the brakes on this movement.
PROF. KEVIN SABETSure. Thanks for having me. And it's great to be with such a distinguished panel. You know, the issue is there's unfortunately a false dichotomy in this country between incarceration on the one hand and a war on drugs that, as Jonathan has said so aptly, many people have learned to disagree with, and on the other hand, this rush towards legalization as if legalization is our only answer to righting the wrongs of current policy.
PROF. KEVIN SABETEspecially, you know, the reason why former Congressman Patrick Kennedy from the left is joining, you know, David Frum, one of the speechwriters for George W. Bush, on the right. And, really, most major medical associations in the country have joined us -- is because what we want to actually do is look at this from the public health way and really ask ourselves, in a country that is so obsessed with mass commercialization, promotion, and advertising, do we really want to start to create what essentially we think will turn into the next big tobacco of our time?
PROF. KEVIN SABETAnd we're very worried about creating the next tobacco industry, let alone the next alcohol industry. I mean, I don't know what you have to be smoking to think that our current alcohol policy has been anything that's been something for -- that's been positive for public health. Why would we ever use that as an example, especially given the fact that for every dollar in alcohol revenue, we spend 10 in social cost. So to me that's not an answer.
PROF. KEVIN SABETBut one point I do want to make is this idea of being very careful -- I think we should be -- of lumping together a policy like what Washington, D.C. just passed, removing penalties, and legalization because those are two drastically different -- decrim and legalization are drastically different. And what happens in Washington that people are making such a big deal about, I really think is much ado about nothing.
PROF. KEVIN SABETThey're simply putting on the books what has long been practiced in Washington, D.C., which is not to throw people in prison for simply smoking a joint. Now, you know, you can make an argument about arrests, and I think it's -- we don't want to give people an arrest record simply for low-level amounts, so that's fine. But that is very, very different than legalization. And that's why the Maryland governor, you know, centrists like Marty O'Malley and California's Gov. Jerry Brown and others are actually against legalization because that really is a bridge too far. And we agree with them.
FISHERBut, Kevin Sabet, I'm a little bit surprised to hear you making the analogy to alcohol in that it's generally accepted, I think, that prohibition was a mistake, that it didn't work, and the country turned back around again. So why is alcohol a useful analogy here? Are you asking for a resumption of prohibition on alcohol?
SABETAbsolutely not. But there's one key difference between alcohol and marijuana, and that's alcohol has a cultural place in our history and country, unlike really any other intoxicating drug, also, by the way, unlike tobacco which really just only emerged in the late 1800s, you know, widespread way. Alcohol has been long part of Western culture for the last 7,000 years. But nobody can say that it has been a public health success, what our alcohol policy is.
SABETNow, that doesn't mean we want to go back to prohibition. There are other reasons why we would just say, you know, going back to prohibition isn't the way to go. But it's really a cultural accident, and the fact that it is in our culture is sort of something we have to live with. But why in the world would we add another drug to that list of drugs that are actively promoted, commercialized by big business? 'Cause, let me tell you, business has an incentive to increase addiction.
SABETOkay? Once you get in the business of saying we want to tax this and raise money -- and whether it's the government or businesses raising money or both -- there is now an incentive to increase heavy use because, with alcohol, as with other substances, it's a small minority of people that consume the vast volume of the product.
SABETAnd so that means addiction is part of the business plan. And I just don't see any justification for wanting to add any other drug to alcohol, tobacco, and, frankly, prescription drugs, which are also run by a pharmaceutical industry whose business is, in many ways, addiction. Why the heck would we want to add marijuana to it?
FISHERSen. Jamie Raskin, you support decriminalization but have said that it doesn't go far enough. It was interesting to -- I was at a mayoral debate in the District last weekend, and D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange blasted the idea of decriminalization. He called it a trap for young black men and basically said that, on the surface, decriminalization would decrease the chances that young black men, who are the -- who are 90 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession, their chances of being arrested would decline.
FISHERBut he said that anyone then applying for a job with marijuana in their system would still be subject to drug tests, would still be unable to get work, and so he argues that decriminalization creates the false illusion that smoking marijuana is OK.
RASKINWell, the -- our state fits the national pattern where marijuana arrests and prosecution are three times higher among African-Americans than among whites, despite the fact that there are equivalent levels of use among young whites and young African-Americans. And yet all of the fury of the war on marijuana is targeted at certain communities, and we end up putting that scarlet letter on the resumes vastly disproportionately of African-Americans than of whites and making it impossible for them to enter the workforce and to be part of a legitimate economy.
RASKINSo the marijuana prohibition, just like alcohol prohibition, doesn't work. All it can just do -- in the same way that we created the bootleggers and the organized crime a century ago, we have created the power of the drug gangs and the drug cartels and organized crime in our time. And we want to pull the plug on it. So I'm, you know, I'm delighted to (unintelligible)...
SABETBut, Senator, the problem is organized crime is from other drugs, not marijuana. So if you want to pull the plug on it, we'd better be prepared...
RASKINMarijuana counts for...
SABETFifteen percent, according to Rand, 15 percent. So the issue is...
RASKINNo, but in terms of the drug traffic, 50 percent.
SABETYeah, the revenues -- no, hold on. The money, the money. You've got to follow the money, not the volume of drugs. That's a false comparison. The money from drugs -- from criminal organizations come from a vast array of things, including human trafficking, sex slavery, but also mainly cocaine and heroin legalization.
RASKINOf course. But here's the thing. In Colorado, if they have a billion dollars' worth of marijuana sales this year, which is what they're on course to do, that's a billion dollars that does not go to drug traffickers and organized crime and turned into gun money and money that could be...
SABETActually, they're now -- the dealers in Colorado are talking about how business is booming for them as well. I mean, this is not working out for the future of Colorado.
FISHERWell, let's let the Senator respond.
FISHERGo ahead. Sen. Raskin.
RASKINYeah, so in any event, look, I think there's pervasive acceptance of the fact that the war on marijuana has not reduced the supply of marijuana, it has not reduced the demand for marijuana, it has not improved public health. In Maryland we spend $100 million a year on these arrests and prosecutions, basically vilifying and criminalizing our own people. Whereas, we could be making $150 million a year in revenue if we turn it into lawful enterprise where people have real legitimate jobs, where they pay taxes, where it can be regulated ad controlled.
RASKINThe drug dealers don't card. The drug dealers don't care about putting impurities into the marijuana. And we should put the drug dealers out of business. And I think that Colorado and Washington are on course to do it. Now, I think we probably want to watch and see what happens there. And it makes sense to do it. But the reason that Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley, and all these conservatives were calling for marijuana legalization back in the '70s and '80s is because they understand there's one law you can't repeal, which is the law of supply and demand. It's just not working.
SABETMarc, if I could…
FISHERJust one second. Jonathan Rauch, this argument about the comparison to prohibition and the idea that the states that are moving in this direction, at least at first, are those that are hard up for cash and that want the tax money, want the revenue that legalizing marijuana could bring. How much of this is being driven, do you think, by those financial interests and the potential industrialization of marijuana?
RAUCHOh, I think the voters in both Colorado and Washington were very attracted by the notion of capturing revenues from marijuana and using them both for education and criminal law enforcement. That was a major part of the attraction, is the case that you've just heard Mr. Raskin make.
FISHERAnd so do you think that that makes this more susceptible to a kind of backlash that could result? I mean back I the 1970s a number of states moved to decriminalize marijuana, including Nebraska of all places. And that came to a crashing end in 1979, 1980, when you saw the rise of these grassroots parents' organizations that led to the Just Say No movement and Nancy Reagan and all of that, and the war on drugs. So because this is not a moral issue, as you described same-sex marriage, is it more susceptible to that kind of popular backlash after an initial legalization period?
RAUCHI think it is. Same-sex marriage is self-implementing. You basically pass a line of statute and you're done. Marijuana legalization is not just legalization. It's, in fact, a very extensive regime of regulation, which involves everything from tax rates to coordinating with law enforcement at the state and federal level. What do you do about advertising? How do you test purity? Do you have vertically integrated industries, and on and on and on.
RAUCHThere's a lot that can go wrong here. And what I tell my friends who favor legalization is the worst thing you can do is just bounce around the country passing statutes to legalize. You've got to stick around after the vote, not make the ObamaCare mistake, and make sure this gets carefully implemented. Because otherwise there may indeed be a backlash.
FISHERJonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. We're also joined by Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin, and Kevin Sabet, professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida. When we come back after a short break we'll take your calls at 1-800-433-8850 and also be joined by a Maryland sheriff who has lots of dealings with how marijuana arrests work on the street, and what happens if the drug is decriminalized. I'm Marc Fisher and this is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
FISHERI'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. And we are talking about the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." And let's go immediately to your calls. Here is Christopher in the District. Christopher, you're on the air.
CHRISTOPHERHi. Thanks. Love the show. I just had a quick question. You mentioned the problems with big business getting involved, which I think all of the experts like DJ Short and the guys from DNA genetics are also very afraid of. What's the problem with us just having a little grow plot in our backyard? You know, they've legalized six plants in Colorado and stuff. And it seems like that would take big business completely out of the equation.
FISHERYou know, it's interesting because you would have thought, given the history of the marijuana reform movement, that legalization would have come first in California. And one of the reasons it hasn't, and one of the reasons it may not there for some time, is that the pro-marijuana movement there is very much divided on exactly the question you're asking.
FISHERSome want marijuana to become available at Walgreen's and others want it to be purely a backyard homegrown kind of product. Kevin Sabet, would a law that kept big business out of the industry entirely make you more comfortable with decriminalizing marijuana?
SABETOf course it would, but that's not the real world. And it's the ultimate irony that the generation that hated big business of the '60s and '70s, planted the seeds for a movement that is not coming to fruition, that is all about creating the next tobacco and alcohol industries, that is all about the mass production, commercialization and promotion into edibles like candies and cookies and ring pots and all of these things that you wouldn't think about when you think about marijuana being legalized.
SABETSo, you know, the caller -- if only that were the case. Sadly, again, we just do such a great job in this country of making billionaires. And as the Wall Street Journal said the other day, the Yale MBAs are here. And that's what this is about. Because in a country with a First Amendment that protects commercial speech in a country where, for example, the Colorado governor -- who's very uneasy, by the way, about legalization in his state. I don't think he much likes it at all.
SABETHe's tried to put restriction after restriction on advertising, on magazine placement, on coupons, on promotion. They've all been struck down in the courts or challenged successfully by legalization groups. So that's just an impossible way to do it in this country of ours.
RASKINMarc, could I just take a shot at that?
RASKINThat argument strikes me as a curious one because it's true that the Supreme Court, ever since Citizens United or before, has been on a rampage in terms of transforming corporate free speech rights into something super human, that's a general problem that we've got. But I don't hear Kevin saying that he wants to go back to prohibition, either for alcohol or tobacco.
RASKINAnd yet, in our four or five-hour hearing that we just had in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, we heard testimony about how alcohol is far more addictive than marijuana, how it's far more toxic than marijuana. It's associated with tens of thousands of deaths a year, more than 30,000 deaths a year on the highways alone, before you even get into…
SABETSenator, the reason is…
RASKIN…cirrhosis. And tobacco is responsible for…
SABETSenator, the reason is…
RASKIN…hundreds of thousands of deaths. So I think that if you're just going to do a head-to-head match-up between alcohol and marijuana or tobacco and marijuana, you might want to argue for prohibition for one of the other two for a while and see how marijuana works out, if you're really interested in public policy.
FISHERSenator Raskin, last week in Maryland, at the hearing, you mentioned there was a sheriff who testified and pointed to an article about deaths in Colorado that resulted from use of marijuana. But it turned out that he was reading from an article that was a spoof.
RASKINYeah, the chief of the Annapolis police started his testimony by saying that Maryland should not go the way of Colorado where 37 people died of a marijuana overdose on the first day. And I saw people drop their laptops because it was so patently a joke. But, I mean, you know, this is kind of your bane on the war on drugs…
SABETBut actually -- Marc, if I can respond to that.
RASKIN…because the fact that people could believe that invoke that as an item of evidence demonstrates the kind of propaganda that's out there. I mean, the next thing they're going to be citing "Dazed and Confused" as a documentary.
SABETActually, you know what, Senator? I think it's not a laughing matter to set aside the thousands of deaths every year due to marijuana that happen because of marijuana intoxication related to car crashes related to…
RASKINIs there a single document in the case of a marijuana overdose?
SABETHold on. Yes, there is. Hold on. Well, overdose -- there isn't a documented case of tobacco overdose. That doesn't mean tobacco doesn't kill. Tobacco kills you through lung cancer. Marijuana kills you through car crashes on the road, through suicide and other things. So it's nice to have these bumper sticker sort of slogans, like end prohibition and alcohol prohibition failed. But the reality is…
RASKINIt' in the constitution. It's not just a bumper sticker.
SABETBut hold on.
SABETThe reality is…
RASKINIt's the 21st Amendment.
SABET…we can't go back to alcohol or tobacco prohibition because it's a totally different cultural place in society. The question is do we want to really make the same mistake with marijuana? And frankly…
RASKINWell, do you think marijuana prohibition's working? When you say it's a different cultural place because the statistics I've seen show that…
SABETWell, not necessarily. But there's a…
RASKIN…18 to 20 (unintelligible) …
SABET…better answer other than legalization.
FISHERGentlemen, we've -- all right.
SABETWhy is legalization the only answer?
FISHERWe've gone around on that a couple of times. Let's move on to Sheriff Mike Lewis, the sheriff of Wicomico County, on Maryland's eastern shore. Thank you for joining us. Sheriff, you testified against legalization in Maryland. As a law enforcement officer for 30 years, what are your concerns?
SHERIFF MIKE LEWISWell, I have many concerns, Marc. First of all, thank you so much for having me on the show. I do recognize that the momentum for legalization is where it's probably going to be and there's not much I can do about it. But I will tell you this, if we think for one second that legalization is the issue, we're absolutely wrong. Thank God for people like Kevin Sabet. And I mean that, Kevin. It's an honor to be on the show with you.
SHERIFF MIKE LEWISBut I can tell you after 30 years in law enforcement, there are many, many issues that have not even been considered. When we're working the street out here on traffic stops -- and I've conducted thousands of large drug seizures over the years. I don't mean, minor misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. I mean large drug seizures coming from the Mexican border, coming from Colorado, coming from Washington State where the bulk of our hydroponically grown marijuana is still being shipped in to the State of Maryland with regularity.
SHERIFF MIKE LEWISThe issues I'm most concerned with, number one, legalization and decriminalization. Decriminalization is certainly not the issue. Legalization is certainly not the answer. But when we're conducting traffic stops out here on the highway, we have a concern that marijuana right now -- the odor of marijuana constitutes probable cause to search the vehicle. Even if the search turns up only a seed stem or it may be a roach of marijuana, the legality of the search itself is confirmed.
SHERIFF MIKE LEWISBut suppose the search yields less than 10 grams. Does this invalidate the initial probable cause for our search? Suppose the search turns up less than 10 grams, but the officer also finds a gun. Is the search unlawful and so any potential gun charge may be also unlawful.
LEWISCanine detection issues. I have eight dogs within the Wicomico County Sheriff's Office alone, each trained to detect the odor of marijuana. We cannot detrain or decertify these dogs. We can't do that. At a cost between $11,000 and $15,000 each -- I'm only one sheriff in the State of Maryland that has these dogs. There are many other much larger police departments who have drug-sniffing canines. Are these dogs immediately rendered invalid? Do we certify? Do we detrain? We can't do that.
FISHERWell, I'm sure you're not arguing that we should keep marijuana a criminal offense in order to continue using these dogs, but there is an important issue around the arrests. And across the country 90 percent of arrests for marijuana possession are of black people. And all surveys of marijuana use show it to be relatively equally used by people of different races. Is there a problem in the people who are being arrested and why is that not something that legislators should take a look at?
LEWISWell, one thing the studies have not revealed, what else have these individuals that are being arrested of marijuana -- what else are they being caught in possession of? Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, prescription drugs. That's an item right now that is tightly regulated, taxed and controlled, but yet the most widely abused drug in North America today are prescription drugs. We have more kids dying from prescription drugs overdoses right now than anything else. But yet that is the most heavily regulated, tightly controlled drug that we have on the market.
LEWISYou talk about the disparity, and I heard it from Senator Raskin last week on the Senate floor when I was up there testifying. I can tell you that there are many people who choose to smoke marijuana in their homes, in their garages, on the back decks. When kids decide to go to a street corner or stand out in front of a business and smoke weed and deal weed, I get a phone call. Someone obviously reporting this activity. Deputies respond. They have to take the appropriate action.
LEWISIf there are three or four people or five or six people standing on the street corner and we pat and/or search each individual there and they're found in possession of marijuana, that's what we face every day.
SABETRight. And, Sheriff, I think also the other point I think would be to make is that, yes, let's fix those disparities. By the way, those disparities are across offenses in the criminal justice system. Trust me, they're not confined to marijuana. The problem is when you say the answer is to treat it like alcohol, well, how does alcohol affect the low-income communities? The last time I checked the best research said that there were eight times as many liquor stores in this country -- and actually, specifically in Baltimore, Maryland, near where the Senator is from -- eight times as many liquor stores in poor communities of color than in upper class white communities.
RASKINWell, what are you proposing to do about that?
SABETThese industry -- well, what I would love to do is curb an -- on the marijuana side, not start another industry to repeat that.
RASKINNo. On the alcohol (unintelligible) …
SABETWell, on the alcohol side we need to try and restrict it. But guess what? When you have an alcohol lobby that unfortunately has so much sway in State legislature, Senator, and also in the U.S. Congress -- and I worked in three administrations -- when you see the alcohol industry on K Street, it's very difficult to go against them. So why would we…
RASKINWell, I have not only…
SABET…repeat that mistake again.
RASKIN...excuse me. I've battled the liquor industry many times. I've beat them on several things. In Maryland…
SABETWe need to work harder, but when it's legal and legitimized -- good luck.
SABETWhen it's legal and legitimized, good luck.
RASKINIn Maryland, we have an automatic ignition interlock device law, which I introduced.
SABETIn Baltimore, they are destroying the inner city, Senator.
FISHERAll right. Gentlemen, gentlemen…
SABETThere are eight times as many liquor stores in Baltimore.
FISHERGentlemen, you're going to have to return to your corners for a second. Back to Sheriff Mike Lewis. Sheriff, how important is it to officers? You mentioned the essential tool that marijuana detection can be for officers when they're making a traffic stop, how important is it for police to have the availability of using the presence of marijuana in a car as a tool for arresting people who may really have attracted police attention for completely different purposes?
LEWISWell, Marc, I will tell you that Trooper First Class Eddie Plank was shot and killed down on Route 13 on the Eastern Shore. He had been a partner of mine for years, working as a Maryland State Trooper. The individuals who killed him -- first and foremost, most of our traffic stops we get into the car based on the odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle or the presence of marijuana shake on the individuals clothing, where they've been smoking it going down the road or on their lap or on the floor, as we're talking to the individual on the roadside.
LEWISMost of the time when we get into that car we find pounds and kilograms of cocaine and heroin. Eddie Plank was shot through the face with .45 caliber handgun. The individual -- part of his defense in the courtroom was he had been so desensitized from smoking marijuana since the age of nine years old, he constantly and chronically possessed it. He used it and it meant nothing to him to shoot a Maryland State Trooper in the face. I stopped $3.9 million in cocaine coming from California in route to Baltimore one day on Interstate 70.
LEWISThe individuals -- two white males, both blond hair, blue-eyed, southern California white males were in route to Baltimore. Based on the odor of marijuana I searched that minivan and located false compartments secreted in the floor containing $3.9 million in cocaine. Five weeks after that, a similar situation, stopped another minivan. And based on my conversation and the smell of marijuana coming from the passenger, did a probable cause search and located $2.7 million in cocaine coming from Miami, Fla., in route to Baltimore.
LEWISMost of our probable cause searches, our warrantless searches, are based on the odor of marijuana coming from the individuals. They almost always possess less than 10 grams, which would be decriminalized under Senator Raskin's law.
LEWISWould be decriminalized. And we still locate millions of dollars in cocaine headed for the streets of Baltimore.
FISHEROkay. Sheriff Mike Lewis from Wicomico County, Maryland. Thanks very much for joining us.
LEWISThank you, sir.
FISHERJonathan Rauch, so you've heard the sheriff talk about how important these marijuana-triggered searches are in other forms of law enforcement. But that, of course, is something that rubs a lot of Americans the wrong way, who see this war on drugs as having given police powers and entry to their vehicles that would otherwise not be justified. How much of that kind of resentment about the war on drugs and its pervasiveness is behind this drive that we're seeing toward decriminalization and legalization?
RAUCHI have not seen in the polls much change in people's commitment to the war on drugs, other than marijuana. Marijuana stands alone. People have decided that it seems less harmful than alcohol and they've decided that the current policy just isn't working. I'm not sure that it's the case that marijuana legalization is the gateway drug to other legalizations. And I tend to agree with you, that a lot of Americans hearing the argument that we should keep marijuana illegal so that we can catch people doing other things is not going to get a lot of traction, given that change in public view.
FISHERLet's go to Clay, in Woodlawn, Md. Clay, you're on the air.
CLAYTo me this is an interesting issue. That, you know, one of the gentlemen commented that there was no cultural significance, I guess as it pertains to marijuana, which I would debate. I think our founding fathers even have hemp farms -- you know, and hemp is used to make paper, clothing, so many other things. But my argument here is I don't understand. Every day when I watch CNN or anything, I'm seeing all these pharmaceutical companies who have to have this, "may cause death, may cause heart attack, may cause" -- and these things are legal in our economy now.
CLAYAs the gentleman mentioned, most of the abuses are from pharmaceutical drugs, which do have a devastating effect on our youth and just society in general. But this is legalized. And I don't understand why a natural substance, which is not generated by man, not manufactured by man, but actually a natural substance is illegal. I just don't understand that. And I understand the officer's argument that he uses that as a gauge in order to do other traffic searches, but the fact of the matter is it is a natural substance.
CLAYIt does not cause death. And I don't understand why we're having to debate from something that natural law says it's okay.
FISHERKevin Sabet, from the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, obviously this shift in public opinion is driven in part by the idea that marijuana is just not as harmful as other drugs. That it is analogous to alcohol in many ways. But you've argued that medical opinion really is very much against legalizing marijuana.
SABETYeah. I mean, the reason the American Medical Association and every single major health organization in this country is against legalization and treats marijuana has said we should treat it like a public health issue is because, frankly, and I hate to disagree with the caller but, you know, today's marijuana is anything but natural. And what George Washington planted in his acreage, which by the way he had no idea there were psychoactive properties because he wasn't growing the kind that did have psychoactive properties.
SABETToday's marijuana is not only not George Washington's marijuana, it's not your Timothy Leary's marijuana. And it's certainly not the marijuana even of the '80s and '90s. We're talking genetically modified, selectively bred, five to ten times stronger than anything anybody in my parent's generation ever smoked. They could not have dreamed of the 80 percent even THC wax that kids are getting their hands on today.
SABETAnd if you Google that in YouTube, in less than two milliseconds, you'll have 1,500 videos telling you how to do the waxing and dabbing with marijuana to get the new high. I mean, the idea that marijuana is just natural so leave it alone, you know, hemlock and uranium are also natural, they're also harmful. And so, yes, alcohol, of course, on certain levels is more harmful to your liver, violence inducing, on and on.
SABETBut you know what, marijuana to your lungs, to your IQ, a little known fact is that we now have conclusive evidence, irrefutable evidence that regular, chronic marijuana use as a teenager has the -- significantly increases your likelihood of an eight-point reduction that is permanent in the IQ. It has huge implications.
RASKIN...if I could jump in as a dad here. I mean, I don't want my kids smoking marijuana or cigarettes or using alcohol. The question is whether we're better off continuing the war on marijuana and criminalizing people who use it for doing exactly what our last three or four presidents have admitted doing and nearly half of the American public has admitted doing. Or we're better off going in a public health direction and trying to educate people about what the harms of these various activities are.
RASKINSo I just think that we come to a social moment when we were recognizing that this criminalization, it's not working. It's a war against a plant, which means it's a war against people.
SABETBut let's find a better alternative, senator. Why do you want to create another industry like tobacco? I don't understand.
RASKINWell, I don't want to create another industry like tobacco. Tobacco kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. I mean, nobody has even claimed that marijuana kills hundreds of thousands a year.
SABETYeah, but the...
RASKINHundreds of thousands of people from cancer.
SABET...do you want to copy the industry and the model? Hold on.
SABETDo you want to copy the industry and the model? Why can't we do something better? Isn't there a better alternative to the failed war on drugs?
RASKINI wish that Congress were acting. The reason why the states are out there under our system of federalism is because there's been a complete lockdown, an ideological lockdown on meaningful public policy discussion about marijuana at the federal level. I mean, it's not that anything is really happening in Washington, but the states are the ones who are moving forward and I'm hoping that what we do is we will prod Congress to take some effective national action. I agree with you about that.
FISHERWe're going to talk about federal role in all this when we come back after a short break. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher. We'll be back in a moment.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post and we are talking about marijuana and its potential decriminalization and legalization in the District, in Maryland, and across the country.
FISHERAnd Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, there is a clear conflict even in the places that have moved to ease restrictions on marijuana between state laws and federal law where marijuana remains illegal and where enforcement proceedings continue apace even as the administration says they're going to make such enforcement a lower priority. This is, I assume, untenable in the long run to have two different systems of law operating in -- at odds with each other.
RAUCHYes, it's untenable in the long run and it's tricky in the short run as well. It is very hard to run a legal marijuana business if you can't have a bank account. For example, it's very hard to tax that money and trace it. If you're a sheriff, it's hard to police it but it's also very hard to open a bank account with federal laws as they are no books. There are other questions involving taxation.
RAUCHAnd there's a question of what the federal government's law enforcement policy is going to be when you've got states that are in violation of it. So, no, the current situation is not sustainable. But it's sustainable enough for a while so that we can get some evidence on what works and what doesn't and maybe have a more informed debate if and when Congress gets ready to start thinking about changing the law in a few years.
FISHERAnd, politically, do you think that is something that will rise to Congress' -- make Congress feel compelled to act in some way?
RAUCHWell, you know, with this Congress, compelled to act is a contradiction of terms. But that said, I think the way the polls are going, I think it's almost inevitable that the federal government will have to address this. I…
FISHERLet's turn to Ryan (sp?) in Arlington, VA. Ryan, you're on the air.
RYANYeah, hi. The question that I had concerning this is, you know, first of all, you know, this war on drugs, like the sheriff that you had on that's been going on now since the Reagan administration. We've been at war now for 40 years. It's probably the longest standing war in the history of mankind and it's obviously been unsuccessful. The sheriff that sees these drugs and arrest people based on them being stupid enough to smoke marijuana while they're transporting high quantities of drugs.
RYANYou know, I guess that's good for him. But it's, you know -- how do you justify spending millions and millions of dollars and it hasn't -- it's been complete unsuccessful in stopping the transportation, distribution, importation, and the use of the drugs on every facet. It's been completely unsuccessful.
RASKINI think he speaks for a lot of people there. It's not just, by the way, the Reagan administration. This has been going on since the Nixon administration. He was the one who originally declared the war on drugs. But, you know, one thing about Sergeant Lewis, there was an interesting article about his practices in the New York Times. It's called "The Color of Suspicion," which you can find online, where he said that he's got the ability to distinguish between a law abiding person and an up-to-no-good person.
RASKINBut I don't want to leave the impression that law enforcement is all on the side of prohibition. There's a terrific group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which has hundreds and hundreds of members across the country who are saying that we are getting nowhere. This is completely futile war and we should pull the plug on the marijuana prohibition and move to a much healthier policy.
RASKINSo I think the people in the states should not be faulted for trying to move forward because everything is completely deadlocked in the impasse in Washington.
FISHERKevin Sabet, do you think the war on drugs has been handled properly? Was it a mistake in anyway?
SABETOf course there are mistakes and there are things that we need to fix to the war on drugs. We have to look at the racial element. We have to look at over-incarceration. But why would we, in the world, think that we want to replace the one travesty of incarceration in certain communities with another travesty of a public health crisis in creating another legal industry that relies on addiction for profit. I do have to say, in terms of metric...
RASKINIs it easier to get marijuana...
SABETHold on. For the metric of use -- wait a minute, it might be -- so hold on. The metric of use is very clear, 55 percent of Americans drink regularly, 25 percent smoke cigarettes even now with all the stigma against tobacco, and 8 percent smoke marijuana. So actually marijuana use, believe it or not, has been declining since the early '70s. And, Marc, one of the things that you reported so well in your piece was talking about this movement in the '70s to legalize marijuana.
SABETAnd we're sort of back there. We're sort of in 1977 as we speak, I feel like. And what was happening in the '70s is you had a huge increase in marijuana use during the time where we became much more lose. We almost were on the verge of legalizing and there was this huge backlash. I actually think a backlash has begun in Colorado and Washington and in other states. Remember, California, Oregon and Nevada have rejected legalization.
SABETState after state legislature has actually rejected it. And I believe that there is a backlash beginning even in Colorado and Washington, frankly, among people who don't mind the idea of legalization in theory, going to the point that Jonathan was saying about how people's opinions on this are malleable. They don't mind it in theory. But in practice, when they see the pot shop in their backyard, when they see the advertising now going on even on TV, when they see the advertising on the internet that is totally non-regulatable.
SABETYou cannot regulate that at all. When they see these things, the advertising in senior high school parking lots, then they say, wait a minute, this is not what I signed up for. I thought this was just about, you know, ending a, quote/unquote, "failed war on drugs" and letting a guy smoke a joint in his own, you know, basement if he's, you know, an adult who's an otherwise law abiding American.
SABETI didn't realize it was creating this entire industry. And that backlash, let me tell you, is beginning now as a result of this. So as I've said on and on, I think in many ways you had to legalize it in a few states and you may still have to in a couple others before people will wake up, as they did in the late '70s, and decide this is not the direction we want to go to in our country.
FISHERLet's go to John (sp?) in Annandale. John, it's your turn. John, are you there? And we don't seem to have John. Okay. Let's go to Judy on the Eastern Shore. Judy, you're on the air.
JUDYHi, thank you for taking my call.
JUDYMy question and comment is if the panelists have been following the developments -- legislative developments in Uruguay, I'm hearing a lot of reference to Colorado, Washington and other states that are dabbling in legalization. Uruguay has passed at the national level a comprehensive bill legalizing marijuana, regulating it at the national level, but also allowing for private citizens to grow a certain number of plants in their backyards and also to even form small growing co-ops with limits to the amount they can grow to provide for personal use for their group.
JUDYSo the legislation takes on a number of different elements of the debate, and I wonder if anybody is following the development of this in Uruguay and how we might take some lessons from that.
SABETIt's irrelevant. It's irrelevant for us, unfortunately.
RAUCHYeah, Uruguay is interesting, it's an interesting model. They're distributing through pharmacies, which gives them some control over it. And it's well worth watching. Unlike Kevin, I don't think it's at all irrelevant. It gives me an excuse to make a broader point. I'm a middle child, so I'm a conciliator. But I'd like to point out that our other two guests here who've been going at each other pretty hard have a whole lot in common.
RAUCHNo one thinks that the current policy is working. No one thinks smoking marijuana is good for you. In my opinion, decriminalization and regulated legalization are much less different than many people think because both are regimes with legal sanctions if you break some very well articulated rules. There are differences. But I just don't think that's really that vast. And what's really going on here is a search, on many levels, to look for better policy solutions.
RAUCHAnd the right answer is we don't know yet what's going to work best. In my view, the real answer is some states should try what Colorado is doing, which is different from what Washington is doing. And some states should try and, in fact, I think are trying what Kevin Sabet wants to do. And that's how we're going to figure out what's actually going to work best.
SABETJonathan, as you and I have talked about before at length, and as I said, I appreciate the work you're doing at Brookings. But the issue is if only the advocates would listen to you and others at Brookings, frankly, on a whole host of issues, but that's another story, they're going at a thousand miles an hour with Alaska and Oregon this year. This narrative that this is unstoppable among dozens of states in the next few years.
SABETThey are not. There are zero data entry systems, data systems in place in Colorado and Washington to actually monitor the direct effects of this. If only it could be done as carefully as we all would want it to be done, we could be having a different conversation. And the reason Uruguay, I think, is totally irrelevant for us in America is that a homogenous country of 3 million people in another part of the world that had just not have the history of alcohol, pharmaceutical and tobacco lobby as we do has written an entirely different law and is totally not a model that any of the people with big money that are pushing this in this country are doing.
SABETIt just doesn't provide much of a model for us. And by the way, I think your listeners should know that this movement to legalize marijuana -- and, Jon, you and I part on this -- is tied very much so to the movement to legalize other drugs. I mean, if you look at the major funders of these initiatives, the Drug Policy Alliance from New York, George Soros and those folks.
SABETTheir ultimate objective actually is just like Milton Friedman, to invoke what the senator was saying, and William F. Buckley's goals were -- it wasn't to stop at marijuana, it was to legalize all drugs. I think at least the American people deserve to know that.
RASKINWell, let me just say in terms of the -- if that's a legislative point, it's a complete nonsense. Nobody has raised the legalization of any other drug. It's based on the much greater comparative harms that akin to alcohol consumption and tobacco consumption. The fact that we believe that the war on marijuana has damaged and undermined our own people. And so, you know, I agree with Jonathan in saying let's let the states experiment.
RASKINBut in the meantime, let's try to reduce the harms to our own people. We're trying to get people jobs. We're trying to get people into college. We're trying to get them back in the economy and we should not be ruining their futures for...
SABETGetting them back in the economy by having them use marijuana.
FISHERSenator Raskin, Senator Raskin, do you have -- Senator Raskin, do you...
RASKINNo, because they're using it now.
FISHERSenator Raskin, do you feel like you have enough information as a legislator to make a decision about decriminalization or legalization of marijuana given the paucity of scientific data about the effects of marijuana and the difficulty of doing scientific research given the federal restrictions against it?
RASKINWell, yeah. And, of course, that's the problem. That's part of the ideological lockdown. The state won't allow any real scientific research to take place. One thing we haven't talked about enough is medical marijuana. We have seen hundreds of moms and dads come in and beg for the state to make it possible for people who are suffering from cancer, leukemia, epileptic seizures, AIDS, to access marijuana.
RASKINAnd it is clearly a palliative. And that's something that's accepted not just by the 58 percent of Americans who want to legalize marijuana but by upwards of 75 or 80 percent of the people who think that the ill should be able to access it for treatment. So I think Kevin is going to have a hard time completely demonizing the drug when lots of people...
SABETOh, I'm not -- in fact, I'm not demonizing the drug. In fact, today, we should -- your listeners should know, we have a letter into the administration asking for looser -- to loosen the restrictions on research because there are definitely, senator, and I commend you for the work in Maryland in terms of creating at least a very tight law unlike every other law that's on the books on this. But essentially, the components of marijuana, just like the components of opium and other plants, have medicinal value. The question is, let's deliver it in a non-smoked, truly regulated way from a pharmacy as opposed to a 26-year-old kid with no medical experience.
SABETI'm with you on the fact that we should...
RASKINI appreciate your kind words. I did write the legislation which gave people an affirmative defense to prosecution. The problem is, is that these very sick people and their parents and their families and their kids have to go to drug dealers in order to access for what them is medicine. I think what we need to do...
SABETI agree. So let's do the right way through pharmacies.
FISHERWe're going to have to leave it there. Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Last word from you. Do you see this actually spreading across the country before there is a backlash?
RAUCHNo. I see it moving through a few states at a time. I think -- I don't think we're going to see anything like a domino effect. I think we're in for about five or ten years of figuring this out.
FISHERAnd thanks very much to our other guests. Sheriff Mike Lewis Wicomico County, MD, who joined us earlier. Jamin Raskin is Senate majority whip in the Maryland legislature and a law professor at the Washington College of Law at American University. And Kevin Sabet is professor of psychology at the University of Florida and was senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. Thanks very much for joining us.
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