Marijuana steadily creeps toward legalization

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

Miron's estimate is generally in line with figures compiled by pot-advocacy organizations, although getting firm numbers is notoriously difficult given the vastly different ways in which law-enforcement agencies catalog arrests and report marijuana data.

Jon Gettman, a former NORML president who operates a public databank at, claims that legalizing marijuana would enrich the public by $42 billion a year. In breaking down that sum, he puts the current cost of legal enforcement at nearly $11 billion. He also claims that federal, state, and local governments lose out on $31 billion annually in taxes and charges that could be gleaned from the massive industry, based on an overall estimate of a marijuana trade that totals $113 billion a year. Mirken concedes that squishy numbers invite attacks from critics. But, he adds, "No doubt it's a big hunk of money."


WATCHING THAT MONEY FLOW to criminals and cartel bosses has added impetus to the push for change. Pro-marijuana forces, well-financed and increasingly centralized in New York City and Washington, D.C., are often directly involved in helping to craft reform legislation because of their deep knowledge about a subject murky to many in power. The New York–based Drug Policy Alliance, for example, employs 45 people and operates satellite offices in D.C., California, and New Mexico. Its annual budget of $8 million comes in part from George Soros's Open Policy Institute and also from about 25,000 small donors and a number of very wealthy businessmen, most notably tech guru John Gilmore of Cygnus Solutions, Peter B. Lewis of Progressive Insurance, John Glen Sperling of the University of Phoenix, and George Zimmer of Men's Wearhouse.

Nadelmann says he spends about half of his time on the road, engaging in debates, giving speeches, and conferring with pot advocates to draft voter initiatives and to map out strategies. Close contact with local groups enables him to marshal resources where they are needed and also to bring hot spots to nationwide media attention. He can rattle off lists of issues and locales—the drive that brought medical pot to Maine last year, the statewide decriminalization approved in Massachusetts, the ballot tussles ahead in Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon.

As advocates step up the pressure, public opinion is shifting. A Gallup poll showed 23 percent support for legalization in 1983. This year, the finding was 44 percent, with more than half of the voters in California in favor.

The number of highly placed government officials and jurists who have joined the public call for marijuana reform would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. One example is retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, author of the 2001 book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It. He argues that drug prohibitions are a "golden goose" for terrorist organizations, a view that has gained traction with the public.

"We truly are seeing the most rapid gains in public support for making marijuana legal that I've ever seen," Nadelmann says. "It really feels like a new age." In his view, the changing attitudes largely stem from the efforts of the Drug Policy Alliance—formed by a merger of two smaller groups in 2000—and similar organizations, such as NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project.

While activists know there may be a limited time to seize the chance offered by today's market conditions and Obama's laissez-faire policies, they are also buoyed by fundamental changes in America. The biggest of these is irreversible—the supplanting of hard-line ideologues with baby boomers weaned on Woodstock and flower power.

"A whole generation didn't know the difference between heroin and marijuana," Nadelmann says. "That generation is mostly dying off. [In its place] are tens of millions of parents and middle-aged people who smoked marijuana and didn't become drug addicts."

On the contrary, they now fill elected seats and boardrooms. Is it any wonder the tide seems unstoppable?


"WE'RE LOOKING AT A PERFFECT storm here," says California state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D–San Francisco), who emblemizes that new type of leader. The former standup comic spent part of the 1960s among the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, grooving to the Grateful Dead. He is now one of the most-watched figures in the national marijuana struggle for one compelling reason: Assembly Bill 390, legislation he introduced early last year that would make California the first state in the nation to legalize and tax recreational pot.

Considered bold even among marijuana activists, Ammiano's measure would remove cannabis from the state's banned-substances list, allow private cultivation, levy fees and sales taxes, and prohibit sales to minors and driving under the influence.

If Ammiano's bill fails—and many think it's too much, too soon—pot advocates have a Plan B, a narrower statewide initiative expected to reach the ballot this November. That measure would rewrite the criminal drug laws to make an exception for small amounts of marijuana. Its mastermind and chief bankroller is Richard Lee, the founder of Oaksterdam.

Lee, who opened his first campus in Oakland two years ago, says 6,000 people have taken his courses, which are organized into $250 weekend seminars and $650 one-semester courses. At any given time, he says, 500 students are enrolled in classes on three campuses.

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