Pubdate: Mon, 28 May 2012
Source: Kansas City Star (MO)
Copyright: 2012 The Kansas City Star
Author: Donald Bradley


Could Kansas City be next in Missouri to lighten up on lighting up?

In 2004, Columbia residents passed a measure that greatly relaxed 
penalties for marijuana smoking and possession. The advocacy group 
Show-Me Cannabis Regulation said last week that it may soon mount 
similar efforts in Kansas City and Springfield.

"We think those are incremental steps that could really help in 
getting a statewide measure passed," said Amber Langston, the group's 
campaign director and leader of the Columbia effort.

A petition drive earlier this year fell short of getting the 
necessary number of signatures to get a statewide initiative on the 
November ballot. But Langston said that was due more to lack of 
resources than lack of support. It takes money and foot soldiers to 
collect 145,000 signatures.

"This state is a lot closer than people think," said Langston, who 
has served as an outreach director and international liaison for 
Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Washington, D.C., and worked on 
marijuana initiatives in California.

In Columbia in November 2004, 62 percent of voters approved making 
marijuana the "lowest law enforcement priority."

The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, 
meaning it is dangerous and has no health benefit. But now, because 
of states' legislation and voter referendums, roughly 30 percent of 
Americans live where penalties for pot use have been greatly relaxed, 
either through medical marijuana statutes or decriminalization for 
possession of small amounts.

Connecticut is set to become the 17th state, along with the District 
of Columbia, to snub Washington on this issue.

The Show-Me organization is now thinking of another statewide push in 
November 2014.

John Hagan III, a Kansas City ophthalmologist and staunch opponent of 
easing of marijuana laws, is already firing back. It's illegal for 
good reason, he said.

"Every study so far shows far more detrimental effects than anything 
beneficial," said Hagan, editor of Missouri Medicine magazine, in 
which he recently wrote an editorial that attacked any effort to 
"make Mary Jane an honest woman."

"Just because more states are doing it, doesn't mean you shouldn't 
fight it," Hagan said.

A brief history

It is a debate that has played out often in recent years across the 
country as more states have loosened the laws.

Opponents say marijuana is addictive, dangerous and can lead to 
harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Proponents of change say legal weed means jobs, industrial hemp and 
tax revenue. Also, police would be freed up to focus on serious crime.

Not long ago on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," viewers 
saw U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and columnist George Will mix it up.

"If somebody wants to smoke marijuana and they're an adult, why do 
you want to throw 'em in jail, George?" Frank asked.

"I need to know more about it," Will said. "I need to know if it's a 
gateway drug."

Frank asked him how long he needed.

"It's been around a long time," Frank said.

In 1937, a year after "Reefer Madness" warned parents that teenage 
smoking of pot would lead to sexual assault and suicide, President 
Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation outlawing the use, production 
and sale of the plant.

Turned out to be a bit premature. In 1941, Roosevelt signed an 
executive order rescinding part of the earlier law because the war 
effort needed hemp for rope and canvas.

But as soon as the war ended in 1945, the ban went back into effect. 
Midwest farmers, under threat of fines and penalties, plowed under 
their hemp crops.

On its website, NORML, a national organization working for the repeal 
of marijuana prohibition, has a timeline for marijuana reform. 
Perhaps not surprising, there are no entries for the entire decade of 
the 1950s.

Then came the culture wars of the 1960s. Smoking pot became part of 
college life. Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice hit the pipe. Bob Dylan sang, 
"Everybody must get stoned ..."

In 1970, public interest lawyer R. Keith Stroup founded NORML (the 
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). Three years 
later, Oregon became the first state to pass cannabis decriminalization.

Since 2000, 11 states have passed various medical marijuana laws, 
which permit patients with a variety of ailments to possess pot, and 
in some cases even allow dispensaries where they can obtain it.

Other states have decreased penalties for amounts generally less than an ounce.

"We've largely won the hearts and minds of the American people," 
Stroup told The Star.

This despite an Obama administration that has taken a hard line 
against the medical marijuana industry. After first saying it would 
end the practice of raiding clinics, the Justice Department later 
instructed U.S. attorneys to threaten clinic operators in California 
with criminal charges if they continued to violate federal law.

Obama, in response to critics, said: "We're not going to be 
legalizing weed anytime soon. I never made a commitment that somehow 
we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and 
operators of marijuana - and the reason is, because it's against 
federal law. I can't nullify congressional law."

Stroup said: "We are disappointed in the Obama White House. We were 
hoping the federal government would stay out of it."

But his map shows what he would call great progress - in other parts 
of the country. States that have loosened marijuana laws are, for the 
most part, far out west and way back east.

Michigan is the rare Midwestern state on the list that includes most 
of New England, the Northwest, the West Coast and the desert 
Southwest. Colorado is the only neighbor of either Kansas or Missouri 
on the list. Down in the Deep South, possessing even small amounts of 
marijuana can still result in high fines and jail time.

The battle in Missouri

As for Missouri, Stroup thinks the state has a solid chance of 
getting something, either medical or decriminalization, done in the 
next few years.

"It's a conservative state, but it's not a Deep South red state," he said.

Langston agrees. She thinks Missourians would pass reform if they get 
the information "without the propaganda."

Hagan said he's good with spreading information. That is, the 
information that marijuana harms the heart, liver and lungs, he says. 
It also causes mental disorders.

Hagan also rejects the notion that his health argument is 
inconsistent because he's not going after tobacco and alcohol.

"A glass of red wine is good for you," Hagan said.

Also, lungs damaged by smoking cigarettes will begin to repair 
themselves as soon as the smoker quits, he said.

"But this isn't about tobacco or alcohol," Hagan said. "This is about 
marijuana and if we can keep it out of Missouri, that's a good thing."

He's got the head of the Missouri Highway Patrol on his side.

Of states that have eased marijuana laws, Col. Ron Replogle said: 
"Many states have lost this battle and my counterparts in those 
states are dealing with many negative results in the public safety 
arena as a result."

The issue is political, if oddly so.

Montana and Alaska, both considered conservative red states, have 
passed marijuana reforms.

Langston, who studied rural sociology at the University of Missouri, 
said that's the rugged-individualist factor. People in those states 
don't want the federal government telling them what they can and 
cannot do, she said.

Or, as Willie Nelson has said: "I smoke pot, and it's none of the 
government's business."

A medical marijuana bill was introduced this year in the Missouri 
General Assembly. It would have allowed dispensaries where patients 
could legally obtain pot.

The sponsor, Rep. Mike Colona, a St. Louis area Democrat, declined comment.

But Langston does not think a legislative fix is likely anyway 
because of the political leanings of the body.

This fight, she said, needs to go to the people. A decision on a 
Kansas City initiative would come soon, she said. She didn't know 
what allies she might have in Kansas City.

"But with marijuana, there's always secret supporters,' she said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom