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Smoking pot no big deal?

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Steve Hendrix and Shelby Sadler
Washington Post staff writer and freelance editor
Monday, November 16, 2009; 1:00 PM

Is that a new attitude toward marijuana you smell? On TV, in the movies, in the law and inside homes around the Washington region, a softening of opposition to pot smoking is wafting through the air. Whether it's empty nesters returning to the habit after the kids leave or law enforcement choosing to look the other way, something different is in the air.

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Washington Post staff writer Steve Hendrix was online Monday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his article Boomers see views relaxing on marijuana about the growing acceptance of pot smoking. He will be joined by Shelby Sadler freelance editor and occasional pot smoker.

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Steve Hendrix: Hello everyone; thanks for looking in on our discussion about pot smoking among middle aged and older people and the signs generally that tolerance of marijuana use is on the rise in this county.

I'm happy to post your comments, or answer any questions you have about how we did this story and what we found.

I'm particularly happy to have Shelby Sadler join me for this chat. Shelby is one of the people I interviewed for the story and decided to let me use her name as a recreational marijuana user. I know that wasn't an easy decision for her, or the others who talked to me, so I doubly appreciate her being willing to come up on the stage for this forum. She has a long history with marijuana, smoking it occaissionally since college and editing several books by Hunter S. Thompson, the king of Gonzo who was no stranger to pot. Now she is editing a book by the founder of NORML on the drug's tumultuous history in this country.

And let's get your questions .

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Southern Maryland: I'm a Generation Yer who has never tried any illegal drug but still favors a regulated legalization or at least decriminalization. I don't necessarily endorse marijuana use, considering the harm that it can do to the body. I just feel that enforcing this law causes far more harm to individuals and to society. (And I don't intend on trying it if it does become legal.)

Steve Hendrix: The main reason we did this story was the recent evidence that older smokers, i.e., the Baby Boomer, are increasing in numbers. While there is plenty of evidence that smoking pot is very common on campuses, many of the older smokers I found said they don't see as much interest in the younger generations. Maybe a reverse generation gap at work?

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Ashburn, Va: Do you think that the government will stop persecuting marijuana users in the future so I can stop living in fear of being arrested for doing something that helps with my hyperactivity?

Steve Hendrix: Several people working both sides of this issue pointed to the Department of Justice ruling last month that federal prosecutors would no longer go after individual users of medical marijuana IN STATE THAT ALLOW such use. That's big departure from the Bush admistration and many activists have pointed to it as a watershed change on the law enforcment side.

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College Park, Md.: I was out in L.A. recently and was surprised to see that marijuana is for all practical purposes legal now. People even smoke it openly on the street. The medical marijuana law has led to hundreds of stores selling pot and anyone and I mean anyone can get a "recommendation."

Steve Hendrix: As George Will said recently on "This Week," marijuana seems effectively legal in the Golden State. The clinic system has become entrenched and, in some ways, professionalized. It will be interesting to see if that blantant level of sales (you may be shocked to hear that not EVERYONE who gets a pot prescription has an actual illness, although I'm sure many do) sparks any kind of backlash. They are going very fast out there.

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Rockville, Md.: OK. We all know prohibition never works, but what are we allowing? Why do so many break the law for a herb? Does it have to be smoked? And how can we be sure it is harmless? I do remember a guy in a white coat saying "Not a cough in a carload." They said tobacco was safe.

They lied.

Who is lying now?

Shelby Sadler: Indeed, prohibition never does work--alcohol prohibition being largely responsible for the genesis of organized crime in the United States, after all--and the same has proven true with marijuana and the Mexican drug cartels. I believe many people break the anti-marijuana laws simply because they realize that the laws are wrong, which they are: thoroughly counterproductive in every way.

Marijuana does not have to be smoked to be enjoyed: it can be baked and eaten in a wide variety of delicious forms far beyond brownies.

The harmlessness of marijuana is indicated in many medical studies. A good place to find links to some of the more interesting is at the NORML website at NORML.org.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Good Afternoon,

Any time there is a discussion on legalizing marijuana, the medical community gets all up in arms. Yet, I don't see nor have I ever seen any evidence from the medical community about pot being bad for your health. Where are the studies tracking the long term health of pot smokers? Is it because there are no proven long-term effects and the AMA just doesn't want to say so? All the pot smokers I know in their 50s and 60s are in better health than a lot of the non-pot smokers.

Steve Hendrix: You may have missed this, but the AMA reversed itself last week. The group called for a serious look at removing pot from the Schedule One list and for so more research on it's pallative qualities.

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washingtonpost.com: NORML

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Ballston, Va.: My favorite middle-age pot smokers are the one who have been smoking pot since they were 13 years old and now want DOD to believe that all of a suddenthey are going to give up pot for that security clearance after smoking it for 40 years. Sorry we don't believe you.

Pot is no better or worse than alcohol however, it is illegal. I prefer single malt.

Steve Hendrix: It certainly a lot easier to find a nice Balvenie 12-year-old (although maybe not in Oakland...)

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washingtonpost.com: AMA Calls for Feds to Review Marijuana Restrictions (CBS News, Nov. 11)

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for taking my comment/question,

I am 29 and smoke pot almost daily. My money now is going to street drug dealers. Why not give it to the gov through taxes? I am a patriotic, home-owning taxpayer. The hundreds of billions we have wasted on making a generation of pot smokers criminals is ridic.

When I was 25, I was issued a citation for smoking pot at a concert. I had to complete 8 months of fed probation and report daily like was a child molester...taking up time of a parole officer who was so busy he finally said stop calling me. No fine or community service....my lawyer made about $2,500. So the only people that win on the current way are lawyers are law enforcement whose budgets keep going up.

And I am the most conservative Republican you can imagine.....

Legalize and Tax Pot......NOT ALL DRUGS...NOT COCAINE, HEROIN, ETC.

Shelby Sadler: I couldn't agree more. Some 850,000 American lives are thrown into turmoil every year by our government's ridiculous anti-marijuana laws--most of those cases involving small amounts for personal use. Many of those arrested are teenagers, and the consequences to their educations and lives are unconscionable. I believe that the wildly profitable prison-industrial complex is largely responsible for spreading the falsehoods that legalization would cause further problems, when in fact it would solve many.

I have found it interesting that of late many pro-legalization reformers seem to identify with the Republican Party--as I do. That is not, however, surprising, given the small-government roots of the GOP. Besides: it's not just liberal hippies who like to smoke pot! Quite the contrary....

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Glen Allen, Va.: In this country, money talks. Yet, legalizing marijuana seems to be the exception to that rule. I keep thinking, particulary in these economic times with many states in dire financial straits, how easy it would be to legalize pot and tax it like cigarettes and alcohol. Goodbye budget shortfalls! But this doesn't seem to get any traction. Why is this, other than our lawmakers are cowards (as evidenced in the recent healthcare debates....)?

Shelby Sadler: Good point! I believe the reason lies with the entities who have the most to lose should marijuana become legal, to wit the members of what I've dubbed The PharMafia: the many pharmaceutical companies (which, incidentally, together spend 15 times more on lobbying Congress than the oil and gas industry) that have profound reasons for not wanting a cheap and harmless competitor to their array of "sleep aids," "antidepressants," and other such prescription drugs, many of which are provably far more dangerous than marijuana. Ambien, anyone?

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Cache Valley, Utah: "Going mainstream?" LOL! Pot has been mainstream for decades and keeping it illegal will never change that. The public knows this to be a fact. When will the politicos figure this out?

Shelby Sadler: As soon as enough of us who prefer smoking a joint to drinking a glass of wine to relax in the evening stand up and vote for candidates at every level who agree that it's long past time to legalize marijuana for responsible adult smokers.

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Steve Hendrix: Anonymous: Would legalizing pot really have any effect on the drug cartels in Mexico or would they shift to a new drug to make mayhem and money?

Steve Hendrix: Certainly the advocate's say legalizing would take away a key commodity from the bad guys. But these are resilient and creative criminal enterprises, and they have other products to peddle. I think it would be simplistic to predict their demise in the wake of legal marijuana.

Some users in California say they are MORE likely to buy and smoke pot from the clinics, knowing it is locally, legally grown and free of the taint of the bloody drug trade.

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Anonymous: The idea that pot may soon be reclassified from the same category as harder drugs was the most interesting to me. What is the status of this and when can we expect results ?

Steve Hendrix: I don't know, to be honest. But I don't think you'll a big rush. Although pot doesn't seem to be a 'third-rail' kind of issue these days (look at the calls for debating legalization from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, both Republicans, or recently Republican in the mayor's case), but I think there is great reluctance to get too far out on this at the federal level.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the article and continuing the discussion. I started smoking pot 30 years ago and I still smoke whenever I can find it. I would much rather smoke than drink to relax after work. I have no problems stopping during dry spells.

Steve Hendrix: I talked to several regular smokers who had swapped alcohol for marijuana in recent years (some of whom had had obvious drinking problems). They said pot was much milder on their bodies. I don't know how they compare medically, but I know that the drug treatment community takes them both very seriously.

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Potomac, Md.: I think I need to bring up the "Gateway Drug" argument. Considering that the prevalent reason marijuana is illegal is the fear that it will lead to much more dangerous substances. Even worse is the idea that if we were to decriminalize marijuana then those same dangerous substances would replace marijuana and would soon have relaxed restrictions placed on them. This logic is very skewwed and, frankly, paranoid (ironicly). It's like saying if we end the prohibition of alcohol, then people will then want to move up to codeine. Marijuana is not nearly as lethal or addictive as other drugs, not only for the lowest overdose rate (including tobacco and alcohol) plus the detoxination period is one week. Now, the really interesting part is that the reason we should legalize it and the reason it is not legal is the same thing: money. If we were to legalize it, it would create a different and more diverse market that we could not have enough control of. The best marijuana products are made in tropical areas, and we only have two coasts and a shared gulf, meaning other nations would have an upper hand in this market (especially if they are islands). Yet the other side of the coin says that we could have billions of dollars of profit, not to mention the medicinal and psychological uses that it would bring about. I am very glad people have brought this subject to debate.

Steve Hendrix: Legalization advocates have siezed on the revenue argument in recent months, and the money seemed to be behind Schwarzenegger's recent overtures.

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Fairfax, Va.: I directly related to your article today. I am in my early 30s (white, female, and an environmental consultant) and was charged with possession because I had disposed of the joint in the bottle I was holding (I don't smoke) while the person who brought and smoked the pot was in his early 50s, a white male, and a defense contractor (yes, the arresting officer did ask what we did for a living). The cop saw him smoke it but charged me because it was on my person when the arrest took place. I have often wondered if age, sex, and jobs were factors in making the arrest and if this will play a role in the arrests that we see take place in the future.

Shelby Sadler: Age, sex, and jobs have always been factors in marijuana arrests, just as they seem to be in many others. Compared with the percentages of adults who admit to marijuana smoking, the demographic breakdowns of those who actually get arrested for doing so are shocking: largely very young (teenaged) and disproportionately African-American and Hispanic, whereas the vast majority of self-reporting adult smokers are middle-aged and white.

The surprise in your case is that it wasn't the man who got nabbed, but the woman holding his joint!

Women may do half the marijuana smoking in this country, but we have traditionally seemed to face less prosecution for it. That may be changing as more women come forward as responsible adult smokers, which is the idea behind the new NORML Women's Alliance, which will seek to bring female smokers out of the closet and into the political fight for legalization.

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Philadelphia, Pa. : Never done it. Don't imagine I will unless it's for medically certifiable reasons. I'm wondering though if you could cite "authorities" other than NORML for counter-evidence? Let's face it, they're an advocacy group that would not accept any study that pointed to the dangers of usage, right?

Steve Hendrix: I found myself caught between two very determined camps in researching this story, each claiming huge stacks of peer-reviewed research to back up its claim that the pot was either deadly and addictive or benign and even beneficial. My story was not about the drug's merits or risks so I did not take the months needed to vet those competing claims.

My hope is that one effect of the obvious greater willingness to talk about pot use will be some serious efforts to sort out the research, and indeed add to it, as the AMA called for last week.

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Arlington, Va.: A group that I find more credible than NORML on this issue is the Marijuana Policy Project. They take a much more buttoned-up approach -- they don't come across like hippies but rather like normal mom and dad types, but they recommend taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol. Some of the stuff on their Web site is pretty impressive, and I'm surprised by how much they've gotten done.

washingtonpost.com: Marijuana Policy Project

Shelby Sadler: There's room in the legalization tent for all kinds. And I've visited NORML's offices many times, and have yet to see a hippie anywhere on the premises: talk about buttoned-down! As far as accomplishements go, MPP has indeed notched some, but NORML's been fighting the good fight for 40 years, and a serious sweep of its website will show just how much the organization has achieved.

The last thing the pro-legalization movement needs is infighting among marijuana advocates.

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Maryjane in Maryland: Maybe pot isn't so harmful but certainly a lot of the stuff sold these days is light years from the stuff of 40 years ago -- I believe many dealers even use things like methodone and other drugs to enhance the deirability of their product. So how can we know what our kids (or grandparents) are really inhaling ?

Steve Hendrix: One thing both opponents and proponents agreed on in my talks with them is that it doesn't take as much these days for an older user to get high than it did in the 60s and 70s, both because it tends to be more potent and because older users have lower tolerance.

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New York, N.Y.: Has there been any research you can point to based on studies of legalized cannibas in places like Amsterdam and its effect on society?

Shelby Sadler: Check out the NORML.org website and look for articles by the group's deputy director, Paul Armentano, who knows more about the scientific research done on cannabis worldwide than anyone else I can think of.

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Washington, D.C.: You said you studied older folks, boomers, I think you may want to go back further I happen to know that I am the fourth generation in my family to use pot.

Steve Hendrix: I talked to several multi-generational users, none of whom would let me use their names, mostly, i think, to protect the younger smokers (the excption was the 88 year old I quoted at the end.)

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Washington, D.C.: I think the argument for creating a big tax revenue from the sale of pot is probably overstated. The ability to grow marijuana is really easy (protecting it from your neighbors is another thing). If it was made legal, the price would collaspe and very few people could make money at it. Right now, the economic interests lie with keeping it forbidden -- both drug dealers and law enforcement have powerful lobbies!

Steve Hendrix: An interesting economic take...

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D.C.: Ballston says, "Pot is no better or worse than alcohol however, it is illegal. I prefer single malt."

Actually, alcohol causes more than 85,000 deaths per year in the United States from overdose and alcohol-related diseases. Pot consumption has never caused a single documented death. If laws were based on which drug is "better" for us, alcohol would be illegal and pot would be sold at convenience stores.

Steve Hendrix: This argument is being cited increasingly by pro-legalization advocates. Opponents sometimes respond, 'Why add another legal drug to that mix.'

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D.C. or maybe not: Personally, I've no particular problems with pot. (This is an anonymous chat, right?) Except, of course, that it remains "illegal" and, in my experience as a parent, is pervasively available to teenagers. Is marijuana still viewed as a "gateway" to other drug use or has that been discounted as propaganda?

Shelby Sadler: The old "gateway" canard is regularly trotted out by the ignorant and propagandistic, but remains unsupported by any and all legitimate research on cannabis. And on an anecdotal level, I know scores of responsible adult marijuana smokers, and not one of them has ever touched heroin, methamphetamine, or any other truly dangerous illicit drug.

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Rockville, Md.: Does legalization mean the Government says it is safe. Many will say so.

Steve Hendrix: And would the FDA have to approve it?

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Savannah, Ga.: I read recently that the current drug czar claimed most heroin addicts smoked pot first, implying the old "gateway drug" canard. I wish media interviewers would push back on statements like that -- after all, I bet a far greater number of heroin addicts drank alcohol first, or smoked tobacco.

I think to whatever extent pot is a "gateway" drug is because it is illegal -- most people have to get it from a dealer, who is likely to sell more than just pot. If it was available legally like alcohol or tobacco, I bet you would actually see a drop off of people who went on to more dangerous and addictive drugs.

Steve Hendrix: Just want to post a few of your comments as we near the end...

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Washington, D.C.: Im in my forties and know many people who smoke on a regular basis and are very functioning adults in the community. For some it's like having a glass of wine in the evening or during the weekend to unwind. Doesn't do much for me...but they have no problem getting it. Actually getting good quality is the extra work...but it's very attainable.

Steve Hendrix: Our target demographic heard from...

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What's Wrong?: It's not legal unless you have a medical prescription but pot is harmless as long as you don't use it when/before driving. I don't like the mary jane personally (okay it isn't harmless because it makes people like me feel paranoid and have anxiety attacks) but it gives people I know a feeling of peace sometimes while a glass of wine or two helps other people feel the same way. My friend, who has a great job and new husband, has enjoyed the feeling with her mom and brother. If mom says it's okay, dad agrees but doesn't partake, and both have a full-time happy career, what's so wrong?

Steve Hendrix: I worked on this story for more than a week and that's first time anyone called it Mary Jane!

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Alexandria, Va.: Some say Prozac, I say pot. Other than how they are classified, don't they both serve the same purpose, only the natural choice doesn't have all the side effects, thus resulting increase drug usage in order to treat those new side effect symptoms?

Shelby Sadler: That is exactly correct. What I call The PharMafia has been pushing its pricey prescription antidepressants and "sleep aids" on a gullible and apparently unquestioning public for far too long, as many of these elixirs truly are dangerous. And then one must take some other elixir to handle the side effects from the last one, and then, and then.... Yes, it is smarter just to smoke pot in the first place! It's a wonderfully gentle sleep inducer, and side-effect-free.

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Re: Maryjane in Maryland: To me, that's another argument for legalization: consistency and control. Let's put the THC content on the package, like alcohol content on wine bottles (and others.) Let's list active and inactive ingredients, like other controlled drugs.

Steve Hendrix: A response to the potency argument...

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Phoenix, Ariz.: If cannabis use is acceptable then do you think that the laws regarding workers who use cannabis away from work will be accommodated by not having to submit to drug tests for marijuana, or if so will they somehow be excused from positive tests if they meet the state's legal definition as a medical marijuana user?

Steve Hendrix: The workplace culture is a big barrier to the mainstreaming of pot. One reason a lot of middle-aged smokers got back into it, they told me, was because they were finally out of the reach of urine testing.

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Franconia, Va.: I don't do drugs, but on this issue it sure seems like collectively our country is smokin' crack.

1. Portugal decriminalized all drugs back in 2001. From the few available studies I've seen on the empirical data, it appears to have been a success.

2. The Mexican drug cartels get 60-70 percent of their gross profits from pot sales.

Legalizing pot is a slam dunk... so seriously, what's the problem? This is embarrassing on a local, national and global level.

Steve Hendrix: And that's the last word. I to thank Shelby Sadler for putting herself out there on this delicate subject, and all of you for writing and reading. Have a nice sunny day (at least here in Washington, it is).

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