Pubdate: Sun, 15 Sep 2013
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Bill Steiden


Fighting marijuana use has been such a high priority that state, 
federal and local governments spend an estimated $8.7 billion a year 
on enforcement. But now the states of Washington and Colorado are 
going the opposite direction, legalizing marijuana's recreational 
use, regulating the market and putting a tax on its sale. Will more 
states and cities follow?

'War on Drugs'

After drug use proliferated in the 1960s with sometimes tragic 
consequences, President Richard Nixon in 1971 declared what he dubbed 
a "War on Drugs." It was backed by a 1970 congressional act that 
classified controlled substances according to their medical value, 
potential for abuse and perceived danger.

The law also expanded criminal penalties for drug possession and 
sale. Marijuana was placed along with heroin, LSD and a variety of 
other psychedelics in Schedule I - the category for dangerous drugs 
with high potential for abuse and no medical value.

The chairman of Nixon's own National Commission on Marijuana and Drug 
Abuse disagreed with the classification, advocating the 
decriminalization of petty marijuana possession, saying the law was too harsh.

But Nixon, with strong support from law enforcement officials and 
other drug opponents, made it one of the targets of his campaign, 
citing concern that pot smoking was a "gateway" to more serious drugs.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed an act that further stepped 
up penalties for marijuana sale and possession, including the 
possibility of life prison sentences for repeat offenders.

Chipping away

Over the past 40 years, marijuana advocates have chipped away at the 
Nixon-era laws, pointing to a variety of studies showing marijuana is 
no more harmful to the average person than legal drugs like alcohol. 
Eighteen states and dozens of cities passed statutes lowering local 
penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it a 
misdemeanor or civil offense.

But a bigger factor in turning the argument in their favor has been 
the slow but steadily growing acceptance of marijuana's medical value.

The movement started in 1976 with a federal court ruling recognizing 
a glaucoma patient's right to smoke marijuana to relieve his symptoms.

A series of other court rulings and studies bolstered the idea of 
marijuana's legitimate uses-especially as a nausea preventative for 
cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. In 1996, California became 
the first state to legalize it for medical purposes.

The District of Columbia and 19 other states followed, including 
Washington in 1998 and Colorado in 2000.

Numerous court rulings upheld the federal government's power to 
enforce anti-marijuana laws, and federal agents staged raids on 
California medical marijuana dispensaries suspected of selling pot to 
the general public.

But in 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder called a truce, officially 
declaring it would not be a federal priority to prosecute medical 
marijuana users and suppliers.

Legalize - and tax - it

In 2009, medical marijuana pioneer California, facing a state budget 
crisis, began considering legislation to turn recreational marijuana 
use into a legal, regulated market.

Proponents estimated it could reap more than $1 billion a year in tax revenues.

Marijuana use was already tolerated in some California cities, 
especially Oakland, where medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee 
became a major supporter of the legalization movement.

When the General Assembly failed to pass a bill, Lee helped bankroll 
a state ballot initiative. It failed amid law enforcement opposition, 
but soon similar campaigns were being launched in other states with 
low barriers to placing citizen initiatives on their ballots.

Three came to a vote last November: in Washington and Colorado, where 
legalization was approved, and Oregon, where it failed.

The votes weren't the last word - neither state's initiative could 
overrule the federal government's ability to enforce laws against marijuana.

But after Colorado and Washington moved to set up supervised 
marijuana markets with regulations aimed at keeping the drug out of 
the hands of minors and preventing interstate trafficking, Holder 
said late last month that the Justice Department would not challenge 
the state laws.

Next steps

The Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group that played a 
big role in passing many medical marijuana laws and Colorado's 
legalization of recreational use, announced last week that it is 
targeting 10 other states for the establishment of regulated pot 
markets. But many questions remain.

A Pew Research Center poll in March found for the first time that a 
majority of Americans supported marijuana legalization. But the 
margin was narrow, and as the experience in California showed, if law 
enforcement officials take a firm stand against legalization, voters listen.

There is also a tangle of conflicting state and federal laws and 
regulations to comb out - the Senate Judiciary Committee, for 
example, held a hearing last week on whether to allow the new, legal 
drug sellers to do business with federally regulated banks, weighing 
laws intended to restrict the drug market's finances against 
testimony by the Seattle area's top law officer that the cash-only 
operations could become inviting targets for robbers.

Many conservatives also question whether the attorney general can 
decide not to enforce federal drug laws - and hope to see him 
replaced with one who will after President Barack Obama leaves office.

And there are still those who believe the War on Drugs, even if it 
has not succeeded in crippling the illicit trade, remains a 
worthwhile endeavor.

More than anything, however, the deciding factor in whether 
legalization spreads is likely to be whether the early adopting 
states succeed in reaping a tax windfall without exacerbating the 
social ills associated with drug use.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom