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Today Weekend Reader brings you A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition, by award-winning investigative journalists Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian, whose work has also appeared in The New York Times and The Nation. Martin and Rashidian argue that American society is now at a turning point, heading toward increasing acceptance and inevitable legalization of cannabis across the country. The growing number of Americans using medical marijuana is on the rise in states that now legalize the practice. Colorado and Washington have led the way, passing recreational legalization laws and demonstrating the benefits of ending the prohibition of marijuana. A New Leaf is a collection of interviews with individuals from a broad spectrum of this debate: from activists and politicians to patients and growers.  

You can purchase the book here.

When voters in Washington and Colorado closed the curtain, considered their choices, and punched the ballot on Election Day 2012, why did most choose cannabis legalization?

Over the past two decades, more Americans have been exposed to cannabis than at any other time in recent history. According to The Path Forward, a report co-authored by Colorado representative Jared  Polis and Oregon representative Earl Blumenauer and released in February 2013, more than 106 million people now live where cannabis is legal for medical or general use. As of April 2013, according to Pew Research, 77 percent of Americans believe cannabis can legitimately be medicine and a landmark majority, 52 percent, support legalization for general use. Yet the federal government refuses to accept these broader societal shifts. Americans are, for the first time, truly weighing the harms of cannabis prohibition against the harms of cannabis. For example, prohibition has led to more than 8 million cannabis-related arrests in the last decade—of those, 88 percent were for mere possession.

One reason for the change in public opinion is the education Americans have received from over twenty years of access to medical cannabis. The more often people saw the cannabis plant on TV screens, in newspapers, and, sometimes, down the street, the more comfortable they grew with the notion of legalization. When he led the reefer madness crusade to banish cannabis in 1937, Harry J. Anslinger, first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, warned, “This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.”  But if cannabis now legally replaces or supplements conventional pharmaceuticals for an estimated 1 million Americans in twenty states and Washington, D.C., it’s increasingly clear that it must not be as dangerous as we were—and, in some cases, continue to be—told.

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More Americans feel comfortable coming out about their cannabis use, too. Forty-eight percent of adults eighteen or older admit they tried cannabis at some point in their lives. Popular culture has accurately reflected shifting views about the plant. Increased use and acceptance of cannabis for medical (and “medical”) reasons might be why even Meryl Streep and Steve Martin could light a joint, party with the kids, and feast on chocolate croissants in the movie It’s Complicated without controversy.

On top of that, numerous influential types have spoken in favor of reforming drug policy, including Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffington Post; Deepak Chopra, the man who made millions by making people feel better holistically; and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. All three sit on the honorary boards of the nation’s foremost drug policy reform organization, the Drug Policy Alliance. Year after year, cannabis continues to make the strangest bedfellows, uniting liberal Barney Frank and Tea Partier Ron Paul in Congress, for instance; they worked on two cannabis law reform bills and co-authored a letter to President Barack Obama to insist the federal government not intervene in states with cannabis laws.

The economic and social implications of cannabis legalization, both domestic and international, have also become more apparent in recent years. As Americans clawed their way out of a recession, more and more states passed medical cannabis laws and, slowly, more brick-and-mortar storefronts emerged. It soon became obvious that there is money to be made. When budgets started to feel the recession pinch, voters wanted to harness the economic power of cannabis to mitigate the impact. Colorado earned $5.4 million from medical cannabis sales taxes between 2011 and 2012; California estimates annual sales tax revenues between $58 million and $105 million. Now, with the passage of Initiative 502, voters in Washington have opened the door to over half a billion dollars in annual tax and fee revenue for their state, money that can be directed toward cannabis education, research, and dependence treatment, among other public health initiatives. Voters in Colorado know that, beginning in 2014, $40 million in tax dollars from general-use cannabis each year will be earmarked for schools.

At the same time, the financial costs to curb this momentum and fight the domestic drug war are staggering. The White House National Drug Control Budget for 2014 noted that $9.6 billion of its total $25.4 billion is allocated to domestic law enforcement. These resources are intended to stem the availability of drugs—but the money has not been wisely invested if nearly half of those law enforcement efforts result in the arrest of cannabis users, as has been the trend for years. Of the 1.53 million nonviolent nationwide drug arrests in 2011, 49.5 percent were for violations involving cannabis and an overwhelming 87 percent (or about 663,000) of those arrests were for minor charges involving possession. Typically, nine cannabis possessors are arrested for every one dealer. In the meantime, cannabis use and availability have increased; the money has been tossed into the wind.

Voters have also started to connect the American appetite for cannabis to conflict beyond our borders. The United States spends over $5 billion each year to fight the international drug war, with an emphasis on Latin America. Over the last decade, drug trafficking organizations in Mexico have become more violent, and an estimated sixty thousand people have been killed as the result of drug-related conflict. If passed nationally, cannabis legalization in the United States would remove—and these are conservative estimates—roughly 30 percent of the at least $7 billion total profits these organizations receive from the illegal sale of drugs across the border. (Estimates on total profits and the share of cannabis vary; this isn’t exactly an industry that files earnings reports.)

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Americans also increasingly recognize the social costs of the domestic drug war on our fellow citizens. These millions of arrests, and the subsequent criminal record, often lead to loss of income, housing, child custody, and student financial aid. When voters in Colorado and Washington pulled the yes lever, they also spoke out against a system of entrenched racial inequity that is manifested and propagated through cannabis law enforcement. Across the country, blacks are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession, even though they use cannabis at comparable rates. Arrest statistics vary from city to city, but New York City provides an illuminating example because its law enforcement tactics have earned national attention and contribute to the state’s having the highest number of cannabis possession arrests in the country. Between 2002 and 2013, the New York Police Department made 5 million stop-and-frisks, or unannounced police pat-downs, on the street with the stated intent of finding guns. Of all of those stopped, 86 percent were black or Latino—and 88 percent were innocent. If police were looking for guns, they didn’t find many: fewer than two-tenths of a percent (0.2 percent) of all stops resulted in guns found. Due to these tactics, however, there has been an increase in cannabis possession arrests. In 2011, at the peak of stop-and-frisks in New York City, arrests for cannabis possession also peaked at 50,484.

Forty years and $1 trillion later, only 4 percent of Americans support the war on drugs.

With each new piece of information about potential tax revenue, skyrocketing arrests, and the racist nature of cannabis law enforcement, it was as if voters saw the color panels begin to match on the side of a Rubik’s Cube. When cannabis legalization made it to the ballots in Washington State and Colorado, voters in those states essentially decided whether they wanted to spend billions of dollars to arrest millions of men and women while sending a massive check to drug cartels during an American economic crisis—all over a nontoxic substance that is less harmful and addictive than alcohol. On that election night, more than 3 million voters in those two states definitively said enough is enough.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

Copyright © 2014 by Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian. This excerpt originally appeared in A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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