On the streets, the crackdown is readily apparent. Marijuana arrests are up in California, despite rising public tolerance. Activists theorize it is not just because more people are smoking the drug. El Paso, Texas, is another place where the ideological battle has flared dramatically. With cartels committing 1,600 murders in a year’s span just across the border in Juarez, Mexico, El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke pushed a resolution last January calling for a discussion on legalizing drugs to undercut the illegal market. “Mind you, it was not to legalize anything, necessarily,” says O’Rourke. “Basically, it was a way of saying the current policy had failed; we need to put everything on the table and have a dialogue.”

The City Council approved the resolution without dissent, but it was vetoed by Mayor John F. Cook. An irked O’Rourke tried to override the veto, only to be strong-armed by U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who phoned all eight council members to make sure the matter was quashed. “You need to cut this out,” O’Rourke recalls Reyes saying. “It’s going to be tough to get [federal] money for the community if you pass this.”

Reyes, a tough law-enforcement man who spent 27 years in the U.S. Border Patrol, might have handled it differently if the resolution had only dealt with marijuana, rather than all drugs, says his press deputy, Vincent Perez. As it was, the resolution was defeated—and drug deaths in Juarez have continued to climb. “We’re almost at 2,300 murders for [2009],” O’Rourke says.

NORML had a field day lambasting Reyes on its website. The “intense blowback” over the failed resolution actually achieved what O’Rourke termed a Pyrrhic victory for the hard-liners and a step forward for those willing to consider change. “All of a sudden, we had calls from all over the country,” O’Rourke says.

The psychological war is one the marijuana movement can win—and why weed advocates will likely win, barring the unforeseen. It is not quite a done deal, however, because the question of pot use, for many, becomes a moral argument, and moral values are slow to change. “People long for rules,” says sociologist B.J. Gallagher, an author and lecturer in Los Angeles. “Without them, the world would be chaotic and unpredictable. We’d be having sex with each other’s spouses, we’d be stealing things. . . . If we legalize pot, what next? Cocaine? Heroin?

“That’s what people are afraid of. It’s not the pot, per se. It’s the bigger issue—where do we draw the line? So they say, ‘Let’s not change the line.’”

But history shows that the line does change—eventually. “When a majority are saying, ‘This does not make sense,’ the line will shift,” Gallagher says. “We’ve seen it with [alcohol] prohibition, slavery, women’s rights. We’re now seeing it with gay rights. Our moral values change over time, despite the objection of people who are terrified.”

*     *     *

A new class is in session at Oaksterdam, a how-to about opening and running medical-marijuana dispensaries. Dark-haired, bespectacled lecturer Don Duncan, a prominent pot man due to his lobbying efforts at LA City Hall and his ownership of a busy outlet in West Hollywood, warns a room of rapt students to be mindful of the rules. After federal agents raided his business in 2007, Duncan says, the state Board of Equalization slapped a lien on his house for nonpayment of taxes.

“Don’t mess with those guys,” Duncan says. Pay your taxes. Pay your rent on time. Don’t drive a Bentley and take ’round-the-world vacations if you’re running a nonprofit collective.

“But if you earn a healthy salary because you work hard, that’s okay,” Duncan says. “That’s actually a very patriotic and American way of life.”

Senior Editor R. Scott Moxley contributed to this story.

 

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