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Marijuana Rights Groups Prepared for Serious Highs and Lows

Posted: 11/19/10 06:51 PM ET

Medical marijuana is so over. Talk to the activists, doctors and lawyers, they'll tell you as much. Look closely at how it's being implemented in New Jersey and you'll agree. Despite the fact that Arizona just became the 15th state to pass legislation permitting the use of medicinal marijuana, supporters say their movement "peaked" in California and Colorado and is moving toward a model of extreme regulation, perhaps even a takeover by Big Pharma as marijuana-imitating pills, arm patches, and eye drops enter the market and alter the politics.

Needless to say, NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, isn't too stoked about that. Pharmaceutical companies are getting FDA approval by mimicking the plant's benefits while eliminating its "high".

"Politicians don't like passing medical marijuana laws because, it's true, people get high," Allen St. Pierre, NORML's Executive Director, said. He fears is that these politically-safe, potentially expensive alternatives will provide an excuse to scale back the medical marijuana industry's growth. "In the comings years patients who cant afford pharmaceutical drugs will have to get access through full legalization," he said.

That seems to be the plan.

NORML has always viewed medical marijuana as a means to a full-legalization end. As long ago as 1979 they described the movement as a "red herring to give marijuana a good name" and their research suggests that it has already served that purpose. St. Pierre claims that 8 - 9 states poll with over 50% approval for legalization. Activists in Colorado, Oregon and Washington specifically are feeling confident enough to plan legalization campaigns. They face an uphill battle, however, St. Pierre said. He believes California on will be the first to legalize it. And he listed five reasons why he believes it will happen in 2012:

It's the economy, bro
Historians often argue that the prohibition of alcohol would have continued for decades longer than the 13-plus years it lasted, had it not been for the Great Depression. Acute economic times sharpen the attitudes of politicians. They're often resigned to accept that they can't afford to enforce unenforceable laws, while simultaneously exploring the benefits of lifting prohibitions on taxable goods. Governor Schwarzenegger already demonstrated the former when he decriminalized marijuana possession for less than an ounce. And full legalization will remain a tempting option as long as California's deficit is in the red.

"It's bittersweet, considering that most of us have to suffer these economic times," St Pierre said. But as Rahm Emanuel once quipped, you should never let a serious crisis to go to waste.

Flower children are now in charge
The Greatest Generation passed the torches of government, media, education, entertainment and law to the Baby Boomers, who bring with them a vastly different experience with marijuana. Grandma's still locked into that "Reefer Madness" era, St. Pierre said, and she still votes with those hardened values. "Sad as it will be for the family, as she passes, God bless her, largely goes that ideology," he said. Post-war generations have much more tolerant attitudes toward cannabis.

Medical marijuana has altered perceptions
One in eight Americans live in California, and over 50% of the counties in that state allow for the retail sale of medical marijuana on Main Street. Add them to the citizens of Colorado, Nevada and Washington, which license dispensaries as well, and you have tens of millions of Americans living in communities where they can walk by a medical marijuana dispensary on their way to a bank or a dry cleaner. "It's right there," St. Pierre said, "and there's no real issue with it being there, except for zoning and land use if anything."

"Many people just don't see the problem with legalizing marijuana because medical dispensaries haven't been that big of a deal," he added.

The Internet has revolutionized the way they organize
NORML has 1.3 million people in its network, and if it had to send each of them a one ounce mailing tomorrow it'd be bankrupt. The Internet allows them now to communicate at that level now despite their limits.

The Internet also opened private channels of information to the public. In decades past, if people wanted to learn the benefits or side effects of marijuana, they had to go to a library and dig through dewy decimal system. They might have had to ask a librarian for embarrassing and potentially problematic information. Now they can just download a gazillion pages at their leisure.

"The dissemination of information that is verifiable and credible is important," St. Pierre said. "One of the biggest criticisms we have, as to why prohibition has lasted so long, is that mainstream American media has largely been a lapdog, not a watchdog, in regards to the government's failed marijuana policies. Right up to the mid-90s, for a group of people who disagreed with something the government was doing, it was harder and more expensive to communicate with each other. Today in 20 minutes you can get a Facebook page up about something you like or don't like. You can start to organize around a concept immediately."

Prop 19 was also a victory
The media delighted in calling the Prop 19 -- California's recent measure to legalize marijuana -- a "pipe dream" that didn't so much fall short as go "up in smoke." Its most seasoned backers however, NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance, never intended 2010 to be their year. Initially they advised its organizers in Oakland to save their energy for 2012, when the presidential elections will attract a larger youth vote. Of course they went ahead anyway. And it turned into a productive dress rehearsal with unprecedented levels of coalition building. Never before have so many minority groups, large unions, and law enforcement organizations rallied behind a the controversial cause. The initiative also inspired some affluent twenty-somethings to come out of their smoke-filled closets. Dustin Moskowitz, co-creator of Facebook, Sean Parker, former-Facebook president and Paul Buchheit, the founder of Gmail, each plunked down generous donations supporting Yes on Prop 19. "We've been around and they could have contacted us in advance," St. Pierre said. "But it was the initiative that got them off the sidelines."

A significant portion of Prop 19's opposition also admitted it was open to conversion. The bill's structure, not is essence, is all that turned of the editorial boards. The Los Angelous Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee, for example, generally agreed that, while Prop 19 was flawed, the war on drugs has been an "abject failure", legalization is a "valid subject for discussion", and "it might even be time for a ballot initiative to change the law."

Finally, Prop 19 was voted down by a vote of 54%-to-46%, but for a flawed bill on a midterm ballot, that kind of turnout is nothing to scoff at. "It's a pretty remarkable base to build upon for 2012," St. Pierre said.

Until then ...
In the coming years, NORML will join other local and national organizations in challenging the pharmaceutical remodeling of medical marijuana, a looming political trend that they call "anti-pleasure seeking, hypocritical" policy toward intoxicating drugs. Meanwhile, they'll insist that California, always the vanguard of marijuana policy in America, is the greatest hope medical marijuana users have going forward.

 

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