EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 9, 2013

Column: Legal marijuana gets a boost in recent election

Ann McFeatters
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Coffee? Tea? Beer? Wine? A joint?

The times, they are a-changin’. Fast.

In Colorado and the state of Washington, it’s legal for adults 21 and older to possess and use small amounts of recreational marijuana. In 20 states and the District of Columbia, it’s legal to use weed for medicinal reasons.

In Tuesday’s election, three Michigan cities and Portland, Maine, legalized small amounts of marijuana in landslide votes with almost no opposition. In Colorado, about 65 percent of voters approved establishing a 15 percent tax on the wholesale sale of marijuana for adult use and a 10 percent sales tax on retail marijuana sales, in addition to standard state and local sales taxes. The money will be used in part to oversee the sale of grass in state-licensed stores.

Much as states across the nation are rushing to approve same-sex marriage laws, another huge social change is clearly on the way: legalization of marijuana for adults.

The White House says marijuana is the nation’s most-used illicit drug, with as many as 18 million Americans over 12 admitting use in the previous month. In 2006, advocates of legalization insisted marijuana is the nation’s largest cash crop, more lucrative than wheat, corn, soy or cotton. That claim has been reputably disputed, but there is no doubt that cultivation of marijuana brings in billions of dollars.

Legalization advocates slyly note that if it were legal to grow marijuana across the nation, tax coffers would expand dramatically.

Arguments against legalization are much the same as those used during Prohibition about alcohol. It can be horrifically abused and addictive. A driver under the strong influence of marijuana is just as dangerous as an intoxicated driver. We don’t want children using either substance.

But advocates of legalization are winning. One strong argument is the huge number of people in jail for drugs, including marijuana. (America has 2.3 million people in prison, more than any other nation, according to the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London. The rate per 100,000 people is almost higher than the rate in Russia, Canada and China combined.)

Experts say a majority of Americans no longer think moderate use of marijuana should be criminalized. How did that happen?

For one thing, there is a national wave of anti-government sentiment. With the faith of Americans in nearly every institution rocked in recent years, there is a fairly widespread belief that government has overstepped its bounds in too many areas involving personal choices.

Another is skepticism that moderate use of marijuana is as damaging as was thought or that it leads to the abuse of more hardcore drugs. Also, marijuana is so easily grown that its appearance is not as shocking as it once was. (However, big-time drug lords still harvest huge crops hidden away in national forests and other remote government property.)

Millions of adults who grew up in the libertine 1960s think that marijuana and alcohol should be similarly regulated and that it makes little sense to criminalize one and not the other.

We have come a long way since 1987, when President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Douglas Ginsburg to the Supreme Court was derailed over his controversial use of marijuana as a law school professor. Just four years later, when the White House disclosed that Clarence Thomas had smoked marijuana as a college student, it wasn’t an issue in his confirmation to the high court.

Former President George W. Bush refused to answer whether he had ever smoked marijuana, but President Barack Obama admitted in his book, “Dreams of My Father,” that he smoked marijuana as a teenager. Obama strongly opposes legalization.

The federal government still considers the sale, possession and use of marijuana illegal, although the Justice Department says it will not interfere with state legalization laws such as those in Washington and Colorado.

Here’s betting that in the not-too-distant future, baby boomers nationwide will be warning their grandchildren that weed may be legal but it should be used only in moderation.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.