The Commercial Appeal
Feds let pot use grow
As states OK it, U.S. silent
WASHINGTON — It took 50 years for American attitudes about marijuana to zigzag from the paranoia of “Reefer Madness” to the excesses of Woodstock back to the hard line of “Just Say No.”
The next 25 years took the nation from Bill Clinton, who famously “didn’t inhale,” to Barack Obama, who did.
Now, in just a few short years, public opinion has moved dramatically toward general acceptance. As attitudes change, states are moving to approve the
drug — for medical use and for fun.
The trend is rife with contradictions:
People are looking more kindly on marijuana even as science reveals more about the drug’s potential dangers, particularly for young people.
States are giving the green light to the drug in direct defiance of a federal prohibition on its use.
Exploration of the potential medical benefit is limited by high federal hurdles to research.
Washington policymakers seem reluctant to deal with any of it.
Richard Bonnie, a University of Virginia law professor who worked for a national commission that recommended decriminalizing marijuana in 1972, sees the public taking a big leap from prohibition to a more laissez-faire approach without full deliberation.
“It’s a remarkable story historically,” he says. “But as a matter of public policy, it’s a little worrisome.”
More than a little worrisome to those in the antidrug movement.
“We’re on this hundred-mile-an-hour freight train to legalizing a third addictive substance,” says Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the Obama administration, lumping marijuana with tobacco and alcohol.
Legalization strategist Ethan Nadelmann, execu- tive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, likes the direction the marijuana smoke is wafting. But knows his side has considerable work yet to do.
“I’m constantly reminding my allies that marijuana is not going to legalize itself,” he says.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes since California voters made the first move in 1996. Voters in Colorado and Washington state took the next step last year and approved pot for recreational use. Alaska is likely to vote on the same question in 2014, and a few other states are expected to put recreational use on the ballot in 2016.
Where California led the charge on medical marijuana, the next chapter in this story is being written in Colorado and Washington state. Policymakers there face one central question: How do you legally regulate the production, distribution, sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes when federal law bans all of the above?
The Justice Department began reviewing the mat- ter after last November’s election. But seven months later, states still are on their own because the department has offered no guidance.
Both sides in the debate paid close attention when Obama said in December that “it does not make sense, from a prioritization point of view, for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law that’s legal.”
Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat who favors legalization, predicts Washington will take a hands-off approach, based