Pubdate: Thu, 23 Jan 2014
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2014 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Maria L. La Ganga, Tribune Newspapers

Pot Advocates Eye Favorable Polls, See 'National Tipping Point' As
They Seek Measures in at Least 5 States


SEATTLE - The new year is shaping up to be one of the marijuana
movement's strongest ever.

The first legal pot storefronts in America opened to long lines in
Colorado a few weeks ago. Washington state is poised to issue licenses
for producing, processing and selling the Schedule I drug - after
officials sift through about 7,000 applications.

Signature gatherers have been at work in at least five states to put
marijuana measures on the ballot in 2014. Last week organizers
announced they had gathered more than 1 million signatures in favor of
putting a medical marijuana measure before voters in Florida, a
high-population bellwether that could become the first Southern state
to embrace pot.

"Florida looks like the country as a whole," said Ben Pollara,
campaign manager for the Sunshine State's effort. "If Florida does
this, it is a big deal for medical marijuana across the country."

Just three months ago, a clear majority of Americans for the first
time said the drug should be legalized - 58 percent of those surveyed,
which represents a 10-percentage-point jump in just one year,
according to Gallup. Such acceptance is almost five times what Gallup
found when public opinion polling on marijuana began in 1969.

"What has happened now is we have reached the national tipping point
on marijuana reform," said Stephen Gutwillig, deputy executive
director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group. "Marijuana
legalization has gone from an abstract concept to a mainstream issue
to a political reality within a three-year period."

The Obama administration said last year it would not interfere in
states that allowed commercial marijuana sales - as long as they were
strictly regulated. But pot remains illegal under federal law, and
messages from on high are mixed.

Last week the chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement
Administration, James Capra, told a Senate panel, "Going down the path
to legalization in this country is reckless and irresponsible."

But in a lengthy New Yorker interview published Sunday, President
Barack Obama said of legalization in Washington and Colorado: "It's
important for it to go forward because it's important for society not
to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one
time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."

Obama said of marijuana, "I don't think it is more dangerous than

The big question, of course, is why attitudes toward marijuana are
shifting now. And the answer, according to pollsters and drug policy
experts, is a complicated stew of demographics, personal experience,
electoral success and the failure of existing drug policy.

To Alison Holcomb, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who
wrote the ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana in
Washington state, the "enormous jump" in approval of legalization in
just a year does not reflect "changes in attitudes about marijuana
specifically. Rather, it's a change in attitudes about whether it's OK
to support marijuana law reform."

In other words, Americans don't necessarily like pot more than they
used to. The percentage of those who have actually tried it has stayed
in the 30 percent range for three decades. Rather, Americans are
simply fed up with criminal penalties they say are neither
cost-effective nor just.

Those looking for evidence of marijuana's momentum need only look to
Jan. 8.

That's the day recreational pot supporters delivered about 46,000
signatures to election officials in Alaska - 50 percent more than
required - putting a measure on legalization one step closer to a vote
in the largely Republican state.

That same afternoon in deeply Democratic New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo,
a former prosecutor with a history of opposing the drug, announced a
modest medical marijuana pilot project.

"Research suggests that medical marijuana can help manage the pain and
treatment of cancer and other serious illnesses," an uncomfortable
looking Cuomo said, giving the subject 27 seconds in a nearly 90minute
State of the State address.

As Cuomo noted, an increasing number of states have enacted medical
marijuana laws. California was the first in 1996, followed by 19
others and the District of Columbia. The embrace of medical

marijuana to ease ills including Alzheimer's disease and seizures is
one reason that support for marijuana has continued to grow. Just
listen to the Pepper family.

The drugs that Riverside, Calif., lawyer Letitia Pepper, 59, took to
slow the progression of her multiple sclerosis caused side effects
worse than the disease itself, with its numbness, loss of dexterity
and temporary loss of vision.

The only relief, Pepper said, came when she began using marijuana in
2007. Today she is gathering signatures to get California Cannabis
Hemp Initiative 2014 on the ballot.

She had grown up, she said, as "a good girl. My homework was done. I
knew marijuana was illegal." She tried it once when she was 25, didn't
like it and left it behind. Until she needed it to help her function.

Pepper's improvement wasn't lost on her mother, Lorraine, 85. Two
years ago, the retired home economics teacher had surgery to repair a
hiatal hernia; her stomach had migrated through the hole in her
diaphragm into her chest cavity.

"Since that time, my brain hasn't worked like it used to, and my body
hasn't either," said the elder Pepper, who opposed marijuana until her
daughter began using it. She takes it as well, in a nonintoxicating
liquid form. "Anything that will help, I will try. I don't think I
sense a great improvement, but I have gradually gotten better."
Although people 65 and

older are the only age group that pollsters say still opposes
legalization, their support for the drug has also jumped more in
recent years than that of any other age group. Between 2011 and 2013,
Gallup found that the percentage of older Americans in favor of
legalization rose 14 percentage points - more than double any other
group surveyed.

Graham Boyd, who has worked on marijuana legalization efforts
nationwide, agrees that "the big movement is among older and more
conservative voters." But Boyd said internal polling showed that new
converts to marijuana support "don't particularly like marijuana,
don't have much experience in using marijuana and aren't deeply
attached to the position."

This is not, he said, "a hooray-for-marijuana vote. It's a vote that
what we are doing now is not working."

Boyd was counsel for the late philanthropist Peter Lewis, who
commissioned a research project after the defeat of California's
Proposition 19, a legalization measure, to understand the "landslide
retreat from marijuana support."

That effort, Boyd said, revealed that "instead of talking about the
virtues of marijuana, we need to talk about the better approach of
control through regulation." Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, who
spearheaded Lewis' research project, said that message connected with
voters in Washington state and Colorado.

Once voters approved legalization in Washington and Colorado in 2012,
public opinion began to change dramatically - enough so that marijuana
advocates have high hopes for 2014 and 2016.

"The ice-breaking effect of Washington and Colorado allowed more
people to say (legalization) might be an option," said the ACLU's Holcomb.
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