Marijuana steadily creeps toward legalization

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

The formidable flow of revenue helps Lee to finance further marijuana reform. So far, he says, he has invested $1 million of his own money in the initiative. Faced with a February deadline for submitting 433,000 signatures, he claims he has already gathered more than 600,000 and is still collecting more, just to be certain that enough are valid. "The response has been overwhelming," he says.

If Californians light up, the beacon will be visible from sea to shining sea. Nadelmann says he consulted with Ammiano and Lee on the language of their proposals, and points out that California has always been a bellwether of cultural change, especially when it comes to pot. "Look what happened with [the passage of] Proposition 215," he says. "We were able to go to other states and get it on the ballot. It's not as if the dominoes start falling, but people see that something's possible."

Aftereffects continue to ripple. Support for both medicinal and recreational pot use has grown demonstrably stronger throughout the country. An estimated 200,000 revelers attended the annual Hempfest in Seattle last year. In otherwise conservative Colorado, advocates staged a massive smokers' rally in Boulder, and voters are expected to weigh a statewide legalization measure in the next few years. In October, the Illinois Senate narrowly approved a medical-marijuana bill, meaning it could become law in the next few months. And here in Minnesota another such bill will be introduced this session (the last attempt passed but was vetoed by Governor Pawlenty).


REEFER ACTIVISTS READILY ACKNOWLEDGE that the quickening pace of change raises risks of a backlash. Intense concern already centers on the poorly regulated mess in Los Angeles, where a confused and largely paralyzed City Council has allowed the proliferation of more than 540 medical-marijuana dispensaries without regard to zoning or other restrictions imposed elsewhere in California.

Law enforcement was never amenable to legalizing pot, but the situation in L.A.—a black eye to reformers everywhere—can only galvanize the resistance.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the 4,000-member California Peace Officers' Association, fairly bristles when confronted with the argument that pot should be made legal because it's no worse than booze. "What good comes of it?" he asks. "Right now, we have enormous social and public-safety problems caused by alcohol abuse...[and] by pharmaceuticals. What is the good of adding another mind-altering substance? Look at all the highway fatalities. Why do we want to create another lawful substance that will add exponentially to that?"

That line of thinking suggests that society today would be more sober and safe if alcohol or pharmaceuticals were banned—an argument U.S. history, particularly the era of Prohibition, does not bear out. "I think everyone in law enforcement will take on this fight," Lovell says. "I think people concerned about the social consequences of drug abuse will take on this fight. I think there will be a broad range of opposition."

Out in the streets, the counterinsurgency is readily apparent. Marijuana arrests are up in California, despite the rising public tolerance. Activists theorize it is not just because more people are smoking the drug.

A similar spike has occurred in New York, even though it was one of the first states to decriminalize small stashes of marijuana, 34 years ago. In fact, if there is a world capital for cannabis busts, it is New York City, where 40,000 people were arrested on pot charges in the last year.

Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levine is an expert on drug-abuse patterns, and coauthor, with Craig Reinarman, of 1997's Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice. "What we have in New York is what you could call an epidemic of marijuana arrests," he says. "The number one criminal offense in New York City is marijuana possession."

How is that possible, when pot has long been decriminalized there?

Levine explored the question by interviewing veteran and retired police officers, legal-aid attorneys, and jailed smokers, producing a scathing 100-page review of the NYPD. It became apparent, he says, that police—who have a vested interest in making as many arrests as possible—profit from pot, and often "trick" their suspects into violating a specific law against openly displaying the weed in public.

"Technically, [police officers] are not allowed to go into people's pockets," he says. "But they can lie to people. Lying to suspects is considered good policing. They say, 'We're going to have to search you. If we find anything, it's going to be a mess for take it out and show it to us now.'" As intimidated young people—most of them ethnic minorities—empty their pockets of joints or nickel bags, they're charged with a misdemeanor.

Such busts are huge business for the police, Levine points out. Not only do they sweep potential bad guys into the system, generating vast databases of fingerprints and photographs, but the arrests also beef up crime statistics. Departments in big cities and small towns alike use the numbers to secure fortunes in federal funding. Street cops have an angle, too: They like to nab docile pot users—easy to find in poor pockets of town—at the end of their patrol shifts, when the extra hours filling out reports at the precinct house get charged as overtime. In the jargon, the practice is known as "collars for dollars."

« Previous Page
Next Page »