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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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Saturdays are girlfriend days, a chance to leave the kids with dad for soccer class, baseball practice and live video lunches with their Chinese SkypePals. "We get a tasty treat. We relax. We shop," Leopards said. "A few hours later, the buzz is gone, and we go home to our screaming kids."

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Kronbon hears Leopards's story and smiles. "This is what we wanted all along: a place where people could just slow down, really slow down. Do you need a little THC sometimes to accomplish that? Yes, in this day and age, with tweets and Blingos and Crisps, I guess we do."

While this is Kronbon's first cafe, it's not his first pot business. When medical marijuana was legalized in California, he ran a delivery service for sick customers--and, he now admits, "a few" customers who were not exactly ill. When pot became legal, Kronbon turned a cigar-rolling service into a joint-rolling business. He did birthday parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs--for the adults, of course--even a funeral. "The deceased had been a big pot smoker before it became legal," Kronbon said. "His parents thought he would appreciate his family friends getting a little high--legally--in honor of him."

When pot became legal in the District, Kronbon thought it would be the perfect place for his first foray into the cafe business. "People had money there, there were some good high-end neighborhoods, and it was the nation's capital -- it all clicked," he said. Having never branded a big business, Kronbon hired a Web 2.0 consulting company called JESS3, whose founder, Jesse Thomas, settled on the name Hypothesis after considering Lift, High Candy, Buds, Zoned and Stoked.

"'Hypothesis' suggested possibility, ideas," Thomas said. "Plus, it had the word 'pot' in it. We all liked that."

Hypothesis marketed its launch with two popular Web commercials. In one, designed to calm stressed-out viewers, the wind rolls off the Northern California coast toward a small forest of marijuana plants. "The subtle white noise of the wind rustling through the plants can actually reduce blood pressure," Thomas said.

The evolution of marijuana slang from 1970 to 2020 is striking. Out: dime bags, blunts. Still in: weed, high. Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, said in an interview that once marijuana was legalized, words describing the underground pot culture quickly vanished from the common vernacular. "You won't be buying in the form of dime bags anymore, so that will probably vanish," he said.

Little nostalgia remains for the days of dime bags. Pot merchants say the aboveboard business is profitable, though not as lavishly so as the illegal trade. What retailers have gained in security, they have lost in price. A decade ago, an ounce of high-grade sinsemilla cost at least $300. At that price, a pot-laced smoothie at Hypothesis would have run about $15 in 2010. After California legalized pot and production increased, prices dropped, at first slowly and then, as the legalization movement caught fire, rapidly, landing at about $40 an ounce--before taxes. Most states, including the District, add a $50-per-ounce excise tax on marijuana, which businesses pass on to consumers. Now, that pot smoothie runs about $7. A bag of take-home weed goes for about the same price as a nice bottle of wine.

"We're profitable," Kronbon said. "And the world hasn't come to an end."

***

There is still controversy around marijuana nationally. Critics--and even many proponents--are not thrilled to see big tobacco companies weighing a massive move into the industry. While tobacco firms publicly have so far steered clear of cannabis, perhaps fearing even greater government scrutiny of their industry, several executives from one cigarette company left last year to start a pot-growing venture on retired tobacco fields in North Carolina. The venture, NextPlant, has already partnered with major oil companies to sell marijuana cigarettes at gas and electricity stations around the country.

Both sides in the legalization debate fear that big tobacco's entrance would force prices to fall even lower, causing consumption to skyrocket and making it easier for underage kids to buy the drug. Critics also fear that tobacco companies might gradually increase THC levels in their products to hook users, perhaps causing new damage to the brain.

For now, consumption has settled in at 13 percent of the population nationwide--about where it was in the counterculture days of the 1970s, though well above pre-legalization levels of about 6 percent in 2008, according to federal drug use statistics. Roughly 1 in 10 pot users became addicted in the era before legalization, in the first decade of the century, compared with 1 in 7 alcohol users who developed a dependency, according to addiction experts. Health officials are waiting for new studies to measure the impact of legalization on pot dependency.

Proponents of marijuana legalization have threatened to try to block the tobacco giants. But if they fail, they want the government to require big tobacco to fund education and treatment centers for pot addiction -- a noticeably increasing problem. Roughly 4 percent of marijuana users require treatment after losing their jobs or racking up too many driving-under-the-influence offenses. A new drug to battle withdrawal symptoms was recently approved in Europe and is headed to the United States, offering the potential to cut rehab time in half.

As Ohio and other states ask their voters to make a choice on marijuana, the decades-old debate over coast-to-coast legalization shows signs of becoming a central focus in the 2024 presidential campaign. Hillary Rodham Clinton, again seeking her party's nomination, may back legalization as a way to win over libertarian-minded voters who still think of her as a big-government Democrat, even after her stint as chairman of the board at the American Enterprise Institute. Clinton's opponents have already produced Web ads featuring clips of her husband's famous line from the 1990s: "I didn't inhale, and I didn't try it again."

Ohio gets its say in seven days.

Michael S. Rosenwald is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at rosenwaldm@washpost.com.


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