Pubdate: Wed, 31 Jul 2002
Source: ABC News (US Web)
Contact: http://www.abcnews.go.com/service/help/abccontact.html
Copyright: 2002 ABC News
Website: http://www.www.abcnews.go.com
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/2105
Author: Justin Gest
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/mmj.htm (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/decrim.htm (Decrim/Legalization)

TIME FOR A CHANGE?

Those Resisting the Drug War Take Their Cause to Congress

Don't let the forest green carpeting or the college dorm room motif fool
you. 

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law -- NORML, the
people behind the effort to legalize marijuana -- have traded in their
tie-dye, Birkenstocks and braids for neckties, wingtips and a haircut. (Most
of them, anyway.)

And they currently are in the midst of a mellow campaign to get their issue
on the nation's radar screen -- in part by taking it off the nation's radar
screen. 

Image Is Everything

Keith Stroup, NORML's executive director, is spearheading a local-level
campaign that some skeptics believe is a cover for his organization's
ultimate goal of legalization. Stroup, however, insists that his is a
genuine grass-roots effort pinpointing specific constituencies interested in
protecting the individual rights of smokers and the availability of medical
marijuana.

What stands in his way is the association many voters instinctively make
between marijuana and what Stroup calls "flag-burning hippies from the
'60s"-- the cultural nemesis of many members of Congress from that
generation.

Consequently, a politician's stance on the legislation of marijuana is
typically not derived from any particular conviction, but from image
concerns, Stroup and supportive members of Congress say. 

Last year the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of the American
people want to allow doctors "to prescribe marijuana." A USA
Today/CNN/Gallup poll also found that 34 percent of Americans favor
legalizing pot. There is only a small amount of support in Congress,
however.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is sponsoring a bill to legalize medicinal
marijuana in the nine states that have individually approved its use, refers
to the negative pot associations as a "cultural lag  [that] the public has
gotten past." 

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said "it's
quite natural for Congress to be 20 years behind." 

"In this case, the voters are ahead of the members," said Peter Kovar,
Frank's chief of staff.

Hazy Progress

While proponents believe that the House bill will require a Democratic
majority before it passes, NORML and its supporters have not appealed to the
Democrat-controlled Senate because members will simply not stick their necks
out on a proposal the House won't pass.

Proponents said they have the private support of several senators for
measures that legalize medicinal marijuana or decriminalize small amounts of
cannabis. However, without the political leverage, it will take more than
personal conviction to pull senators out of their caves.

House members have proven to be more responsive, say supporters.

Many of them have a personal reason to support the bill. Paul is a licensed
physician. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., was motivated by the suffering
of his ill mother. Even Lyn Nofziger, the former Reagan White House aide,
called on the current administration "that claims to be compassionate and
conservative [to] be compassionate and conservative," after marijuana
alleviated the pain of his daughter, who died of cancer.

Ultimately, Stroup and other marijuana activists do not expect to see much
progress with the bill till next year, at the earliest.

So NORML has appealed directly to voters to overcome the congressional
gridlock. Via the initiative and referendum process, nine states have
approved the legalization of medicinal marijuana and 12 states have passed
laws that decriminalize the responsible possession and consumption of pot --
turning what was previously an arrestable offense into a ticketable
misdemeanor.

States passing medicinal exceptions include California and Arizona in 1996,
Alaska, Washington and Oregon in 1998, Maine in 1999, Colorado and Nevada in
2000, and Hawaii in the last legislative year.

The 12 decriminalized states are California, Arizona, Alaska, Minnesota, New
York, North Carolina, Ohio, Maine, Nevada, Nebraska, Colorado and
Mississippi, with bills in the works in Vermont and New Hampshire.

A New Push

A Nevada initiative would not just decriminalize but legalize pot use and
possession of an amount under three ounces. If passed, Nevada would be the
first state to legalize any usage of marijuana that is not for medicinal
purposes.

NORML says Justice Department statistics show that 743,000 Americans are
arrested each year for marijuana charges, 88 percent of whom are detained
for simple possession charges. Currently, the group contends, 40,000 to
50,000 people are in jail on analogous drug charges, and $10 billion is
spent each year on prosecution of such cases.

Representatives from the Office of National Drug Control Policy did not
return calls seeking comment.

"There is a perception that [drug reform] is the third rail of American
politics," Stroup says. "The further away we get from grass roots, the more
taboo it is."

Frank made sure to keep his bill simple and clear. 

"The broader issues are not implicated by this bill," he said at a news
conference, an apparent allusion to full legalization of marijuana. "The
practice of medicine through our history has been a state matter. [The
federal government] is not a board of medicine."

Yes, There's Resistance

Legalization advocates have their fair share of opponents.

In a recent appearance on MSNBC, Stroup was challenged by former
presidential candidate and populist Pat Buchanan. "Isn't this really an
attempt to get the camel's nose under the tent?" Buchanan asked. "You folks
are about more than medical use."

Other critics say they are concerned about the message sent to the public,
especially children.

Many conservatives bypass the medicinal marijuana issue and accuse reformers
of exploiting cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and glaucoma patients to
achieve their ultimate goal of legalization -- an issue on which
right-wingers have the support of the people -- despite Stroup and others'
contention that the issues are "separate and independent."

One of the leading defenses of current drug policy is the classification of
pot as a "gateway drug" -- one that leads users to other harder substances
like heroin or Ecstasy.

In response, advocates say that a government report defies that theory,
finding that "most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before
marijuana -- usually before they are of legal age." 

High Courts

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that distributors of pot cannot
legally use a "medical necessity defense" if they are prosecuted for selling
the drug. In a related manner, the California Supreme Court decided last
week that it is legal for people to possess and cultivate marijuana if a
physician recommends it for medical purposes.

Frank's bill, H.R. 2592, would end conflict of state medical marijuana laws
with federal regulation, because state and federal courts operate according
to different rules within the same jurisdictions.

The Nevada initiative appears to also be headed to court, if it is approved.
An additional part of the proposal orders the Legislature to provide "a
system of regulation  for the cultivation, taxation, sale, and distribution
of marijuana to persons authorized" -- essentially establishing a legal
market.

Stroup fears that clause bites off more than advocates can chew. 

"If it was my call, I would not have [included it]," he said
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MAP posted-by: Doc-Hawk