Congressman: Voters will punish drug warriors

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., tells Salon the drug war is an obvious failure, and pot law will go the way of booze

Published October 25, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

Jared Polis     (AP/Evan Vucci/<a href=''>PRILL</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
Jared Polis (AP/Evan Vucci/PRILL via Shutterstock/Salon)

This week, Gallup announced that legalizing marijuana now commands 58 percent support. That’s the first time the poll found a majority for legalization, a 10 point increase in the space of a year, and nearly five times the level of support when the question was first polled in 1969. It follows last year’s historic passage of statewide legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, and comes as California may vote on its own such law next year.

To consider the politics and policy behind this comparatively sudden shift, Salon called up Colorado Democratic congressman Jared Polis, a longtime legalization advocate. Polis assessed the president's drug war record, talked about pot-smoking kids, and said his colleagues are watching the polls. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

What do you think it is that’s led to this accelerated shift?

I think part of it has been the willingness of the mainstream media to discuss the issues, and the pros and cons, and to weigh the merits of both sides for the American people and help them make an informed decision. I think people have taken the time to study the issue and have learned more about it and have come to the conclusion increasingly that the drug war is failing, which is obvious for anybody who looks at it objectively.

How significant is the legislation that passed in your state going to turn out to be in terms of national policy?

Both Colorado and Washington are very important, because all eyes are turned to the implementation of our legislation. People are going to be looking at how it decreases our crime rate, how it helps keep marijuana out of the hands of minors, how it creates legitimate jobs, how it creates tax revenue, how it works from a law enforcement perspective.

Do you have any concerns about the implementation in Colorado?

Seems to be going well … I’m sure there’ll be little glitches along the way, but I’m confident in the multi-stakeholder process that has included law enforcement, the business community, labor, the health community and others in coming up with a process that makes sense and works for our state.

What do you make of the fact that so many U.S. presidents, let alone members of Congress, have spoken openly about their own drug use … and continue to be in office without having come out in support of legalizing that kind of activity?

Many members of Congress and many Americans either have personal experience, or at least experience with some of their families or friends, with regard to some of these substances. And I think that the conclusion many Americans are coming to, when they look themselves in the mirror, and they say, “You know, does my friend that occasionally used marijuana – or the time that I might have used it in college -- does that mean that I should go to jail?” And simply say, “No, it doesn’t make sense.”

What’s your assessment of President Obama’s record on the drug war?

I’ve been very excited to see the overdue but long-awaited decision by Attorney General Holder to clarify that in Colorado and Washington, the states will not be subject to enforcement of federal law – only at the lowest priority. Of course I was very happy with the Ogden memo of several years ago as well, and we would like to see them operationalize that more effectively in the regional attorney generals’ offices. But overall they’ve been doing much of what we’d like them to do, keeping in mind that they can’t change the law -- that can only come from Congress … I’ve introduced HR 499 to legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol.

How long do you think it will be before we see federal legislation like that pass?

It’s gaining support every year, I can tell you that. When I first signed on as a co-sponsor of the marijuana legalization bill at the time that Barney Frank and Ron Paul had, it was not nearly as mainstream a position. Elected officials are followers as well as leaders, and when public opinion has shifted so dramatically, it’s only a matter of time before elected officials catch up.

So will marijuana be legal in your lifetime, then everywhere in the United States?

I don’t think there’s anybody [that] particularly has the goal of legalizing it everywhere. At the federal level it’s just a question of butting out and letting states and counties and cities decide what they want to do. To this day, there’s dry counties in states like Texas that don’t allow legal sale of alcohol. And I think that there will be many counties and perhaps states that don’t allow legal sale of marijuana certainly for the foreseeable future. But certainly it already has become [legal] in my state of Colorado; it’s time for the federal [government] to catch up and allow states to decide how to best regulate.

How many years do you think that’s going to take?

Well, it’s already happening … The danger is that an attorney general or future president could wake up on the wrong side of the bed and try to enforce these [federal] laws in our states. But I don’t think that will happen. And again, it’s only a matter of time until we can more specifically give states the latitude under statute to regulate marijuana in these ways.

You’ll hear someone like Kevin Sabet … make these arguments that are less about marijuana being inherently evil, and instead about the idea that if you legalize it, inevitably you’ll have children using it, and you’ll have a powerful marijuana lobby that will push for all kinds of laws that are bad for people. What do you make of those kinds of arguments?

One of the reasons that many of us supported it in Colorado is to help keep marijuana out of the hands of children, because the corner drug dealer doesn’t care if  their customer is 14 or 15. But a regulated store -- just like a liquor store – does, and they risk losing their license.

I interviewed Barney Frank recently and he was arguing that we should go further than marijuana – that heroin and cocaine should also be legal, on the grounds that they don’t, themselves, make people violent.

I think the point is that dealing with drug abuse as a criminal justice issue is not usually the best way to deal with drugs. I think there’s certainly a criminal justice dimension, there’s a lot of violence and gangs associated with it. But it’s primarily a health issue, and from the perspective of the addict the most important thing is to get them treated. We’re not talking about marijuana now obviously – it’s not highly addictive – we’re talking about heroin and cocaine and other substances. So my priority in public policy would be to make sure that there’s treatment available to help get people off of addictive drugs.

So should either cocaine or heroin be legal?

I think the criminal justice piece has a role in fighting against these scourges, and I think that, again, from the addict’s perspective, they’re more likely to benefit from mandatory treatment than they are from mandatory incarceration. But both are likely to intersect the criminal justice system.

How would you compare the progress we’ve seen toward LGBT equality in the United States … to what’s going on now with marijuana?

The two have happened along a similar time frame, faster than a lot of people would have thought … rapidly driven by the younger generation and the views of the younger generation. And as the demographics change, they’re only garnering more and more support.

Are you now actively trying to win people over to your position within Congress on marijuana?

Yeah, I talk to people all the time about it. And frankly, the biggest thing that’s winning people over is the change in public opinion: My colleagues see polls like the Gallup Poll and the communications – the letters, calls, from their constituents -- and I can help close the deal. But really what’s driving it is the change in public opinion. Without that, this effort wouldn’t have any wind in its sails.

Who are the groups in Congress you see the most potential to bring around?

It’s been an alliance of most Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans that are helping to push this issue forward at the national level. And I think that’s a winning combination. You’ll never have all Democrats. There will always be a few that you know are committed drug warriors. But you’ll have the vast majority of Democrats, and then you get to absolute majority by adding libertarian Republicans who believe in individual freedom and liberty, states’ rights.

Where do you think we’ll be on these issues a couple decades from now?

Well, I think it’ll just be an application of where we already are. Jurisdiction will deal with this … It’ll look a lot like the post-Prohibition alcohol laws, where over time, as comfort levels increased, more jurisdictions chose to regulate it, and not to have a black market. But to this day, there’s dry counties in a number of states

The approach you’re suggesting on drugs other than marijuana – what kind of foreign policy implications does that have?

I think there’s an opportunity to work more closely with law-enforcement officials in the exporting countries to limit the flow of illegal drugs into our country. Certainly, there’ll be a legal and regulated marijuana trade and hopefully that’ll help supplant some of the more addictive or damaging drugs.

Is this something that we’re going to see become an issue in presidential politics?

Absolutely. I mean the question can’t be ducked.

Democrats who may be running for president in 2016 – what should they be saying on this?

That’s their personal opinion, obviously. But I think there will be many voters that will weigh this heavily in their decision-making process and would react very poorly to any presidential candidate who would turn back the clock and move away from the move that President Obama has made to use lowest enforcement priority against marijuana that’s legal under state law.

And … even if we end up with a Republican president, you don’t expect to see the clock rolled back all the way.

There will be many Republican primary voters that will be asking the same questions of the Republican candidates. And they would also frown on our moving back and trying to interfere with state rights and have mass arrests of people who are following state law.

If we move in this direction, what are the implications in terms of the criminal justice system and racial equality in the U.S.?

By dealing with drug abuse as a health issue, as a medical issue, more than a criminal justice issue, we will not have to incarcerate as many people. It will reduce violence in our inner cities … Both incarceration and violent crime in our inner cities disproportionately affect minorities.

Are there particular constituencies or organizations where you see soul-searching going on right now, where there could be a flip?

Increasingly a lot of law enforcement officials are coming to the conclusion that the drug war does more damage than it does help, and they want to be able to dedicate their limited law enforcement resources toward preventing real crime … Many chambers of commerce and local business associations are seeing the opportunity … for helping reduce urban blight or creating jobs which are earning tax revenues.

When we look back at the progress this movement has made, the intermediate step of legalizing medical marijuana – how significant has that been?

It’s been very important, because it helped increase people’s comfort level … It’s something that’s very hard to oppose, because who would want to take marijuana out of the hands of a suffering cancer patient, or somebody that’s dying?

The portrayal of marijuana and people who use marijuana on TV or movies – is that something you’ve seen shift? ... It certainly seems different from the way you’d see, say, heroin addiction portrayed.

Many people who are parents of teenage kids, or kids that are approaching that age, are very savvy on this issue. And they would treat it very differently if their kid is caught smoking a joint or if their kid is caught shooting up with heroin. There’s no question [that] any parent in this country would be thrust into immediate crisis mode if their kid was caught with heroin or had an issue with that. Whereas most parents, if their kid was caught smoking a joint, would react similarly to if they were caught with a beer or vodka – this might involve grounding or revoking privileges, or you know, something like that.

Do you believe it’s always bad for people under the age of 18 to use marijuana?

Well, it’s always bad for anybody to use drugs or alcohol. There’s no question: They’re not healthy to use. But people have the right to … They can drink a beer if they want, even though it’s not healthy. They can have, you know, pizza if they want it, even though it’s not healthy. And they can smoke a joint, even though it’s not healthy.

But it is, it’s particularly damaging for young people to use alcohol or marijuana in terms of the scientific knowledge of the process of brain growth.

By Josh Eidelson

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