Politics, pot, and police: Slouching toward marijuana legalization

Might we consider the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 — a proposed bill aimed at reducing mandatory minimum sentencing for “non-violent” drug offenses — another step toward marijuana legalization?

For my first column of 2014, I chose to tackle (for the third time in five years) the issue of marijuana legalization. I did so for several reasons, all of which you can read in the sidebar below. Suffice it to say that I’m of the opinion that the issue of marijuana legalization — and drug enforcement generally — will be a recurring theme throughout the year.

The validity of that opinion was buttressed yesterday when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 to send the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 further into the legislative process. It must now pass in both houses and be signed by the president in order to be enacted into law. GovTrack.us — a website that monitors such things — gives the bill a 57 percent chance of being enacted. For comparison, only about 23 percent of bills that made it past committee in 2011 through 2013 were made law.

Why should we care? Well for starters, the bill addresses mandatory minimums — it would lower mandatory minimums for various drug-related offenses, and establish new mandatory sentences for certain sex abuse, domestic violence, and terrorism charges. I will set that stuff aside for discussion at a later date. Instead, I want to read between the lines of this news, because therein lies what I believe is an undeniable trend: there is growing bipartisan support for changes to various drug-related laws.

Politics of Pot on Both Sides of the Aisle
The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and supported by Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Jeff Flake (R-Az.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Before yesterday, I wouldn’t have believed this group capable of agreement on the toppings for their late-night pizza order, much less a piece of legislation like S.1410. Further, we must consider the implications of a 13-5 vote of the whole committee.

In today’s Washington, that’s a landslide.

Politicians want few things (if anything) more than to remain in office. Consequently, they go to great lengths to know which way the wind is blowing in their home districts. Yesterday’s vote — in my opinion — indicates that the forecast from Capitol Hill staffers calls for prevailing popular support for changes to existing drug laws, with chances of electoral defeat for failing to heed same.

In numerous states, petitions are already being circulated, signed, and submitted that would put on 2014 election ballots a host of marijuana legalization initiatives mirroring (or closely modeling) those which passed in Colorado and Washington last year.

One state is all but certain to vote on marijuana legalization. Alaskan organizers have submitted 150 percent of the number of signatures required to get on the August 19 ballot during primary season.

In fact, Alaska (an indisputably “red state”) may end up beating Oregon (which lies on the exact opposite end of the political spectrum) to legalize pot. Pro-pot organizers in the Beaver State say they’re ready to collect the required 87,000 signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot if the legislature fails to place one there before it adjourns in late February.

If similar legalization efforts in California pass, the entire Pacific Coast of the United States (not including Hawaii) may be a legal-dope zone by this time next year.

What does this all mean? I have been purposeful in the titles of my two columns this year on the subject of legalized marijuana. I think that’s precisely where we’re headed — we’re slowly, steadily slouching toward legalized marijuana. And I’m not alone in that opinion.

Police1 Member Kevin Colwell, a captain with the Paola (Kan.) Police Department, wrote in an email to me, “I think it is a foregone conclusion that it will be legalized, but over a number of years, millions of dollars, and court battles. I do believe that marijuana is a gateway drug and is not good for our society. Our growing indifference to marijuana gradually erodes our stance on harder drugs — what’s next, cocaine? Thankfully I'll be retired. I believe the ‘progressive’ states will enact first. Like anything else, state's rights will come into play when the feds believe it is time to legalize.”

We don’t have to like it, but we do have to face it. The question becomes, what part in the process does law enforcement want to play?

Turning Information into Action
When I saw news of the Judiciary Committee’s 13-5 vote on S.1410, I reached out to Major Neill Franklin, a 34-year law enforcement veteran of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, who now serves as executive director of LEAP — Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Franklin said that he sees yesterday’s action on the Hill as the Judiciary Committee’s way of pushing incremental reform.

“This is another message that we need to end the prohibition of marijuana because it simply doesn't work,” Franklin said. “Some people are afraid of big steps, so take little steps in the direction we need to go. Once the law enforcement community understands the change that is taking place, good leaders will shift away from low-level marijuana enforcement and start focusing on violent crimes.”

Will marijuana be legalized in some states this year? Probably. Will it ever be legalized at a federal level? Possibly. Whether we like it or not, the issue of marijuana legalization is going to be a recurring theme in the national discussion throughout 2014 (and beyond).

The president of the United States is talking about it. The United States Army is talking about it. Even the commissioner of the National Football League is talking about it. 

Question becomes, in what way is the law enforcement profession talking about it? We can stand around and grouse all we like, but if we fail to offer some actionable recommendations on the issue, we’ll be doomed to have our fates determined by others. Some of the issues law enforcement officers can address are as follows: 

•    Nature Hates a Vacuum: When pot is legal, what will all the pot dealers do instead of dealing pot? Will they enroll in college and start a new career, or shift their criminal enterprise to pushing another drug?
•    Laws of Unintended Consequences: At some point this year — probably in Colorado or Washington — someone high on marijuana will kill or maim an innocent person on the highway. What then? 
•    Dumbification of America: Will legalization lead to abuse (cigarettes and alcohol, both legal, are probably the most-abused substances in the country) by a large enough segment of the population to have an adverse effect on our collective cognitive capability? What about our productivity? 

Offer your solutions in the comments below. Or send me an email. I’ve been collecting emails from Police1 Members, which I will compile and present in future columns. Click here if you oppose marijuana legalization and have a recommendation to share. Click here if you support marijuana legalization and want to offer a proposal for implementation.

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