Pubdate: Sun, 07 Jul 2013
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2013 The Associated Press
Authors: Nancy Benac And Alicia A. Caldwell, The Associated Press


After decades of indecision, American public opinion appears to be 
shifting decisively toward accepting marijuana for medical use - and fun

WASHINGTON - It took 50 years for American attitudes about marijuana 
to zigzag from the paranoia of "Reefer Madness" to the excesses of 
Woodstock back to the hard line of "Just Say No." The next 25 years 
took the nation from Bill Clinton, who famously "didn't inhale," to 
Barack Obama, who most emphatically did.

Now, in just a few short years, public opinion has moved so 
dramatically toward general acceptance that even those who champion 
legalization are surprised at how quickly attitudes are changing and 
states are moving to approve the drug - for medical use and just for fun.

It is a moment in America that is rife with contradictions:

People are looking more kindly on marijuana even as science reveals 
more about the drug's potential dangers, particularly for young people.

States are giving the green light to the drug in direct defiance of a 
federal prohibition on its use.

Exploration of the potential medical benefit is limited by high 
federal hurdles to research.

Washington policymakers seem reluctant to deal with any of it.

Richard Bonnie, a University of Virginia law professor who worked for 
a national commission that recommended decriminalizing marijuana in 
1972, sees the public taking a big leap from prohibition to a more 
laissez-faire approach without full deliberation.

"It's a remarkable story historically," he says. "But as a matter of 
public policy, it's a little worrisome."

More than a little worrisome to those in the antidrug movement.

"We're on this hundred-mile-an-hour freight train to legalizing a 
third addictive substance," says Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy 
adviser in the Obama administration, lumping marijuana with tobacco 
and alcohol.

Legalization strategist Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the 
Drug Policy Alliance, likes the direction the marijuana smoke is 
wafting. But he knows his side has considerable work yet to do.

"I'm constantly reminding my allies that marijuana is not going to 
legalize itself," he says.

Sticky issues

Where California led the charge on medical marijuana, the next 
chapter in this story is being written in Colorado and Washington state.

Policymakers there are grappling with all sorts of sticky issues 
revolving around one central question: How do you legally regulate 
the production, distribution, sale and use of marijuana for 
recreational purposes when federal law bans all of the above?

The Justice Department began reviewing the matter after last 
November's election. But seven months later, states are still on their own.

Both sides in the debate paid close attention when Obama said in 
December that "it does not make sense, from a prioritization point of 
view, for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has 
already said that under state law that's legal."

Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat who favors legalization, 
predicts that Washington will take a hands-off approach, based on 
Obama's comments. But he's quick to add: "We would like to see that 
in writing."

The federal government has already taken a similar approach to users 
in states that have approved marijuana for medical use.

It doesn't go after pot-smoking cancer patients or grandmas with 
glaucoma. But it has also made it clear that people who are in the 
business of growing, selling and distributing marijuana on a large 
scale are subject to potential prosecution for violations of the 
Controlled Substances Act - even in states that have legalized medical use.

Political ramifications

There's a political calculus for the president, or any other 
politician, in all of this.

Younger people, who tend to vote more Democratic, are more supportive 
of legalizing marijuana, as are people in the West, where the 
libertarian streak runs strong.

Despite increasing public acceptance of marijuana overall, 
politicians know there are complications that could come with 
commercializing an addictive substance. Opponents of pot are 
particularly worried that legalization will result in increased use 
by young people.

Sabet frames the conundrum for Obama: "Do you want to be the 
president that stops a popular cause, especially a cause that's 
popular within your own party? Or do you want to be the president 
that enables youth drug use that will have ramifications down the road?"

Marijuana legalization advocates offer politicians a rosier scenario, 
in which legitimate pot businesses eager to keep their operating 
licenses make sure not to sell to minors.

"Having a regulated system is the only way to ensure that we're not 
ceding control of this popular substance to the criminal market and 
to black marketeers," says Aaron Smith, executive director of the 
National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group for legal pot 
businesses in the U.S.

Moving forward

While the federal government hunkers down, Colorado and Washington 
state are moving forward on their own with regulations covering 
everything from how plants will be grown to how many stores will be allowed.

Tim Lynch, director of the libertarian Cato Institute's Project on 
Criminal Justice, predicts that "the next few years are going to be 
messy" as states work to bring a black-market industry into the sunshine.

California's experience with medical marijuana offers a window into 
potential pitfalls that can come with wider availability of pot.

Dispensaries for medical marijuana have proliferated in the state, 
and regulation has been lax, prompting a number of cities around the 
state to ban dispensaries.

In May, the California Supreme Court ruled that cities and counties 
can ban medical marijuana dispensaries. A few weeks later, Los 
Angeles voters approved a ballot measure that limits the number of 
pot shops in the city to 135, down from an estimated high of about 1,000.

This isn't full-scale buyer's remorse, but more a course correction 
before the inevitable next push for full-on legalization in the state.

Legalization proponents

Growing support for legalization doesn't mean everybody wants to 
light up: Barely one in 10 Americans used pot in the past year.

Those who do want to see marijuana legalized range from libertarians 
- - such as 2012 Libertarian Party presidential candidate and former 
New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson - who oppose much government 
intervention to people who want to see an activist government 
aggressively regulate marijuana production and sales.

For some, money talks: Why let drug cartels rake in untaxed profits 
when a cut could go into government coffers?

There are other threads in the growing acceptance of pot.

People think it's not as dangerous as once believed. They worry about 
high school kids getting an arrest record. They see racial inequity 
in the way marijuana laws are enforced. They're weary of the "war on drugs."

Opponents counter with a 2012 study finding that regular use of 
marijuana during teen years can lead to a long-term drop in IQ, and 
another study indicating that marijuana use can induce and exacerbate 
psychotic illness in susceptible people. They question the notion 
that regulating pot will bring in big money, saying revenue estimates 
are grossly exaggerated.

They reject the claim that prisons are bulging with people convicted 
of simple possession by citing federal statistics showing only a 
small percentage of federal and state inmates are behind bars for that alone.

They warn that baby boomers who draw on their own innocuous 
experiences with pot are overlooking the much higher potency of 
today's marijuana.

In 2009, concentrations of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot, 
averaged close to 10 percent in marijuana, compared with about 4 
percent in the 1980s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"If marijuana legalization was about my old buddies at Berkeley 
smoking in People's Park once a week I don't think many of us would 
care that much," says Sabet, who helped to found Smart Approaches to 
Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization. "It's really about 
creating a new industry that's going to target kids and target 
minorities and our vulnerable populations just like our legal 
industries do today."

Conflicting studies

So how bad, or good, is pot? J. Michael Bostwick, a psychiatrist at 
the Mayo Clinic, set out to sort through more than 100 sometimes 
conflicting studies after his teenage son became addicted to pot, and 
turned his findings into a 22-page article for Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2012.

For all of the talk that smoking pot is no big deal, Bostwick says, 
he determined that "it was a very big deal. There were addiction 
issues. There were psychosis issues.

But there was also this very large body of literature suggesting that 
it could potentially have very valuable pharmaceutical applications 
but the research was stymied" by federal barriers.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says research is ongoing.

Dr. Nora Volkow, the institute's director, worries that legalizing 
pot will result in increased use of marijuana by young people, and 
impair their brain development.

"Think about it: Do you want a nation where your young people are 
stoned?" she asks.

Partisans on both sides think people in other states will keep a 
close eye on Colorado and Washington as they decide what happens next.

But past predictions on pot have been wildly off-base.

"Reefer Madness," the 1936 propaganda movie that pot fans turned into 
a cult classic in the 1970s, spins a tale of dire consequences 
"ending often in incurable insanity."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom