Paul Armentano on Individual Liberty, NORML and Marijuana Legalization vs. Decriminalization

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The Daily Bell is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Paul Armentano

Daily Bell: Hi, Paul. Tell us why you’re involved in the push for marijuana legalization.

Paul Armentano: I believe that it is an inappropriate use of state power to infringe upon the liberties of an individual simply based upon what he or she puts in their body. And nowhere do I believe this infringement upon the individual’s liberty is more egregious than in situations involving the private consumption of marijuana by an adult. The government in this country has drawn an arbitrary line that says, on the one hand, we will allow adults to alter their moods by ingesting certain substances like alcohol and, in fact, we celebrate the ingestion of alcohol, while on the other hand, this same government says that we will stigmatize and criminalize those who choose to ingest a less dangerous substance like cannabis.

Ultimately, it’s my belief that the criminalization of cannabis is a disproportionate response to what is, at worst, a public health issue but not a criminal justice issue.

Daily Bell: NORML calls for the legalization of marijuana as opposed to decriminalization. Explain the difference between legalization and decriminalization, and why NORML takes the stance it does.

Paul Armentano: Decriminalization is a public policy in which the individual cannabis user no longer runs afoul with the criminal justice system, but whereby the cannabis itself remains contraband and whereby all of the market forces that exist to produce and distribute said cannabis also remain classified under the law as criminal activity and those who engage in such activities are still subject to criminal arrest, prosecution and incarceration. So while decriminalization mitigates penalties for the individual user, it keeps penalties in place for everybody else. And more importantly, it maintains in place the black market environment that largely opens the doors to criminal entrepreneurs rather than licensed, regulated businesses.

Legalization, by contrast, reclassifies cannabis as a legal commodity and its responsible adult consumption is defined under the law as legal activity. It provides an opportunity to bring regulations to the cannabis market by allowing for licensed producers and licensed retailers, and it allows for society to regulate who uses cannabis, and at what age and where they use cannabis. Further, it allows for oversight regarding who sells cannabis, how we label the product and how we target and prosecute those who violate these regulations.

Daily Bell: How would you respond to those who are concerned about a potential increase in minors’ use of cannabis if it is legalized?

Paul Armentano: In a legal, regulated market there will exist age restrictions that will limit the ability of minors to consume cannabis and that will limit minors’ access to cannabis. Will the imposition of and enforcement of age restrictions altogether eliminate minors’ use and access of cannabis? Arguably, they will not. But such a system is likely to provide better protections and better restrictions regarding young people’s use of cannabis than the blanket system of prohibition that we have now.

Right now in America, young people’s use of two legal intoxicants – alcohol and tobacco – is at historic lows. We have not significantly reduced young people’s use of these two potentially deadly intoxicants by criminalizing and incarcerating adults who use those substances responsibly. We have driven down young people’s use of these substances via the imposition of common sense regulations, by public education, and by imposing penalties on those retailers who engage in breaking the law by trying to clandestinely sell to young people.

If these principles have worked successfully to drive down young people’s use and change young people’s attitudes in regards to the use of alcohol and tobacco, then why would we not impose those same tried and true principles in regard to cannabis?

Daily Bell: What is NORML’s position concerning the legalization of medical marijuana only, which is happening in many states, versus the full legalization of marijuana?

Paul Armentano: NORML believes that an adult has the right to use cannabis in private for his or her own personal use regardless of what their motivation for that use is. In other words, whether one wants to use cannabis recreationally, spiritually or therapeutically, NORML supports an adult to be able to engage in that behavior responsibly without running afoul of criminal or civil penalties. Further, in regards to the therapeutic use of cannabis, the only circumstance under which the broad therapeutic utility of cannabis can fully be realized, and the only circumstance under which the greatest number of patients who would therapeutically benefit from cannabis will have open access to the plant, is through a broad system of legalization rather than a more limited system of medicalization.

Daily Bell: It appears marijuana legalization is exploding now in the US and worldwide. How fast are things moving in the US?

Paul Armentano: I believe that the reason we’re seeing changes in public opinion, and to some degree changes in the law, happening with somewhat exponential speed is because the foundation for cannabis prohibition was based on primarily upon smoke and mirrors, lies and rhetoric. Since there was no substantive or rational basis for imposing cannabis prohibition in the first place, we are now seeing, for the first time, that as some cracks begin to appear in this foundation, the entire public policy itself is very quickly unraveling.

Daily Bell: How greatly do you think the Internet has contributed to this understanding, particularly considering NORML’S history, beginning in 1970, through today?

Paul Armentano: The Internet has contributed significantly. For decades, largely the sole source of information in regards to cannabis came from biased sources: it came from either state or federal government officials or it came from law enforcement. The Internet allowed other voices to enter this conversation and it allowed the public for the first time to have ready access to objective scientific information in regards to cannabis that countered the federal government’s narrative.

Daily Bell: Is it possible, or likely, that the federal US government will pass a single law legalizing marijuana?

Paul Armentano: I don’t believe so and this is why: I think what we are witnessing now in regards to various states experimenting with alternatives to marijuana prohibition is very similar to what this country experienced nearly a century ago with the fall of alcohol prohibition. Alcohol prohibition was ended in this country when a handful of states, beginning with New York in 1923, decided that they were no longer going to mimic the federal government’s policy of prohibiting alcohol production and alcohol consumption. When a number of additional states followed suit, the federal government had a pivotal choice to make. They could have chosen to go into those states and to use the full power of the federal government and its law enforcement mechanisms to essentially federalize what had previously been state criminal behavior, but they chose not to do so. They chose not to use their federal resources, federal powers, and political clout to impose a federal policy that at the state level had significantly lost popularity.

Rather, the federal government decided to leave the issue of alcohol regulation up to the individual states. When the federal government lifted alcohol prohibition it did not mandate that states legalize alcohol. The federal government simply said ‘We’re getting out of the way and it’s up to the government of each individual state to decide whether they want to legalize alcohol and, if so, how they want to regulate alcohol, or if they want to maintain prohibition and criminal the consumption of alcohol.’ That’s why in the United States we have 50 states with 50 very different state specific laws in regards to alcohol consumption, sales and production.

What we are seeing now is a very similar situation. We have nearly two dozen states that have enacted their own policies with regards to the medical uses of marijuana and two states that are experimenting with state specific laws regarding the licensed production and retail sale of marijuana for recreational purposes. And just as in the 1930s the federal government had to make a decision regarding whether they wanted to try and impose their will upon the states in regards to alcohol prohibition or whether they simply wanted to grant the states the choice to make their own decisions, the federal government is in a similar quandary today in regards to marijuana policy. Like the federal government decided many years ago to allow states to go forward and experiment with their own regulatory policies in regards to alcohol, I believe the federal government is ultimately in the future going to make a similar decision in regards to cannabis. It will similarly decide that this is an issue best left to be determined by individual state governments and not the United States federal government.

Daily Bell: It would seem the most significant news right now is that the US House voted recently to pass an appropriations bill amendment restricting federal interference, specifically by the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration, with the rights of individuals in states with state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs. What happens next?

Paul Armentano: This is the first step in what is a multi-step legislative process. The House has signed off on a specific amendment to broader legislation that seeks to limit the federal government’s power to interfere in states’ ability to enact medical marijuana distribution programs. Now we’re going to see what the Senate does. If the Senate does or doesn’t sign off on it, the legislation is still going to have to get through conference committee and if it gets through that, then it goes to the president’s desk.

Daily Bell: The amendment’s language is very specific as to what funds the agencies can not use to interfere – those made available in this particular bill. Will they try to find a work-around, to find ways to use other funds to continue their anti-marijuana efforts?

Paul Armentano: Were this provision to become law I believe that it is unlikely that we will see the Obama Justice Department try to clandestinely use funds for purposes that are not expressed in this amendment. If this amendment becomes law, it will create a very different federal climate than the one we have now.

Daily Bell: Given that there are more steps needed before this becomes official policy, how significant is this House action?

Paul Armentano: The House vote is significant because it marks one of the first times since Congress first enacted marijuana prohibition in 1937 where a majority of a governing body of the US government has moved to significantly amend marijuana policy. The federal government in this country has rarely led on marijuana policy. It has almost always followed the lead of the states. In fact, when the federal government first prohibited marijuana in 1937, it only did so after the majority of US states had already enacted similar prohibitions.

Today, we see a very similar tale unfolding: the states are leading the charge for rational and sensible marijuana policies, not Washington DC. Washington DC is once again following the lead of those outside the beltway. The reason this House vote is so significant is because it marks one of the first times in recent memory when the federal government has assessed the changing political climate in regards to marijuana and opted to view marijuana law reform as a political opportunity rather than as a political liability.

Daily Bell: From the perspective of individuals within the federal government, is it perhaps simply a utilitarian decision to go in this direction, following the states’ policies?

Paul Armentano: It’s hard for me to purport to speak to the mindset of elected Washington, DC officials, a majority of whom continue to this day to maintain a federal policy that classifies cannabis as a substance with no accepted medical utility and one that possesses a level of harm that is equal to heroin. I think you would be hard pressed to find a majority of people anywhere else in this country aside from a majority of the 535 elected officials in Washington, DC who support and believe that is a proper classification of cannabis. So asking me to try and interpret or comment upon the mindset of these people in regards to their positions on cannabis is very difficult to do when their longstanding position seems to be completely out of touch with the existing scientific record and with the views of the majority of their own constituents.

Daily Bell: Do you foresee any legal challenges being brought in response to legalization bills?

Paul Armentano: The present administration has made it clear that they will opt not to legally challenge, nor will they interfere with, the implementation of marijuana legalization laws as long as those laws are done in a way that the federal government does not believe will lead to the diversion of marijuana to neighboring states or that will allow for the rise of criminal elements within a regulated marijuana market. So, for now, we advocates are taking the federal government at their word. We also have the responsibility to see that these nascent and emerging state regulatory programs are, in fact, enacted and carried out in such a way where they are aligned with the federal government’s priorities and with their guidelines.

The potential issue down the road, in my opinion, is not so much whether states will be able to implement a safe and responsible regulatory cannabis production and retail distribution system. My concern is that a new administration could come into power in the future and it could, with the stroke of a pen, nullify the Obama administration’s guidelines and establish their own guidelines, which may be very different and may, in fact, allow very little if any wiggle room for such state policies to exist in conflict with federal prohibition.

Daily Bell: Is this a bipartisan issue? Are Democrats more in favor of relaxing marijuana laws than Republicans?

Paul Armentano: For decades, both parties, Republican and Democrat, worked in concert with one another to ramp up criminal penalties for those who possessed and ingested certain substances, including marijuana. However, in recent years, more Democrats than Republicans have come forward to assist efforts to amend marijuana policy. But we still do not consistently find a majority of members of either party that is willing to use their political clout to stand up for the rights of those individual who choose to use cannabis in lieu of either prescription medications or in lieu of alcohol.

Daily Bell: Do you expect this policy to act as a precedent for other federal change? Are there other bills pending?

Paul Armentano: For marijuana law reform to take place and to flourish in this country there has to be changes in law that are made at the federal level. Arguably, the most important of these changes would be the descheduling of cannabis under federal law so that it no longer classifies as a Schedule I prohibited substance. Were cannabis to be removed from the federal Controlled Substances Act then states would be free to, without federal interference, establish a wide variety of regulatory and licensing options in regards to the production, distribution and taxation of marijuana. Without such a change at the federal level, at best all we can realistically hope for is that federal officials continue to look the other way while these statewide experiments take place.

Ultimately, the federal government, regardless of which administration is in power, needs to amend federal law not simply amend guidance memos, which is what’s happening now.

Daily Bell: What needs to happen to bring about descheduling of cannabis?

Paul Armentano: Descheduling can be done in a number of different ways. The president could deschedule marijuana by executive order. More conventionally, the power to deschedule or reschedule any substance in this country lies with the United States Attorney General. In practice, however, that power has been designated to representatives at the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and at the United States Health and Human Services Administration.

However, Congress, which is the legislative branch in this country, also possesses the authority to enact, repeal or amend drug policies and they also have the power to reclassify cannabis if they choose to do so. So ultimately, we have multiple agencies and multiple branches of the federal government that all have the ability, if they wish to do so, to significantly amend and/or repeal existing federal marijuana policies. And within those powers, they also possess the ability to reschedule or deschedule cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.

Daily Bell: Is that the ultimate goal of NORML?

Paul Armentano: NORML’s mission is to move forward public opinion to the point where we can amend public policy so that an adult no longer faces civil or criminal penalties for the use of marijuana in private. Our ultimate goal is to see a regulated environment where cannabis is no longer considered contraband and, instead, cannabis production, distribution and consumption is codified as legal and regulated behavior.

Daily Bell: Looking at the home page of NORML , we see articles discussing changes on medical and recreational marijuana coming about in a multitude of states. Please give us a summary, highlighting the states in which the most significant pending actions are happening.

Paul Armentano: Later this year we expect voters in at least two states, Alaska and Oregon, to go to the ballot box and decide – just as voters in 2012 in Colorado and Washington decided – to legalize and regulate the adult use of marijuana. We expect in 2016 that voters in several additional states including California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine to similarly decide whether they want to continue with America’s failed marijuana prohibition or whether they want to replace it with a system of legalization and regulation.

So we foresee in the very near future a potential climate where many states are directly challenging the federal prohibition by experimenting with regulatory systems that legalize, license, regulate and tax the commercial production and retail distribution of cannabis to those who are 21 and older.

Daily Bell: Give us a sense of where Canada is. Do you see it as moving faster than the US?

Paul Armentano: That’s an interesting question. Certainly in regards to embracing and acknowledging the medical utility of marijuana, Canada has been well ahead of the United States. While Health Canada was developing a program to allow qualified patients legally to access marijuana as a medicine and, for many years, to provide them with that medicine the US government was maintaining that cannabis had no accepted medical utility and that it was so dangerous for human use that it could not even be used safely within a supervised routine of medical care, like in a hospital. The US government was spending millions of taxpayer dollars to raid, shut down and arrest those proprietors who were providing and distributing marijuana to patients in compliance with state laws. So in that resect, Canada’s policy towards medical marijuana seems far more progressive and far more in accordance with reality than anything that has taken place in the United States at the federal level.

At the same time, it appears that the broader discussion in regards to the notion of allowing anyone of a certain age to use cannabis legally for any purpose, that discussion, from my perspective, seems to be moving ahead more quickly in this country and in certain other places around the world, like in South America, than seems to be happening at the moment in Canada. But again, that’s simply my opinion as an outsider looking in.

Daily Bell: How about the rest of the world? What legalization or decriminalization initiatives do you see underway in other countries? In particular, what are your thoughts on the recent legalization in Uruguay and the regulations being put into place there?

Paul Armentano: I think that many of these changes are intertwined because I don’t think that you would see other nations boldly experimenting with alternative cannabis regulatory regimes were it not for the fact that a handful of states in this country were moving forward in a manner that significantly challenged the federal prohibition of marijuana.

Daily Bell: Speak briefly to hemp production, if you would. Why are the laws on hemp suddenly changing, as well?

Paul Armentano: The laws specific to the production of hemp are changing at the state level for a very specific reason. That is because in February, legislation was enacted by Congress that allows for state-sponsored hemp cultivation programs to move forward without federal interference despite the fact that the federal government has not yet reclassified hemp as a legally distinct agricultural product from illegal cannabis. So for the first time in modern history the federal government has provided a green light and a road map for states that wish to, once again, become involved in overseeing and regulating the production of hemp as an agricultural commodity. And not surprisingly, in the months since that time several states have moved forward to impose state regulations that allow for the state sponsored production of hemp in a manner that is compliant with the new federal law.

Daily Bell: Is there anything dangerous about marijuana?

Paul Armentano: Marijuana is not an innocuous substance. It possesses mood-altering properties; it possesses compounds that can temporarily alter certain physiological behavior. For instance, it is not uncommon for more naive users to experience tachycardia as a result of their marijuana use. Marijuana use can impair psychomotor abilities temporarily. There are populations, such as those persons who are predisposed to or who have been previously diagnosed with certain mental illnesses, for which the use of cannabis may potentially exacerbate those conditions. So when we speak about marijuana it would be somewhat of a misnomer to say that marijuana is ‘safe’ if we were defining the term safe to mean without the possibility of harm.

But, of course, in a free society we allow the public to engage in numerous activities and behaviors that are not altogether free from potential risk. The question is not whether or not marijuana is harmless; the question is whether or not marijuana is safe relative to the standards that society already accepts for other adult activities. And by that definition, it is clear that the potential risks of cannabis do not warrant its present Schedule I classification as an illegal substance, and it is clear that marijuana’s potential risks do not warrant the loss of individual liberties to those individuals who choose to consume it in a responsible manner.

Daily Bell: Retired Supreme Court Justice Stevens recently said the feds should legalize marijuana. How much impact will his statement have?

Paul Armentano: It is hardly surprising to see a prominent former member of the US Supreme Court express these sort of sentiments. The reality is that, in fact, a majority of the public oppose the status quo – that is, marijuana when used for any purpose is a criminal offense and those who engage in it deserve to be arrested and potentially incarcerated.

Daily Bell: Turning to what the future potentially holds for marijuana, High Alert is financially partnered with Vida Cannabis, a medical marijuana entrepreneurial startup opening a production facility in Canada. Are marijuana businesses a good investment these days? What will the future hold for the success of such businesses?

Paul Armentano: The reality is that tens of millions of people in America use cannabis and continue to use cannabis despite decades of cannabis prohibition in this country. There has always been a market for marijuana. In many ways, it’s a product that, for decades, has literally sold itself. It is very likely that the marijuana-consuming public, like consumers of virtually any other product, will embrace the opportunity in the future to purchase their product of choice in a safe, clean and legal environment.

In other words, when the day comes that state and federal laws allow for the licensed production and commercial distribution of cannabis, it is likely that the majority of the cannabis consuming public will choose that legal, above-ground product over a black market, illicit product. And in that respect, there will be an opportunity for licensed entrepreneurs and businesses, and for the investors backing those entrepreneurs and businesses, to get in at the ground floor of what will certainly be a lucrative market that enjoys consistent high levels of public demand.

Daily Bell: Any other points you would like to make or literature you want to direct people to?

Paul Armentano: Certainly I would hope people would visit the NORML website if they wish to not only learn more about cannabis and get the facts and the public policy in regards to cannabis but also, and more importantly, if they want to get involved in their own liberation.

Daily Bell: Thanks for your time.

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Bell.

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