Marijuana steadily creeps toward legalization

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

New York's example suggests a system deeply invested in criminalization, one that is unlikely to back down. When contacted by a reporter for a response to Levine's assertions, an NYPD spokesman demanded an email query and hung up. Three were sent; none were answered.

Levine says his research has pointed to the same pattern in other American cities. "Atlanta and Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago...." He rattles off a long list. "The Southwest is really bad. Houston...San Antonio."

El Paso is another place where the ideological battle has flared dramatically. With cartels committing 1,600 murders in a year's time just across the border in Juárez, Mexico, El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke pushed a resolution last January calling for a discussion on legalizing drugs to undercut the illegal market. "Mind you, it was not to legalize anything, necessarily," says O'Rourke, whose 10th-floor office overlooks the Rio Grande and the impoverished Mexican metropolis beyond. "Basically, it was a way of saying the current policy had failed; we need to put everything on the table and have a dialogue."

The City Council approved the resolution without dissent, but it was vetoed by Mayor John F. Cook. An irked O'Rourke tried to override the veto, only to be strong-armed by U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who phoned all eight councilmembers to make sure the matter was quashed. "You need to cut this out," Reyes said, as O'Rourke remembers. "It's going to be tough to get [federal] money for the community if you pass this."

Reyes, a tough law-enforcement man who spent 27 years with the U.S. Border Patrol, might have handled it differently if the resolution had only dealt with marijuana, rather than all drugs, says his press deputy, Vincent Perez. As it was, the resolution was defeated—and drug deaths in Juárez have continued to climb. "We're almost at 2,300 murders" for 2009, O'Rourke says.

NORML had a field day lambasting Reyes on its website. Much as in New York, where Levine's research has drawn nationwide media attention, the "intense blowback" over the failed resolution actually achieved what O'Rourke termed a Pyrrhic victory for the hard-liners and a step forward for those willing to consider change. "All of a sudden we had calls from all over the country," he says.

The psychological war is one the marijuana movement can win—and is why weed advocates will likely win, barring the unforeseen. It is not quite a done deal, however, because the question of pot use, for many, becomes a moral argument, and moral values are slow to change.

"People long for rules," says sociologist B.J. Gallagher, an author and lecturer in Los Angeles. "Without them, the world would be chaotic and unpredictable. We'd be having sex with each other's spouses, we'd be stealing things.... If we legalize pot, what next? Cocaine? Heroin? That's what people are afraid of. It's not the pot, per se. It's the bigger issue: Where do we draw the line? So they say, 'Let's not change the line.'"

But history shows that the line does change—eventually. "When a majority are saying, 'This does not make sense,' the line will shift," Gallagher says. "We've seen it with [alcohol] prohibition, slavery, women's rights. We're now seeing it with gay rights. Our moral values change over time, despite the objections of people who are terrified."


A NEW CLASS IS IN SESSION AT Oaksterdam, a how-to about opening and running medical-marijuana dispensaries. Dark-haired, bespectacled lecturer Don Duncan, a prominent pot man due to his lobbying efforts at Los Angeles City Hall and his ownership of a busy outlet in West Hollywood, warns a room of rapt students to be mindful of the rules. After federal agents raided his business in 2007, he says, the state Board of Equalization slapped a lien on his house for nonpayment of taxes.

"Don't mess with those guys," he says. Pay your taxes. Pay your rent on time. Don't drive a Bentley and take 'round-the-world vacations if you're running a nonprofit collective, "but if you earn a healthy salary because you work hard, that's okay. That's actually a very patriotic and American way of life."

Next to speak is Robert A. Raich, a leading marijuana attorney with a halo-like crown of white hair. He gets down to the nitty-gritty of applying for business licenses. Medical marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government, even if the Obama administration is backing away from enforcement. So be creative when you have to fill out forms describing what you plan to sell, he says.

"Let me give you some truthful euphemisms," offers Raich, who seems to delight in presenting them: medicinal herbs, Chinese herbs, cut flowers, dried flowers. "You don't want to lie to the government," he says cheerfully. "You just don't want to give them too much information."

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