Pubdate: Tue, 25 Oct 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Thomas Fuller


SAN FRANCISCO - To the red-and-blue map of American politics, it may
be time to add green. The movement to legalize marijuana, the
country's most popular illicit drug, will take a giant leap on
Election Day if California and four other states vote to allow
recreational cannabis, as polls suggest they may.

The map of where pot is legal could include the entire West Coast and
a block of states reaching from the Pacific to Colorado, raising a
stronger challenge to the federal government's ban on the drug.

In addition to California, Massachusetts and Maine both have
legalization initiatives on the ballot next month that seem likely to
pass. Arizona and Nevada are also voting on recreational marijuana,
with polls showing Nevada voters evenly split.

The passage of recreational marijuana laws in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon
and Washington over the past four years may have unlocked the door to
eventual federal legalization. But a yes vote in California, which has
an economy the size of a large industrial country's, could blow the
door open, experts say.

"If we're successful, it's the beginning of the end of the war on
marijuana," said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California
and a former mayor of San Francisco. "If California moves, it will put
more pressure on Mexico and Latin America writ large to reignite a
debate on legalization there."

Legalization puts pot-legal states in direct conflict with the federal
government, particularly the Drug Enforcement Administration, which in
August defied calls for a softening of regulations on marijuana and
reaffirmed its classification as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category
as heroin.

Legalization also reinforces a jarring dysfunction between state and
federal legal systems over how to handle financial transactions
related to marijuana. The federal government, which in 2013 announced
it would not prosecute states for legalizing marijuana under certain
conditions, accepts taxes from marijuana companies. But the same
companies have trouble opening bank accounts or accepting credit cards
because of the federal marijuana ban.

The market for both recreational and medicinal marijuana is projected
to grow to $22 billion in four years from $7 billion this year if
California says yes, according to projections by the Arcview Group, a
company that links investors with cannabis companies.

"This is the vote heard round the world," said Arcview's chief
executive, Troy Dayton. "What we've seen before has been tiny compared
to what we are going to see in California."

And yet scholars who have studied these legalization measures say that
to a large extent they are very much a shot in the dark, a vast public
health experiment that could involve states that hold 23 percent of
the United States population - and generate a quarter of the country's
economic output - carried out with relatively little scientific
research on the risks. In addition, there are 25 states that already
permit medical marijuana.

To hear proponents of legalization in California tell it, a yes vote
here would allow the same benefits seen in Colorado - a sharp
reduction in drug arrests and a large increase in tax collection - but
on a scale many times larger.

After years of resistance, proponents say their long-sought goal is
finally within reach.

"My ultimate objective is to get this plant into the hands of every
single human being on the planet who needs it - and in my view that's
everybody," said Steve DeAngelo, the founder of Harborside, a medical
marijuana dispensary in Oakland that bustles with clients taking
advantage of a medical marijuana law that has been in place for two

"It's almost a religious spiritual thing," Mr. DeAngelo said. "Mother
Nature gave us this healing plant."

Obtaining a quarter-ounce of marijuana in San Francisco, once the
symbol of the city's illicit counterculture, would be as easy as
ordering a pizza, a manifestation of the partnership between the tech
industry and medical marijuana business.

Legalization would also further transform parts of the California
countryside into pot-growing farms, and it would legitimize and
perhaps help consolidate an industry that once out of the shadows will
most likely have the same lobbying power as tobacco and alcohol
companies. According to Marijuana Business Daily, a trade publication,
the recreational marijuana industry would be larger than the wine
industry if use was legalized nationwide.

The enthusiasm for pot legalization - 57 percent of Americans believe
it should be legal - has spurred experts to push back against what
they say is a widespread public perception that marijuana is a mild
drug and less harmful than tobacco or alcohol.

Jennifer Tejada, the chairwoman of the law and legislative committee
of the California Police Chiefs Association, says she is not against
legalization but argues that the measure is ill thought out.

California should first develop laws to determine when a marijuana
user is too impaired to drive, she said.

"It's like putting a 12-year-old behind the wheel of a car and saying,
'Go for a drive! Let's study the safety issues later,'" she said.
"It's ludicrous."

"We are teaching our kids more and more that living in an altered
state is a societal norm," said Scott Chipman, the Southern California
chairman of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, which is
campaigning against the measure. "This is not about a war on drugs -
it's a battle to protect the human brain, the mind, our futures, our

Proponents cite the tens of thousands of marijuana arrests in recent
years as a powerful reason for legalization. But Ms. Tejada says the
police in California no longer make arrests for possession or use of
small amounts.

"Go to any county jail and find someone who is in there for possession
of marijuana," she said. "It hasn't happened for two decades."

Stanton Glantz, a professor at the School of Medicine at the
University of California, San Francisco, says marijuana regulations,
which were formulated like laws for alcohol, should instead be modeled
after the measures passed in recent decades that discourage tobacco
use. Cigarette smoke and marijuana smoke have similar harmful chemical
profiles, he said.

The ballot initiatives in California and elsewhere are written "in a
way to maximize business potential without seriously considering the
public health impact," Professor Glantz said. Legalization lowers
arrests, but "this is exchanging a criminal justice crisis for a
public health crisis," he said.

A number of recent studies, while acknowledging the limits of research
under the federal ban, warn that marijuana's harmful effects -
especially on adolescent development, to the cardiovascular system and
to fetuses - have been understated.

A study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that
marijuana was more addictive than alcohol but less so than tobacco.
"The addictiveness of cannabis has been underestimated," said Jesse
Cougle, the lead author. The finding "definitely contradicts a lot of
opinions on the topic," he said. Among weekly users, the study found a
25 percent risk of dependence for marijuana compared with 16 percent
for alcohol and 67 percent for tobacco.

Proponents of legalization play down the potential dangers of
marijuana, saying generations of people have used it in what they
describe as a real-time experiment for harmful effects. "People die
from alcohol every day," said Adam Bierman, a co-founder and the chief
executive of MedMen, a cannabis investment firm. "People don't die
from marijuana."

Data from Colorado, still incomplete, provides a picture of what might
be in store for California and other states. A report by the Colorado
Department of Public Safety found both a 46 percent drop in the number
of marijuana arrests in 2014, the first year commercial marijuana was
available, and a rise in marijuana use among young people. It also
highlighted a "significant increase" in overall rates of emergency
room visits, from 739 per 100,000 in the three-year period before
legalization to 956 per 100,000 in the first year and a half of

Mr. Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, concedes that
legalizing marijuana has many challenges, among them staving off the
prospect of powerful marijuana monopolies and keeping what he termed a
"dangerous drug" out of the hands of children.

"It's on us to prove we can do this responsibly," he said. "I grant
that there are those who don't believe we are up to it. We have to
prove them wrong."
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