Seattle recently held its annual marijuana celebration, aka Hempfest, replete with colorful characters and events like the bags of Doritos (with pot-smoking instructions) handed out by police, numerous tie-dyed shirt shops and burrito vendors as well as the sweet smell of success from the public ballot initiative that de-criminalized recreational pot use in Washington state.
“The whole world is watching!” shouted Vivian McPeak to the crowd last weekend. McPeak, the organizer of Hempfest and a long-time activist for legalizing marijuana, might have been accused of hyperbole had he said this last year. But this year certainly, it’s not an overstatement.
“I’ve been working with the government of Uruguay on their move toward legalization of cannabis,” said Alison Holcomb, the attorney from the Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union who helped draft Initiative 502 that last fall de-criminalized recreational use of small amounts of marijuana.
“Uruguay’s President José Mujica favors this approach as a means to undermine narco-trafficking and the violent criminal organizations who now benefit from it being illegal.”
Holcomb, who doesn’t use marijuana and spoke at Hempfest accompanied by her young son Dashiell, has traveled a lot since Washington voters approved extending the earlier legalized use of medical marijuana by making personal, recreational use legal as well (at least according to state law). Holcomb was the leader of this initiative, but not because she necessarily favors use of marijuana.
She got into this by first legally defending marijuana users or producers many years ago because she saw it as a matter of global justice. The so-called War on Drugs, which after half a century of implementation is by most accounts a failure, has led to a massive increase in the U.S. prison population as well as widespread instability and violence in many Latin American countries.
Rather than defend against such damaging policies, Holcomb eventually decided to help change the law.
Now, with the states of Washington and Colorado directly challenging the U.S. government on its aggressive prohibition stance that legally defines marijuana as akin to cocaine or heroin, many nations – especially in Latin America – are emboldened to challenge it as well.
“The bottom line is that globally everyone is looking at the United States as a leader of drug policy,” Holcomb said. “Most Latin American countries see the US approach to drug enforcement as very damaging to them. But they also want to have a good relationship with the United States and have been reluctant to adopt a stance that conflicts with US drug policy.”
“With the passage of these laws in Washington and Colorado, the situation has changed significantly,” she said. “How can the US government hit another country with economic sanctions if the American people very specifically and dramatically called into question the validity of the US drug policy?”
As a result, Holcomb has been flooded with calls and emails asking for her assistance in a number of countries. In addition to Uruguay moving toward legalization, she said there are active discussions about this in Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere. Even the Netherlands with its ‘coffee shops’ is considering broader relaxations on drug use because of the votes in Washington and Colorado.
Though legalization of drugs has not tended to be a major priority for the humanitarian community, Holcomb believes it should be.
“I actually think this is primarily a humanitarian issue,” she said. No matter what anyone may think about marijuana use, Holcomb said, there’s little evidence that criminalizing it has put a dent in abuse of the drug. Rather, she said, all the evidence points to the failure of the War on Drugs to curb drug use and its success in fomenting criminal — frequently stunningly violent criminal — activity on a massive scale.
“I’ve received calls from all over the world but the one that had the most impact on me was an anonymous call from a man with a Mexican accent,” Holcomb said. “He had a family member killed because of the illegal drug trade and he wanted to thank me for what we’re doing up here to change things. He said what you have done in Washington is going to change the world. Thank you.”