By Michael S. Rosenwald
Sunday, October 31, 2010; W18
Social change rarely occurs in a logical direction or at a predictable pace. Many Americans thought rampant, open use of marijuana in the 1960s and '70s would lead quickly to legalization of the drug, but that didn't happen. To the contrary, enforcement of anti-pot laws increased in the 1980s, and penalties grew stiffer.
But over the past few years, as several states and now the District of Columbia have legalized use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, a path to full legalization for recreational use has once again seemed clear to advocates of legalization and skeptics alike. California voters' decision in a referendum Tuesday will play a large role in determining the momentum of the legalization movement.
To explore what that legalization might look like from the vantage point of a decade in the future, The Washington Post's Michael S. Rosenwald pored through reams of government, academic and corporate studies, and talked to experts on marijuana, drug legalization, Prohibition and marketing.
This, then, is a reported fantasy, a look at the State of Pot in America in 2020, based on research conducted in 2010. All sources marked in bold type are real, and their quotations and information are from reporting this fall. All sources in regular type are fictitious, but what they say is based on predictions from sociologists, criminologists, economists, marketers and entrepreneurs interviewed by The Post for this article.
The story takes the form of an article from a news organization in Cleveland that sent a reporter to Washington to see how the nation's capital was faring in November 2020, as Ohio and several other states prepared to vote on whether to legalize recreational marijuana use.
By Alex DeLarge
Cleveland Times Staff
Washington D.C. (Nov. 1, 2020) -- In the capital's chic Georgetown neighborhood, where nearby university students beam messages to one another's iFaces while buzzing to class on single-engine jet packs, people used to line up for cupcakes. A decade ago, people waited for hours outside Georgetown Cupcakes for $3-a-pop munchies tucked neatly into pink boxes. They especially craved the red velvets. The cupcake craze at 33rd and M streets NW gave way to a gourmet french fry joint called My Fry, where patrons selected "base" potatoes from around the world, then to Shake Rolls, a sushi-and-milkshakes bar where Sasha Obama celebrated her 16th birthday. All of them have gone off to fast-food heaven. Now for sale in the very same spot: pot.
A high-end marijuana cafe called Hypothesis, launched by a California entrepreneur whose parents once tossed him out for toking up in his bedroom, has customers lining up for marijuana-infused teas, pot-laced cupcakes and cookies, and even hemp-fiber granola bars.
There is takeout, too: ounce bags of marijuana from around the world, with strains named Northern Lights and Casino. These aren't your father's dime bags. Made to look like the old Ziplocs that one dipped into for pot (with a bag of Doritos nearby), these premium plastic bags close with real zippers. The company's slogan is embossed in light green letters below the opening: "Beyond a joint."
If the store is reminiscent of Starbucks, that's because Virginia branding consultants designed it that way. "We didn't see any need to reinvent the wheel," said Jeff Kronbon, Hypothesis's owner. "This model has worked for decades. Now, we think it can work with pot."
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.
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?"
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.
Proposition 19, the California referendum urging support of legalized marijuana, made its way to the ballot with a boost from the state legislature, which passed a bill reducing marijuana possession to the status of a parking citation.
The debate in California seemed to historians a repeat of the arguments over the country's failed experiment with Prohibition eight decades before. In both cases, Americans were struggling with hard times, and voters were livid with elected officials. As opponents of Prohibition had before them, supporters of pot legalization argued that legal marijuana would result in job growth and a tax windfall. (Proponents didn't seem to recall that the repeal of Prohibition hardly cured U.S. economic woes--the Depression ended six years after alcohol sales resumed.) "The idea that if we just legalize something, we'll get all these benefits--that's naive thinking," said historian Michael Lerner, author of a book on alcohol prohibition in Manhattan.
Nonetheless, marijuana eventually became legal in California, but only county by county. Many localities remained dry--or vaporless, as proponents put it--primarily because of concern about drugged driving. Although for decades studies have shown that stoned drivers drive more slowly than those under the influence of alcohol, other studies have shown that drivers on a mix of pot and alcohol are aggressive and dangerous.
In counties that did authorize marijuana sales, pot cafes and take-home stores had a difficult time getting started; in its second term the Obama administration continued to enforce federal laws against commercial drug sales. (Libertarians hammered that practice, noting that Obama was the first president to admit having smoked pot.) But the feds took a hands-off approach toward home growers, and marijuana smokers delighted in their basement crops. Smart-phone apps guided home growers through the intricacies of tending to their mini-crops.
Californians spread word of the high life via social networks, posting time-lapse videos of their growrooms, enticing friends with lengthy reviews of their latest crops, and sharing pictures of themselves smoking joints at block parties. Millions of people around the country hit the "like" button. Easterners who had built vacation homes in Arizona packed up and moved to California. While the economic benefits of legalized pot hardly materialized, all those Facebook posts and tweets got people around the country thinking: "Why not here, too?"
A literal grass-roots movement advocating for nationwide legalization took hold on the Internet, and, one by one, states began taking up measures similar to Proposition 19. Massachusetts --passed. Vermont--passed. Oregon --passed. But then some unthinkables passed measures, too: Kansas, Wyoming, South Carolina, Arizona, Iowa. (Virginia was, and remains, a holdout.)
As the number of states legalizing marijuana grew, federal enforcement declined. Restaurateurs offered complimentary pot-laced appetizers, hoping to build profit by giving customers happy cases of the munchies. Tax revenue increased -- though not nearly at the rates proponents had predicted. And though many proponents of legalization argued that such a move would help cut Mexican drug violence, that hope never panned out. Cocaine, methamphetamine and other illicit drugs were still fought over.
Then came the ultimate coup for proponents: The federal government decided not to stand in the way of the District's marijuana legalization efforts. Kronbon, the owner of Hypothesis, remembers that moment with awe: "The day D.C. legalized marijuana, I said to my wife: 'Imagine that. You can get high legally in the nation's capital. I've got to go start something there.' " A printout of the home page of that day's Washington Post--banner headline, "Pot legal in District"--hangs next to Hypothesis's front door.
For many voters back in Ohio, it is difficult to imagine this scene:
A Saturday in Georgetown, shoppers strolling along, scanning iPads and iFaces for sales at nearby stores. When they get their instant-sale alerts, they scurry to join the sometimes-frantic rush to take advantage of sales scheduled to last just a few minutes. But at Hypothesis, shoppers find serenity. An acoustic guitar player strums vintage James Taylor songs, and though the cafe doesn't allow laptops or iPads, a small, silent device beneath each table lets customers print out news to be read the old-fashioned way.
Karen Leopards, a 32-year-old accountant from Fairfax, comes by most Saturdays with friends to order a marijuana-laced smoothie from her favorite Hypothesis budtender, Felix. She prefers banana, infused with the Northern Lights strain grown nearby at Quincy's Orchard. Potency: 8, on a scale of 1 to 10.
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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.