Bill Steigerwald

Arnold Schwarzenegger proved last week (May 5) he's not a girly-man when it comes to the debate over whether marijuana should be legalized and taxed in California.

Gov. Arnold called for a large-scale study of the consequences of legalizing pot for recreational use in California and suggested that the study might benefit from looking at the effects of drug legalization moves already made by European countries.

It's true that Schwarzenegger is a lame duck and that his politically daring call was driven largely by his bankrupt state's search for new sources of tax revenue.

But Arnold still earned high praise from drug-law reformer Ethan Nadelmann for doing what most politicians are too chicken to ever do - go on record as being in favor of honestly discussing the pros and cons of ending drug prohibition.

Nadelmann, who believes drug prohibition has failed miserably wherever it's been tried, is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (drugpolicy.org), which promotes alternatives to the federal government's failed war on drugs. I talked to him by phone May 8.

Q: Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger 's call for a debate about legalizing and taxing marijuana in California such a big deal?

A: Well, it's crucially important to have elected officials speaking out on any controversial subject in order to give it legitimacy. The fact of the matter is Arnold Schwarzenegger is a nationally recognized figure. He has a reasonable level of respect nationally. So when he says let's have a debate, let's see what the Europeans are doing, well, that's something that the media pays attention to.

Q: This talk about legalizing marijuana and taxing it - is it merely a result of the dire budget problems states are having?

A: That is the single most important thing driving it now. Why was alcohol prohibition repealed so quickly in the 1930s? People were pointing to the crime and the violence, the corruption, the violation of civil liberties, the disrespect for the law, the people dying from bad liquor - all those reasons were motivating people to call for repeal. But, ultimately, the first, second and third reasons were the Depression, the Depression, the Depression.

Similarly today, people are looking at the violence in Mexico, where marijuana is a major source of revenue for the drug gangs. There are a lot of things going on, but clearly it is the recession, the recession, the fear of depression that are the number 1, 2 and 3 reasons for somebody like Schwarzenegger .

Now mind you, it's all in a context: I don't think they would be calling for this if we had not seen a very significant jump in public support for taxing and legalizing marijuana. The numbers are now topping 40 percent nationally. They are approaching 50 percent nationally among Democrats and independents. They are over 50 percent among people under the age of 30. It's approaching or topping 50 percent in some Western states.

So there is now a political climate in which this argument is credible; and in which you have state legislators prepared to introduce bills; and in which you have state revenue commissioners prepared to say this would be a smart move from a revenue perspective.

Q: For those who don't know what your official position on U.S. drug policy is, please spell it out.

A: Basically it boils down to three elements. The first one is that we believe that we should move in a direction of treating marijuana more or less like alcohol. I know you hate the word "tax," but what we've generally found is that even among conservatives, "tax, regulate, control and educate" is really the motto that seems to be most appealing to most Americans.

Secondly, we basically believe that nobody should be punished for possessing a small amount of any drug simply for their own use, as long as they are not hurting anyone else, like getting behind the wheel of a car.

Thirdly, although my organization has an internal debate about whether to legalize or how far to go on the other drugs, our basic view is that we need a vigorous debate in this area and we need to move in the direction of taking as much of the drug market from the underground and bringing it above ground so it can be effectively regulated.

Q: The model being the way we changed from prohibiting alcohol?

A: With marijuana, that's clearly the model. If you look, for example, at what five countries in Europe and now Canada are doing, which is allowing heroin addicts to obtain their heroin from clinics, that's not really legalization, but it's poking a hole in prohibition. It is providing legal access to a drug that addicts would otherwise obtain illegally from the black market. I don't think we are likely to see a 21st Amendment repealing drug prohibition. I think it is going to be more of an incremental process where we find ways to remove more and more of this from the black market.

Q: If Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to learn from the Europeans, what will he find that would help him make a persuasive case for legalization?

A: The most persuasive evidence will come from the Netherlands. The Netherlands changed their law in 1976. Their sort of coffee-shop distribution system for cannabis evolved over a decade. Remember, the Dutch have not fully legalized cannabis. It's essentially legal at the retail level but it's still illegal at the wholesale side. But basically any adult who wants to buy cannabis -- by which I mean marijuana or hash -- can go into a coffee shop and buy it. If that coffee shop tries to sell them white powder stuff or sell to underage people, it'll be shut down by the authorities.

What they'll find is that the levels of cannabis use in The Netherlands, both among young people and others, is lower than it is in the United States. What they'll also find is that the percentage of young people who use cannabis and then go on to try quote-unquote "harder" drugs is less than it is in the United States. The Dutch can claim successfully that they have essentially segregated the cannabis market from the other drug markets. What they'll also find from is that the use of other quote-unquote "harder" drugs is dramatically lower than it is in the United States. Their problem with HIV AIDS among drug users and with overdose fatalities and even with the overall number of people using these drugs is dramatically lower than it is in the United States.

Q: What would Schwarzenegger find in Europe that would argue against the legalization of drugs in the United States?

A: The evidence you have from Europe is mostly not about legalization. It's mostly about decriminalization. The Netherlands is the one exception, where cannabis can basically be bought and sold openly in regulated shops. He would find evidence that when you rolled back the criminal law you don't all of the sudden have an explosion in drug use; you don't have all sorts of other problems. But what we don't yet have evidence of anywhere is what happens when you actually make it legal and treat it more or less like alcohol. The best case we can make is the fact that marijuana is already so widely available in the United States, and certainly in California, that making it legal is unlikely to increase the availability much.

That's especially true of young people. So often the war on drugs is justified as one great big quote-unquote "Child Protection Act." But in fact the evidence shows that adolescents routinely say that it is easier to buy marijuana than it is to buy alcohol; 80 percent of high school seniors say it is easy to get marijuana and that's been true for over 30 years, even as marijuana use rates have gone up and down. Making marijuana legal is not going to increase its availability to young people because it is already so pervasively available.

I think the principal impact of making marijuana legal would be to increase access to it among people in the older generations. And, quite frankly, if the result was that people drank less and used fewer pharmaceutical substances because they were smoking the occasional joint instead, that would be a net benefit to society from a public health perspective.

Q: In Europe are they taxing drugs like marijuana or heroin the way we tax alcohol?

A: No. The closest is The Netherlands, where the government has found innovative ways to insure that the people involved in selling cannabis in the coffee shops do pay some taxes. I should point out, however, that Switzerland did some very interesting studies of their heroin prescription projects, which is where drug addicts can come to a clinic and get heroin either for free or for like 10 francs per day. They found that even though these projects were fairly expensive to run, in part because there were so many regulations and codes and because they provided other services, there was a net savings to the government and the taxpayer because of the reduction in public health and criminal justice costs. So from a purely cost-benefit perspective, even a heroin-maintenance project proved to be a cost savings.

Q: Obviously, there are many people who disagree with you 180 degrees. What's the weakest part of your argument for legalization of drugs?

A: There is a range of areas where there is an empirical body of evidence. There is evidence about the relative harms of marijuana. There is evidence about the consequences of decriminalization. There is evidence about heroin maintenance. There is evidence about providing clean needles. There is evidence on this stuff where people can disagree, but the evidence is there. So disagreeing ceases to be about the substance, it's about something else.

The area where the evidence is not conclusive and where people can legitimately disagree, is what would be the consequences if you actually made not just marijuana but a whole range of other drugs more legally available? That is what I would call the "$64,000 Question" in the drug legalization debate. I believe -- as do millions of others, and not just libertarians -- that even if the drugs that are now illegal were to be made legal -- whether like alcohol or in some more restrictive way -- the increase in drug use would minimal, whereas the savings and the benefits in terms of the reduction of crime, violence, corruption and other things would be dramatic. But there are those people who believe that if we made these drugs legal you would see drug abuse increase tenfold. I'm convinced they are wrong, but I cannot prove they are wrong.

Q: How is President Obama's drug policy different from President Bush's?

A: In quite significant ways. First of all, he made a set of commitments when he was running for office and he appears more or less to be making good on them. He said that he was going to push for the repeal of the crack powder mandatory drug sentencing laws. The day after his inauguration it was up on his Web site and last week a high-level Justice department official said that was our official position. So they are moving in that direction.

He said that he was now going to support federal funding for needle exchange. The day after the inauguration that was up on the Web site but I have to say he went back on his word yesterday (May 7), when he introduced the federal budget and that ban was still in there. I think it's a little like the issue about gays in the military. He's made clear that he's going to do the right thing eventually, but he feels that he is not quite ready to do it yet politically.

Thirdly, he said he was going to remove the federal government from going after medical marijuana in those states that had made it legal. He appears to be moving in that direction as well. There are still some exceptions that are unsettling, but by and large Attorney General Holder said last month that that's the official policy of the government.

And he's talked about two broader themes, one of which is treating the drug issue more as a health issue than a criminal justice issue - changing the paradigm. And he's talked about no longer subordinating science to politics, which is of dramatic significance in the drug-policy area, where science has always been subordinated to politics.

And unlike Bush, who never admitted to his marijuana and cocaine use and had to be exposed by quote-unquote "old friends," Obama came right out early on saying he had smoked marijuana and even used cocaine. And when he was asked if he inhaled, his response was, "Sure. Wasn't that the point?" And, "Yeah, many times." So it's a different attitude and a level of frankness.

Q: Do you think Obama will be able to de-escalate America's long, bipartisan war on drugs in any significant way?

A: Yes, I think so, for a few reasons. The first thing is that the nature of the dialogue is changing. It's been true already for many years that 70-plus percent of Americans say that the war on drugs has failed. But there has been a lack of political leadership to reflect that public opinion. I think what is happening now is that the state budget deficits are really focusing people' minds.

I think that this may well be the first year in 40 years in which we see a reduction in the total number of people incarcerated in this country - mostly because of the budget issue. I think that we're also seeing a redefinition of quote-unquote "the problem" as we increasingly define the quote-unquote "problem" as the problem of over-incarceration or mass-incarceration in America. That's relatively new.

I think we are seeing interesting champions emerge. It's not just Schwarzenegger making the comment about marijuana. It's Senator Webb of Virginia saying that we need a national debate and that the over-incarceration is a disgrace and proposing a bill for an independent commission. It's surprising voices like the Attorney General of Arizona saying, "I don't support legalizing marijuana, but it's time for a debate." It's the El Paso city council. It's members of Congress who never before spoke out.

What we are seeing is that sort of fear, that self-censorship that has been so pervasive in drug policy for so many years, is beginning to fade. That's crucially important. I think at the state and the federal level we're going to see these harsh mandatory-minimum sentences being rolled back. I think we're going to see a much more pragmatic policy in terms of dealing with addiction and HIV and hepatitis C, which are the most deadly aspects of drugs.

The area where I am a little more pessimistic is whether or not the Obama administration we'll be open to a real debate about what to do about places like Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan, because we really do need to have that debate as well.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..