Is the U.S. drug war calling a ceasefire with marijuana?

Iwan Benneyworth

A cannabis store in Denver

The drugs debate in the UK has been somewhat stirred recently, with a Channel 4 documentary examining what cannabis does to the (Jon Snow) brain. This came in tandem with Nick Clegg announcing a Lib Dem election pledge to move drugs policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health, emphasising the public health rather than exclusively criminal nature of the issue.

In September 2013, the Institute for Social and Economic Research released a report that analysed the cost/benefit economic arguments for licensing and regulating cannabis sales. On that front at least, our American cousins are far ahead of us, which is all the more ironic given the tens of the billions of dollars the U.S. spends each year on counter-narcotics, both domestically and abroad in such places as Colombia, Afghanistan and Mexico.

In Colorado and Washington states, it seems their experiment in being the first to legalise – yet regulate – the production and sale of cannabis may be paying off, in terms of increased tax yields, job creation and reduced crime.

Considering how much coverage is given to the Mexican and Colombian ‘cocaine cartels’, it may be surprising to learn that, for the Mexicans at least, marijuana was their biggest cash cow, or cash crop as the case may be. U.S. legalisation has not helped their bottom line any, which is why the cartels are now looking to push harder drugs, with the consequence that the targets of the drug war will increasingly be Class-A substances that are regarded as posing a ‘clear and present danger’ to U.S. national security, under which falls American public health, crime levels and economic productivity.

Indeed, it seems that Colorado and Washington were the trendsetters, with Alaska, Oregon and Washington D.C voting for legalisation, similar rumblings in New York, and the prospect of California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and Arizona going the same way in 2016. Of course, nothing is a given in referendums, but if all these states were to legalise marijuana in some fashion, then that would represent twenty percent of the United States moving to socially and economically incorporate a substance which has been regarded with suspicion at best for the majority of the past century.

In my opinion, there is no separating out morality from the drug policy debate, but it seems the economic arguments have thus far proved persuasive in some American states, at least with regards to cannabis. Even in the free-market nirvana of the U.S., I can’t see heroin or cocaine once again being available across the counter anytime soon (as opposed to what it was like in the 19th and early 20th Century). But to be prosecuting a drug war in part against a substance that some U.S. states are actively cultivating makes no logical, legal or strategic sense.

Therefore, in the broader War on Drugs, it may be that the U.S. is inching ever closer to signing a peace treaty with cannabis. But as for the struggle against the Class-A drug Axis, U.S. counter-narcotics policy will likely maintain a ‘no surrender, no retreat’ stance for the foreseeable future.