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The year is 2020: What's happening with marijuana?

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Californians will decide whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults over 21 on Nov. 2nd when they vote on Proposition 19.

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Hypothesis is one of dozens of marijuana businesses that have opened recently in the District, where pot can be purchased, in cigarette form, at gas stations on Capitol Hill.

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This is the dream tobacco companies have had since at least the 1970s, when consultants issued a secret report to Brown & Williamson touting a future product line in marijuana. "The use of marijuana today by 13 million Americans is socially the equivalent of the use of alcohol by some 100 million Americans," said the report, found among millions of documents turned over to plaintiffs during the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s. "It is the recreational drug; the choice of a significant minority of the population. The trend in liberalization of drug laws reflects the overall change in our value system. It also has important implications for the tobacco industry in terms of an alternative product line."

The tobacco companies, the report concluded, "have the land to grow it, the machines to roll it and package it, the distribution to market it. In fact, some firms have registered trademarks, which are taken directly from marijuana street jargon. These trade names are used currently on little-known legal products, but could be switched if and when marijuana is legalized. Estimates indicate that the market in legalized marijuana might be as high as $10 billion annually."

As voters back in Ohio join those in several other states weighing ballot measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use--potentially tipping the country to a majority of states with legal pot-- critics and supporters are focusing on the scene in the nation's capital one year after recreational pot was legalized.

Critics complain that office workers are getting stoned at lunch. Supporters reply that such behavior is no more prevalent than workers getting drunk at lunch. Critics say drivers high on pot are at least as dangerous as drunk drivers. Supporters counter that there is less violent crime on the streets now, and jails have more space for the truly dangerous. Critics: Shouldn't society reduce, not condone, the use of mind-altering drugs? Supporters: By levying the appropriate taxes, the government can collect more money for schools from marijuana than from the sale of lottery tickets.

"This fight has been playing out for years from California to Massachusetts to the capital of the free world, and now it's only natural the debate hits Ohio," said Mack Tajon, a professor of cannabis studies at Stanford's Cannabis Resource Center. "Both sides are probably right, which is why it's such a tricky subject. This is a long-running cultural war, and it really comes down to this: What would life be like in your neighborhood if pot was legal, and could you tolerate that?"

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How the country began embracing cannabis -- the term pot marketers prefer -- is a tale that begins a decade ago in California. The state was burdened by budget woes that forced then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to lay off thousands and cut government services. At the time, medical marijuana had been legal for 14 years, which made marijuana the biggest cash crop in an agriculture-rich state known previously as the country's salad bowl. California blossomed into America's weed yard.

Proponents of medical marijuana argued that full legalization could offset California's revenue shortage following the worst recession in U.S. history. Advocates for legalization called marijuana "safe." They pointed to long-term studies finding that although smoking pot certainly reduces a user's IQ while he or she is high, there is no evidence that occasional smokers suffer long-term diminution of their mental capacity, according to Leslie Iversen, a pharmacologist at Oxford and the author of "The Science of Marijuana." Most of the country's 858,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2009 were for simple possession, generally without any connection to violent crime, according to FBI data. And the National Institute on Drug Abuse concluded in 2006 that pot smoking alone does not cause lung cancer.

Voters ignored worries that marijuana would be a gateway drug to more harmful drugs, and concerns that more teenagers would take up pot.

Michael Baldinelli, a retired risk manager from Plymouth, Calif., summed up the feelings of many voters in 2010 when he told reporters back then that as a 58-year-old retired professional, "I've raised a family, and I've smoked pot all my life. Making it illegal just criminalizes normal behavior."

Even before legalization hit ballots around the country, the pot subculture had moved into the mainstream with admissions of use from political and business leaders, and Web sites featuring Google maps helping people find the best prices for pot.


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