Backers of a new initiative to end the federal prohibition on marijuana today made the case that a "silenced majority" of Americans are "beginning to rise up" to express their support for ending what they say has been a failed war on marijuana.
The campaign, "Just Say Now," is a joint effort by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the progressive website FireDogLake, and the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The organizations are circulating a petition online and on college campuses asking President Obama to end the federal ban on using the drug.
The petition, they say, will help them identify supporters and drive turnout in the five states where marijuana initiatives are on the ballot -- Arizona, Oregon, California, Colorado and South Dakota. Supporters who don't live in those states will be encouraged to make phone calls in an effort to improve the chances of those initiatives passing.
"The war on marijuana is a failure. The government wastes billions of dollars fighting drug cartels that thrive on marijuana prohibition. Thousands of people are killed, police officers lives' are put in risk, and taxpayer dollars are wasted for nothing," the petition says. "With states on the verge of legalizing marijuana, it's time for a reality check. The federal government should drop its active opposition to marijuana legalization."
On a conference call with reporters, backers of the effort cast the issue as a moral one, lamenting the money spent on the drug war, the number of (disproportionately black and Latino) people jailed for marijuana use, and the violence that comes as a result of Mexican drug cartels who profit from marijuana trafficking.
LEAP's Neill Franklin, a 33-year police veteran, discussed friends who had been killed in the line of duty as well as children and families killed by drug dealers. "Every day that we wait, more people die," he said.
Aaron Houston, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said politicians "don't feel that it's safe to talk about" ending marijuana prohibition, even if they support it privately. But he said that the issue is popular on both the right and left, pointing to the Libertarian streak in Tea Party activists. Whichever party is "smart enough" to use the issue to their advantage, he argued, will benefit by embracing it now: "it's probably the biggest sleeper issue out there," he said.
Bruce Fein, Associate Deputy Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan, argued that there is "no reason why there needs to be a national marijuana policy." Fein said the matter should be left to the states, who could experiment to find the best regulation practices. He argued that the justification for federal regulation under the Constitution's commerce clause is a stretch.
Fein also called it "utter nonsense" to suggest that legalizing marijuana was a slippery slope to legalizing harder drugs.
"That's the same as saying if you're in favor of same sex marriage you're in favor of polygamy," he said. Our ability to draw the necessary lines, he said, is "why we have a brain."
The drug war, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper added, "does far more harm than good." He said that while most police are not corrupt, some confiscate marijuana and use it themselves or create a sales operation to profit from it. He also argued that fears of speaking out on the issue "are dissipating."
FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher stressed that the initiative wouldn't end after the midterm elections. She said backers of the effort will try to influence presidential candidates in the 2012 presidential election and work to get statewide initiatives on the ballot in that election cycle as well.
In California, she said, turnout is the key to the marijuana legalization measure passing, and "that turnout campaign is pretty much generational." If the campaign can motivate young voters, she argued, the initiative has a greater chance of passage.
According to Just Say Now, there were nearly 800,000 marijuana arrests in 2007, more than the number of arrests for violent crime. The group pointed to a report authored by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron that says legalization and regulation of marijuana could generate $40 billion a year in tax revenue.
The group said America has 25 percent of the world's prisoners despite having 5 percent of the population, with the prison population quadrupling since the drug war began in 1984. The name "Just Say Now" is a play on the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign that began in the 1980s.
An April CBS News poll found a slim majority of Americans