Pubdate: Sun, 23 Aug 2015
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2015 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Authors: Brianna Gurciullo, Karen Mawdsley and Katie Campbell, News21 
reporter Anne M. Shearer contributed to this article. She is an 
Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow. Brianna 
Gurciullo is the Kathryn Green Endowment and Stephen Holly Bronz NEWS21

Special Report Legalizing Marijuana


Proponents, With State Wins Under Their Belt, Say Yes. Foes Aren't Conceding.

WASHINGTON - Advocacy groups have poured millions of dollars into 
legalizing marijuana in states across the country.

One of the most powerful groups - Marijuana Policy Project, based in 
Washington, D.C. - was behind successful measures in Alaska and 
Colorado to allow recreational use. MPP organizers hope to replicate 
those efforts in five states next year, a potentially significant 
undertaking for the effort to end marijuana prohibition.

It's all part of a well-funded, well-organized machine. Proponents 
have found so much success because they have learned how to secure 
financial backing, take advantage of changing attitudes, and address 
fears about legalization. Legalization efforts could appear on 
ballots in about a dozen states next year. Twenty-three states and 
the District of Columbia now allow medical marijuana use. Washington 
and Oregon join Colorado, Alaska, and D.C. as places where adults 
already can smoke pot recreationally.

New Jersey and Delaware have legalized medical marijuana. A bill to 
do the same in Pennsylvania could get a vote this year.

In Congress, lawmakers have started to voice positions on pot, and 
more support state medical marijuana laws. Presidential candidates 
are talking about the issue.

Leaders in the pro-legalization movement say the questions are no 
longer whether the federal government will treat marijuana like 
alcohol, but when, and not whether the states will legalize, 
regulate, and tax pot sales, but how.

"We're past the tipping point," said Keith Stroup, founder of the 
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "There are 
all kinds of signs that people have figured out that prohibition is 
coming to an end."

Legalization foes aren't conceding any time soon.

"I don't think that legalization is inevitable," said Alan Shinn, 
executive director of the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii. "There's 
other alternatives to legalization. We should really be taking a 
public health approach to this, especially with our youth."

And that's still a sticking point. The Drug Enforcement 
Administration classifies marijuana as one of the most dangerous 
drugs, "with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."

The disparity between states with liberal marijuana laws and the 
decades-old federal prohibition of its sale and use has caused 
confusion in law enforcement and tension in the business world. 
Pro-legalization groups said that's their goal: Put so much pressure 
on the federal government by legalizing state by state that the 
discrepancy finally ends.

"I actually consider 2016 to be what I call the game-over year 
because there's a good chance that a bunch of states will legalize 
marijuana," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug 
Policy Alliance. "We're reaching the point where the federal 
government is going to have no other choice than to change with the times."

Strategic with resources

In the 1970s, NORML led the reform fight. Now, two other 
organizations help run multimillion-dollar campaigns to support state 
measures to allow medical marijuana, decriminalize possession of 
small amounts of the drug, or fully legalize adult use.

The Marijuana Policy Project, founded in 1995, has emerged as a 
political powerhouse with robust fund-raising, effective campaign 
messaging, and expertise in ballot initiatives and legislation. The 
Drug Policy Alliance launched in 2000 to end the "War on Drugs." The 
group claims marijuana arrests disproportionately affect racial 
minorities and drain law enforcement resources.

The groups and their campaigns have benefited over decades from 
philanthropists. And they have honed their strategies.

Allen St. Pierre, who became executive director of NORML a decade 
ago, said proponents of marijuana-law reform mirror tactics from of 
women's rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements.

"We organized. We petitioned our government peacefully for 
grievances. We went to the courts and asked for relief," he said. 
"We've used science and language to cajole, persuade, and effectively 
win what is called in the military a 'hearts and minds' campaign."

Mason Tvert, MPP communications director, said that the public has 
become more accepting of medical marijuana and supportive of removing 
criminal penalties, but that fear still surrounds "marijuana for 
fun." Several ballot measures to legalize recreational use failed 
between 2002 and 2010. Ultimately, he said, people "just thought it 
was too dangerous of a substance."

Survey results inspired a change in tactics: MPP polls indicated that 
people were more likely to support legalization if they thought pot 
was less harmful than alcohol. That became the argument behind the 
campaign in Colorado to legalize recreational marijuana. When that 
measure passed in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote, Colorado became a 
model for other state efforts. All took the campaign name "Regulate 
Marijuana Like Alcohol."

Falling dominoes

The different groups advocating for legalization don't always agree 
on the methods or details. But Stroup said the liberalization of 
marijuana laws has followed a pattern. Western states lead the way - 
reducing possession penalties, allowing residents to use medical 
marijuana, or eliminating all penalties and creating systems to 
regulate sales. Then momentum builds in the East. Progress is slower 
in the Midwest, and even more elusive in the South.

MPP prefers to run ballot-initiative campaigns instead of pushing 
bills in state legislatures. But such a victory could be the 
movement's next turning point, an important step because only about 
half of the states allow citizen-initiated ballot measures.

"We have to just simply work it every year ... bringing in good 
witnesses, provide elected officials with the best information, and, 
over a period of time, as they become more comfortable with the 
concept, then we'll be winning it with state legislatures," Stroup said.

In 2016, Rhode Island and Vermont could become the first states to 
pass bills legalizing marijuana. Polls show support in both states.

Time could become the movement's greatest ally. Sixty-four percent of 
those between 18 and 34 support legalization, compared with 41 
percent among those 55 and older, Gallup reports.

Still, "There is a huge group of people who are kind of fishy on it," 
said Sarah Trumble, senior policy counsel at Third Way, a think tank 
in Washington, D.C. Many in this group support legalizing marijuana 
for medical but not recreational use.

"Values are really what drive them," said Trumble. "There's a 
compassion value that ties into medical marijuana."

She says as more states legalize, more Americans admit using 
marijuana and it loses its stigma, public opinion will keep shifting 
toward legalization.

Into the mainstream?

Members of Congress are finally beginning to support research and 
accept state medical programs. The issue has gone from "an 
untouchable, unthinkable, third-rail issue to a legitimate, 
mainstream topic of debate," said Dan Riffle, MPP's director of 
federal policies.

But the path of least resistance is unclear.

Riffle said some lawmakers have tried to address the issue 
incrementally, through bills such as those to permit banking by 
marijuana businesses, or let Veterans Affairs doctors recommend 
marijuana for patients in states where it's legal. "But then you're 
going to have other folks who say, 'Look, rather than passing seven, 
eight, 12 different bills ... let's just grapple with the underlying 
problem, which is the conflict between state and federal marijuana 
laws," he said.

The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act would do that. It would amend 
the Controlled Substances Act to protect anyone producing, 
possessing, distributing, dispensing, administering, or delivering 
marijuana in states where to do so is legal. The bill has six 
Republicans and eight Democrats as co-sponsors.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer ( D., Ore.) predicts the U.S. government will 
treat marijuana like alcohol within a decade. "With a new 
administration, with several more states legalizing, with public 
opinion solidifying, and with more and better research, I think in 
the next administration and the next Congress or two, we'll be in a 
position to just basically say, ' States, do what you want to do,' " he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom