Pubdate: Sun, 09 Nov 2014
Source: Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)
Copyright: 2014 The Oregonian
Author: Jeff Mapes


After voters in Washington and Colorado voted to legalize marijuana 
in 2012, Alison Holcomb would tell pot activists it was too early to 
say that the rest of America was ready to accept the drug.

Holcomb, an American Civil Liberties Union official who managed 
Washington's legalization campaign, recalled that nearly a dozen 
states - including Oregon - decriminalized possession of small 
amounts of the drug in the 1970s.

"And then the '80s came and the pendulum swung back hard," she said, 
as President Ronald Reagan called marijuana "probably the most 
dangerous drug in America" and stepped up federal enforcement against 
all illegal drugs.

Holcomb now feels more confident that marijuana will be widely legal 
after watching Oregon and Alaska voters approve the possession and 
retail sales.

Legalization in two more states -- in a non-presidential year when 
fewer younger people vote  marks an important milestone in the drive 
to sweep away criminal penalties against a drug routinely used by 
millions of Americans, Holcomb and other activists say. On top of 
that, in Washington, D.C., voters said adults should be able to grow 
and possess the drug.

"A decade or a generation from now, people will look back on the 
marijuana wars and say, 'What the hell was that about," said Ethan 
Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the group 
that primarily funded Oregon's marijuana initiative.

Not everyone agrees that marijuana is on its way to the mainstream.

Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug official and prominent 
national opponent of legalization, said supporters so far had an 
overwhelming financial advantage and that "the country is not ready 
to fully embrace legalization."

Regardless, the growing strength of the movement to legalize 
marijuana represents a sea change for a drug that first became 
prominent as a symbol of the 1960s counterculture.

Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer has probably been voting on 
marijuana issues longer than any politician in America.

As a 24-year-old state representative in 1973, Blumenauer supported 
Oregon's first-in-the-nation law to punish possession of up to one 
ounce with a citation comparable to a traffic ticket.

Ten states followed and President Jimmy Carter in 1977 urged Congress 
to eliminate federal penalties for possessing small amounts of pot.

"We can, and should, continue to discourage the use of marijuana, but 
this can be done without defining the smoker as a criminal," said 
Carter. "States which have already removed criminal penalties for 
marijuana use, like Oregon and California, have not noted any 
significant increase in marijuana smoking."

Blumenauer thought the country was well on the way toward ending 
criminal sanctions.

But Reagan, running as the champion of traditional values, turned that around.

"Marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the 
most dangerous drug in the United States," Reagan proclaimed at one 
campaign stop, "and we haven't begun to find out all of the ill effects."

After he was elected in 1980, first lady Nancy Reagan led a "Just Say 
No" approach to drugs and championed toughened laws. For Ronald 
Reagan, accustomed to using anti-war protesters, dissident college 
students and the hippie movement as foils, the move made political sense.

"Reagan campaigned against the counterculture," Blumenauer said, 
noting that his anti-drug push came when crime rates were rising and 
"people didn't want to be seen as soft on crime."

During the Reagan administration, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl 
Gates started a national group, Drug Abuse Resistance Education - 
DARE - that had officers visit schools to encourage students to 
pledge to avoid drugs.

Proponents said youth use of marijuana fell during the 1980s, proving 
the value of the "Just Say No" approach.

But the war on drugs also contributed to an explosive increase in the 
prison population, leading critics to complain that the focus should 
be on drug treatment and not incarceration.

At the same time, more activists argued that marijuana was effective 
in treating such diseases as glaucoma and in easing the pain and 
nausea of cancer treatments.

Marijuana use became common among AIDS patients, helping to lead to 
passage of the nation's first medical marijuana law, in California in 1996.

"That's where you began to have a different conversation about 
marijuana," said Nadelmann, adding that it "helped shift the imagery 
of a marijuana user" from that of a clueless stoner to a gaunt cancer patient.

Oregon, Washington and Alaska followed two years later; 23 states now 
have medical marijuana laws.

Critics and supporters of medical marijuana argue over whether those 
laws are to blame for an increase in under-age use of the drug, with 
dueling studies drawing opposite conclusions.

At the same time, the millennials - the children of the baby boomers 
who first grappled with marijuana - entered adulthood with a casual 
acceptance of the drug, even though surveys showed that most were not 
regular users.

Nationally, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health said last year 
that nearly 20 million people 12 and older, or about 7.5 percent of 
the population, used marijuana in the last month.

In Oregon, estimates prepared by the Legislative Revenue Office to 
study the tax impact of legalization, said around 300,000 adults used 
marijuana in the last month. Another 67,000 have medical marijuana cards.

Just as happened with gay marriage, the millennials provided the 
strongest force in polls that show rising support for marijuana over 
the last two decades.

Yet while Americans increasingly came to see marriage equality as a 
moral right, most didn't put marijuana in those terms, according to 
an analysis of public opinion by William Galston and E.J. Dionne Jr. 
of the Brookings Institution.

"A significant minority favor legalization, not because they think 
that smoking marijuana is an affirmative good," the two wrote in 
2013, "but because they doubt the ability of law to enforce a 
prohibition against it."

The issue also cut across party lines, with many conservatives saying 
it was a states' rights issue, or even that it wasn't up to 
government to tell someone what they could put in their own body. And 
many respondents say they were soft in their support for legalization.

Still, Gallup found support for legalizing marijuana outpacing 
opposition around 2010, just when activists put a legalization 
measure on the California ballot.

The measure failed by seven percentage points, but just the 
possibility it could pass in the nation's most populous state 
attracted copious media coverage and widespread discussion.

Now, after four states have legalized the drug, activists plan to 
return the issue to the California ballot in 2016. And they reel off 
other states where they expect to push for legalization soon.

Galston, the Brookings scholar and former aide to President Bill 
Clinton, said he thinks a patchwork of mostly blue states will 
legalize marijuana as part of a "long national conversation" about the drug.

Blumenauer predicted that marijuana will become a serious issue in 
the 2016 presidential race, with candidates asked where they stand on 
issues ranging from whether they support legalization to whether they 
back the Obama administration's decision to let states allow retail sales.

Sabet, the legalization critic, noted that Gallup on Thursday 
published a poll finding that majority support for legalization 
dropped from 58 percent to 51 percent in the past year.

That could signal that Americans aren't happy with the growing 
marijuana industry they're seeing in Colorado and Washington, he said.

The industry is "taking their cues from Big Tobacco," Sabet said in 
an email, "downplay the risks, encourage heavy use [and] start 'em young."

Legalization supporters scoff at those claims, arguing that 
regulating marijuana gives authorities more tools to combat under-age 
use. Also, some other pollsters did not find a drop in support for 

"Anbyody who is afraid that marijuana is going to be a big business 
has their head in the sand," said Blumenauer, "because it's big 
business now...It's just that it is in the shadows, or worse."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom