Monday, January 27, 2014
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new front-page New York Times article, which is headlined "Cannabis Legal, Localities Begin to Just Say No." Here is how the article gets started:
The momentum toward legalized marijuana might seem like an inevitable tide, with states from Florida to New York considering easing laws for medical use, and a full-blown recreational industry rapidly emerging in Colorado and here in Washington State.
But across the country, resistance to legal marijuana is also rising, with an increasing number of towns and counties moving to ban legal sales. The efforts, still largely local, have been fueled by the opening, or imminent opening, of retail marijuana stores here and in Colorado, as well as by recent legal opinions that have supported such bans in some states.
At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues from marijuana sales — promised by legalization’s supporters and now eagerly anticipated by state governments — that could be sharply reduced if local efforts to ban such sales expand.
But the fight also signals a larger battle over the future of legal marijuana: whether it will be a national industry providing near-universal access, or a patchwork system with isolated islands of mainly urban sales. To some partisans, the debate has echoes to the post-Prohibition era, when “dry towns” emerged in some states in response to legalized alcohol. “At some point we have to put some boundaries,” said Rosetta Horne, a nondenominational Christian church minister here in Yakima, at a public hearing on Tuesday night where she urged the City Council to enact a permanent ban on marijuana businesses.
Though it seems strongest in more rural and conservative communities, the resistance has been surprisingly bipartisan. In states from Louisiana to Indiana that are discussing decriminalizing marijuana, Republican opponents of relaxing the drug laws are finding themselves loosely allied with Democratic skeptics. Voices in the Obama administration concerned about growing access have joined antidrug crusaders like Patrick J. Kennedy, a Democratic former United States representative from Rhode Island, who contends that the potential health risks of marijuana have not been adequately explored, especially for juveniles — and who has written and spoken widely about his own struggles with alcohol and prescription drugs.
“In some ways I think the best thing that could have happened to the anti-legalization movement was legalization, because I think it shows people the ugly side,” said Kevin A. Sabet, a former drug policy adviser to President Obama and the executive director and co-founder, with Mr. Kennedy, of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. The group, founded last year, supports removing criminal penalties for using marijuana, but opposes full legalization, and is working with local organizations around the nation to challenge legalization. “If legalization advocates just took a little bit more time and were not so obsessed with doing this at a thousand miles per hour,” he added, “it might be better. Instead, they are helping precipitate a backlash.”
In Washington, the Yakima County Commission has already said that it plans to ban marijuana businesses in the unincorporated areas outside Yakima city. Clark County, Washington, is considering a ban on recreational sales that would affect the huge marijuana market in Portland, Ore., just across the Columbia River. And the state’s second most populous county, Pierce, just south of Seattle, said last month it would bar recreational businesses from opening.
By my lights, I think everyone eager for the sound and sensible reform of modern marijuana laws and policies should be pleased if and when localities have authority and decide to preserve pot prohibition. If legalization ends up having all the benefits that reformers believe it will have, then over time localities are likely to ease any prohibitions they preserve now. And if local communities are initially inclined to assume the worst about the impact of reform, it would seem better that they get to continue to embrace pot prohibition as the modern reform experiment unfolds in more receptive communities.