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He also elicited joyous whoops when he jettisoned existing Bush-era policy last fall and instructed Attorney General Eric Holder and the vast federal anti-drug apparatus to stand down in the protracted war with states over medical marijuana. No longer would the private holder of a medical-marijuana card have to fear being busted by federal agents after picking up a supply of Kush from the corner dispensary. Nor would the dispensary owner have to worry about the feds.
For the marijuana lobby and its broader aims, the win was gigantic. It removed—for the current presidential term, at least—the daunting specter of federal interference and turned virtually the entire continental U.S. into one big, wide-open game board. Pot advocates divide that board state by state. Medical marijuana has been on the move since 1996 and is now legal in 14 states, including California, with at least a dozen more to debate it soon. Proponents predict it will continue to hopscotch from state to state much the way legalized gambling expanded along the Mississippi River and throughout much of the country in the 1980s and 1990s.
“We believe medical marijuana will be in more than half the states in two years . . . and maybe 47 states in the next 10 years,” says attorney Sean T. McAllister, who led a successful crusade this past fall to get pot legalized in the small ski-resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado. In a vote that was largely symbolic, given that possession remains a misdemeanor under Colorado law, 72 percent of Breckenridge voters favored changing local laws to remove any sanctions for private possession and use of less than an ounce of pot.
McAllister acknowledges that medicinal use of weed is a wedge to help pro-pot activists gain leverage in advancing recreational use of the drug. “Medical marijuana is really leading the way, letting us see what a taxed and regulated market for marijuana would look like,” McAllister says.
As Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, put it, “The face of marijuana isn’t some 17-year-old, pimply-faced kid; it’s an older person needing help.”
The widening perception that cannabis is a godsend for sufferers of cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and other afflictions has partially erased its own entrenched stigmas. To be sure, the purported benefits of marijuana—so vital to its broadening acceptance—are not without controversy. One website, CannabisCenters.com, boasts more than 240 maladies that respond to marijuana, from writers’ cramp to cystic fibrosis. For prostate cancer, Huntington’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus and grand mal seizures, pot promises at least a whiff of relief.
But it’s also a source of carcinogens. According to the federal National Institutes of Health, “Marijuana smoke contains some of the same—and sometimes even more—of the cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Studies show that someone who smokes five joints per day may be taking in as many cancer-causing chemicals as someone who smokes a full pack of cigarettes every day.”
The multimillion-dollar pot lobby has used the drug’s analgesic properties to press a more challenging agenda: to remove the barriers to recreational use, either through outright legalization or, at minimum, decriminalization, which, in most cases, means that being caught with less than an ounce is only a legal infraction comparable to a parking ticket.
On maps where activists track their progress nationally, they can already block out 10 states—among them California, Colorado, Massachusetts and New York — where the first offense involving simple possession no longer carries jail time.
The image makeover is but one of the important factors now propelling the movement. Another: the violence and obscene profits of the drug cartels. Those problems have given rise to the Al Capone argument: If you make it legal, criminal dealers can’t command exorbitant sums from customers desperate for a high—cash that would later be spent on bribes, machine guns and smuggling. Licensed, fully vetted growers operating just down the street would render the bloody drug kingpin as irrelevant as the Chicago bootlegger.
In the words of Mirken, “You don’t need Al Capone to ship alcohol when you have Anheuser Busch.”
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A good idea can become a great one if it involves making money—and doubly so if it generates new forms of tax revenue. At a time of housing foreclosures and bank failures, when California’s state government faces a whopping $21 billion projected budget deficit, licensing and taxing marijuana suddenly make sense even to some who might have abhorred the idea.
Lawful growers and retailers could cough up, say, $50 per ounce in taxes or fees and still charge less to consumers than the $150-per-ounce prices common on the black market. Governments would rake it in—and also save a fantastic amount by not arresting, not prosecuting and not imprisoning pot offenders.
Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron, author of the 2004 book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, makes the case that legalizing all banned drugs would benefit taxpayers nationwide by $77 billion per year by both generating new tax income and eliminating the costs of enforcement. Since marijuana represents about a third of the illicit-drug economy, legalizing pot would make a difference of roughly $25 billion, he says.