U.S. senators took a deep dive into issues surrounding the legalization of marijuana on Wednesday as part of a hearing on America’s demand for illegal drugs and alternative approaches to drug control.
Although one of the nation’s leading drug policy reform activists was in the room to testify, it was a lawmaker who delivered the session’s first criticisms of the failure of prohibition.
“Like [alcohol]prohibition fueled the gangs back then, what were doing right now is fueling drug cartels, which is the reason we have an unsecured border,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Noting that when he first ran for the Senate in 2010, marijuana legalization “never came up” in conversations with voters, Johnson said that he’s now being asked about it regularly.
“I’m sympathetic with the broad spectrum of arguments” for legalization, he said. “We’ve spent a trillion dollars on the war on drugs. We’re just not winning it… Where there’s demand, the supply is going to meet it.”
But while Johnson recognizes and is able to articulate the prohibition’s harms, he’s not yet ready to fully back legalization, out of a concern that it could increase youth use.
“Because of the illegal nature of it we are funneling billions of dollars to some of the most evil people on the planet,” he said. But “you move away from that, and all of a sudden you are communicating unfortunately, potentially, [to children]‘this is ok.'”
Johnson mentioned that his nephew recently died from an overdose of fentanyl, a powerful opioid.
Testifying at the hearing was Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).
“The war on drugs in this country and around the world has been a monumental disaster,” he said. “We developed an addiction. It was an addiction to drug war thinking, drug war ideology and drug war policies.”
Acknowledging a personal interest in the issue, Nadelmann said, “I’ve been an occasional marijuana consumer for the last 40 years.”
Also testifying was David Murray, a former staffer in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George W. Bush’s administration.
Arguing passionately with Nadelmann about what he sees as the country’s dangerous move toward marijuana legalization, Murray called his fight a “battle for the brains of a new generation.”
In written testimony for the committee, Murray slammed the Obama administration’s approach of generally respecting state marijuana laws.
“Instead of effective drug control, we have witnessed at the state level, for the last several years, widespread efforts at decriminalization or outright legalization of drugs. These efforts were not countered by the Administration, which even declined to challenge them in court, and they have proven counterproductive against multiple drug control objectives,” he wrote. “The Obama Administration’s support for legal marijuana could well be reflected in these sharp increases in marijuana use.”
Beyond marijuana, the hearing touched on broader drug policy issues such as supervised consumption sites for injection drug users, prescription drug abuse and lessons learned from a public health approach to tobacco use.
Johnson said that the committee would soon issue a “data-driven” report on the issues raised at the session.
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