The next 25 years took the nation from Bill Clinton, who famously “didn’t inhale,” to Barack Obama, who most emphatically did.
Now, in just a few short years, public opinion has moved so dramatically toward general acceptance that even those who champion legalization are surprised at how quickly attitudes are changing and states are moving to approve the drug — for medical use and just for fun.
It is a moment in America that 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 benefi t is limited by high federal hurdles to research.
Washington policymakers seem reluctant to deal with any of it.
A new approach
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 said. “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 hundredmile- an- hour freight train to legalizing a third addictive substance,” said Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the Obama administration, lumping marijuana with tobacco and alcohol.
Legalization strategist Ethan Nadelmann, executive 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 said.
Where California led the charge on medical marijuana, the next chapter in this story is being written in Colorado and Washington state.
Policymakers there are grappling with all sorts of sticky issues revolving around 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?
Action up in the air
The Justice Department began reviewing the matter after last November’s election. But seven months later, states still are on their own.
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 on Obama’s comments. But he’s quick to add: “We would like to see that in writing.”
The federal government doesn’t go after potsmoking cancer patients or grandmas with glaucoma. But it also has made clear that people who are in the business of growing, selling and distributing marijuana on a large scale are subject to potential prosecution for violations of the Controlled Substances Act — even in states that have legalized medical use.
There’s a political calculus for the president, or any other politician, in all of this.
Younger people, who tend to vote more Democratic, are more supportive of legalizing marijuana, as are people in the West, where the libertarian streak runs strong.
Despite increasing public acceptance of marijuana overall, politicians know there are complications that could come with commercializing an addictive substance. Opponents of pot are particularly worried that legalization will result in increased use by young people.
Sabet frames the conundrum for Obama: “Do you want to be the president that stops a popular cause, especially a cause that’s popular within your own party? Or do you want to be the president that enables youth drug use that will have ramifi cations down the road?”