By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009
The same day they rejected a gay marriage ballot measure, residents of Maine voted overwhelmingly to allow the sale of medical marijuana over the counter at state-licensed dispensaries.
Later in the month, the American Medical Association reversed a longtime position and urged the federal government to remove marijuana from Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act, which equates it with heroin.
A few days later, advocates for easing marijuana laws left their biannual strategy conference with plans to press ahead on all fronts -- state law, ballot measures, and court -- in a movement that for the first time in decades appeared to be gaining ground.
"This issue is breaking out in a remarkably rapid way now," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Public opinion is changing very, very rapidly."
The shift is widely described as generational. A Gallup poll in October found 44 percent of Americans favor full legalization of marijuana -- a rise of 13 points since 2000. Gallup said that if public support continues growing at a rate of 1 to 2 percent per year, "the majority of Americans could favor legalization of the drug in as little as four years."
A 53 percent majority already does so in the West, according to the survey. The finding heartens advocates collecting signatures to put the question of legalization before California voters in a 2010 initiative.
At last week's International Drug Reform Conference, activists gamed specific proposals for taxing and regulating pot along the lines of cigarettes and alcohol, as a bill pending in the California Legislature would do. The measure is not expected to pass, but in urging its serious debate, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) gave credence to a potential revenue source that the state's tax chief said could raise $1.3 billion in the recession, which advocates describe as a boon.
There were also tips on lobbying state legislatures, where measures decriminalizing possession of small amounts have passed in 14 states. Activists predict half of states will have laws allowing possession for medical purposes in the near future.
Interest in medical marijuana and easing other marijuana laws picked up markedly about 18 months ago, but advocates say the biggest surge came with the election of Barack Obama, the third straight president to acknowledge having smoked marijuana, and the first to regard it with anything like nonchalance.
"As a kid, I inhaled," Barack Obama famously said on the campaign. "That was the whole point."
In office, Obama made good on a promise to halt federal prosecutions of medical marijuana use where permitted by state law. That has recalibrated the federal attitude, which had been consistently hostile to marijuana since the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon cast aside the recommendations of a presidential commission arguing against lumping pot with hard drugs.
Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he was astonished recently to be invited to contribute thoughts to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, was police chief in Seattle, where voters officially made enforcement of marijuana laws the lowest priority.
"I've been thrown out of the ONDCP many times," St. Pierre said. "Never invited to actually participate."
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."