Marijuana steadily creeps toward legalization

Is D.C. finally ready to let us toke up?

For the marijuana lobby and its broader aims, the win was gigantic. It removed—for the current presidential term, at least—the daunting specter of federal interference, and turned virtually the entire U.S. into one big, wide-open game board. Pot advocates divide that game board state by state, believing that the surest way to overcome conservative inertia that keeps pot outlawed is to spread legalization keyed to states' rights to craft their own statutes.

Medical marijuana has been on the move since 1996 and is now legal in 14 states, including California, with at least a dozen more to debate it soon. Proponents predict it will continue to hopscotch from state to state much the way legalized gambling expanded along the Mississippi River and throughout a lot of the country in the 1980s and '90s.

"We believe medical marijuana will be in more than half the states in two years...and maybe 47 states in the next 10 years," says attorney Sean T. McAllister, who led a successful crusade last fall to get pot legalized in the small ski-resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado. In a vote that was largely symbolic, given that possession remains a misdemeanor under Colorado law, 72 percent of Breckenridge voters favored changing local laws to remove any sanctions for private possession and use of less than an ounce of pot, meaning that, on the city's books at least, there is no threat of jail, no fine, and no danger of acquiring a criminal record.

McAllister acknowledges that medicinal use of weed is a wedge to help pro-pot activists gain leverage in advancing recreational use of the drug. "Medical marijuana is really leading the way, letting us see what a taxed and regulated market for marijuana would look like," he says.

As Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York City, put it, "The face of marijuana isn't some 17-year-old, pimply-faced kid; it's an older person needing help."

The widening perception that cannabis is a godsend for sufferers of cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, and other afflictions has partially erased its own entrenched stigmas, including a reputation for dulling the intellect. To be sure, the purported health benefits of marijuana—so vital to its broadening acceptance—are not without controversy. One website,, boasts more than 240 maladies that respond to marijuana, from writers' cramp to cystic fibrosis. For prostate cancer, Huntington's disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus, and grand mal seizures, pot promises at least a whiff of relief.

But it's also a source of carcinogens. According to the federal National Institutes of Health, "Marijuana smoke contains some of the same, and sometimes even more, of the cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Studies show that someone who smokes five joints per day may be taking in as many cancer-causing chemicals as someone who smokes a full pack of cigarettes every day." (On the other hand, someone smoking five joints a day probably has bigger problems than risk of cancer.)


THE MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR POT LOBBY HAS used the drug's analgesic properties to press a more challenging agenda: to remove the barriers to recreational use, either through outright legalization or, at minimum, decriminalization, which, in most cases, means that being caught with less than an ounce is only a legal infraction comparable to a parking ticket.

On maps where activists track their progress nationally, they can already block out 10 states—including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York—where the first offense involving simple possession no longer carries jail time.

The image makeover is but one of the important factors now propelling the movement. Another: the violence and obscene profits of the drug cartels. Those problems have given rise to the Al Capone argument: If you make it legal, criminal dealers can't command exorbitant sums from customers desperate for a high—cash that would later be spent on bribes, machine guns, and smuggling. Licensed and fully vetted growers, operating just down the street, would render the murderous drug kingpin as irrelevant as the Chicago bootlegger. In the words of Mirken, "You don't need Al Capone to ship alcohol when you have Anheuser-Busch."

A good idea can become a great one if it involves making money—and doubly so if it generates new forms of tax revenue. Thus, at a time of housing foreclosures and bank failures, licensing and taxing marijuana suddenly makes sense even to some who might have abhorred the idea.

Lawful growers and retailers could cough up, say, $50 an ounce in taxes or fees and still charge less to consumers than the $150-an-ounce prices common on the black market. Governments would rake it in—and also save a fantastic amount on arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning pot offenders.

Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron, author of the 2004 book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, makes a case that legalizing all banned drugs would benefit taxpayers nationwide by $77 billion a year, both in generating new tax income and eliminating the costs of handling offenders. Since marijuana represents about a third of the illicit drug economy, legalizing pot would make a difference of roughly $25 billion, he says.

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