The Commercial Appeal

Feds let pot use grow

As states OK it, U.S. silent

- By Alicia A. Caldwell and Nancy Benac

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

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