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Support for legalizing marijuana gaining ground rapidly

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"I've been thrown out of the ONDCP many times," St. Pierre said. "Never invited to actually participate."

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Anti-drug advocates counter with surveys showing high school students nationwide already are more likely to smoke marijuana than tobacco -- and that the five states with the highest rate of adolescent pot use permit medical marijuana.

"We are in the prevention business," said Arthur Dean, chairman of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. "Kids are getting the message tobacco's harmful, and they're not getting the message marijuana is."

In Los Angeles, city officials are dealing with elements of public backlash after more than 1,000 medical marijuana dispensaries opened, some employing in-house physicians to dispense legal permission to virtually all comers. The boom town atmosphere brought complaints from some neighbors, but little of the crime associated with underground drug-dealing.

Advocates cite the latter as evidence that, as with alcohol, violence associated with the marijuana trade flows from its prohibition.

"Seriously," said Bruce Merkin, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group based in the District, "there is a reason you don't have Mexican beer cartels planting fields of hops in the California forests."

But the controversy over the dispensaries also has put pressure on advocates who specifically champion access for ailing patients, not just those who champion easing marijuana laws.

"I don't want to say we keep arm's length from the other groups. You end up with all of us in the same room," said Joe Elford, counsel for Americans for Safe Access, which has led the court battle for medical marijuana and is squaring off with the Los Angeles City Council. "It's a very broad-based movement."


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