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Senior Correspondent

America’s prohibition on alcohol lasted 13 years — 5,071 days to be exact. It bred corruption, inspired contempt for the law among millions, and produced Al Capone. Prohibition did not keep Americans from drinking. America’s prohibition on marijuana, now in its 76th year, helped the U.S. prison population grow into the world’s largest. It did not keep Americans from using marijuana.

Marijuana is an important front in the “war on drugs” declared by Richard Nixon on June 17, 1971. Since then, seven successive administrations have spent billions upon billions on eradicating drug crops abroad, blocking shipments at the country’s borders, and enforcing tough drug laws at home. They failed to curb demand or throttle supplies. Critics complained that unchanging strategies brought to mind Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

But over the past decade, a steadily growing number of Americans began having second thoughts on the war on drugs in general and the prohibition on marijuana in particular. In April a survey by the Pew Research Center showed that for the first time in more than 40 years, a majority of Americans favored legalizing marijuana, thought it had legitimate medical uses, and held that government efforts to enforce marijuana were not worth the cost.

Public opinion on the issue has had little impact on federal drug policies in the past. But in August, America’s top law enforcement official, Eric Holder, surprised the annual meeting of the American Bar Association with a call for a new approach on dealing with drug offenders. “We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes,” the attorney general said. “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”

Tough legislation led to an increase of almost 800 percent in the number of Americans in federal prisons, he added, and almost half of them were behind bars for drug-related crimes. Inflexible sentencing statutes were part of the reason why the United States, with five percent of the world’s population, holds almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Now, federal prosecutors have instructions to stop charging low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that carry “draconian mandatory minimum sentences.”

Criminal justice experts and advocates for drug reforms have cited America’s prison statistics for years to bolster the argument that the system has gone wrong. Their expressions of alarm have tended to fall on deaf official ears and it remains to be seen how aggressively Holder’s new policy will be implemented. But it has prompted predictions of change in deed rather than just word.

“You know a transformational moment has arrived when the attorney general of the United States makes a highly anticipated speech on a politically combustible topic and there is virtually no opposition to be heard,” said an editorial in the New York Times.

The long-running debate over the drug war has taken place against the background of public attitudes that have changed faster than those of Washington policy-makers, most of all where marijuana, America’s (and the world’s) most widely-used illicit drug, is concerned. One of the biggest stumbling blocks on the road to national reform has been a 1970 law, the Controlled Substances Act. It lists marijuana as one of four drugs classified as “most dangerous (and) with no accepted medical use.” (The others are heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote.)

That brings 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia in conflict with federal law. These states have all enacted laws that allow the use of marijuana for a variety of medical conditions, from glaucoma and nausea to pain relief and movement disorders. Two of the states, Washington and Colorado, have also legalized the use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

On several occasions the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has raided marijuana dispensaries in states where they are legal, insisting that it has an obligation to uphold federal law under which marijuana is as dangerous as heroin. The latest such raid took place in Washington State just two weeks before Holder outlined his new approach on the war on drugs.

Could the federal-state contradiction lead to a return to past “the-tougher-the-better” attitudes under a new attorney general?

Not likely, according to a report by the Brookings Institute, a middle-of-the-road Washington think tank. It noted that in less than a decade, public opinion had shifted dramatically toward support for the legalization of marijuana. “Demographic change and widespread public experience using marijuana imply that opposition to legalization will never again return to the levels seen in the 1980s.”

Allen St. Pierre, who heads the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has a more bullish outlook for the future: “Marijuana legalization is no longer a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”

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