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The Future of Marijuana Reform, After Huge Victories in 2012

Marijuana reform has huge momentum after legalization victories in Washington and Colorado. Here's what's coming next.

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There is also a prominent gender gap. Men consistently support marijuana law reform in far greater numbers than women, typically by about nine percentage points. Arguably, reformers must better target and appeal to voters in these important demographics. Grassroots outreach efforts like the Silver Tour and NORML’s Women’s Alliance are laudable first steps toward building necessary inroads within these communities. But far greater and more expansive outreach is required in order for reformers to better gain the trust and support of women and older Americans – two of the most powerful forces in modern politics.

Better Identify What ‘Legalization’ Means to the General Public

Now that it is becoming self-evident that a majority of Americans support the notion of marijuana "legalization," there needs to be better clarity among advocates regarding what the public means when they use this terminology. Do a majority of Americans want to see cannabis regulated like alcohol and cigarettes, or do most of the voting public simply want adult marijuana consumers to be left alone? Do Americans favor taxing marijuana sales? If so, how much should this tax be? Are most Americans comfortable with the idea of licensed pot sales in stores? If so, in which types of stores would these sales take place, and to whom? Would producers and distributors be able to market and advertise their product like alcohol and pharmaceuticals? Is a majority of the public willing to accept advertisements for cannabis on television in manner similar to the ways Viagra, Budweiser and Levitra are promoted?

In short, if marijuana law reform advocates hope to successfully harness the public’s rapidly changing pot sentiments into actual changes in pot policies, then reformers must better identify and clarify precisely what the public and elected officials are ready to accept. And they must proceed accordingly.

Finish the Job in Colorado and Washington

Arguably, before reformers can begin looking toward the future, they must first finish the job in Colorado and Washington. That means making sure that those state’s new laws regulating the consumption and retail distribution of cannabis are implemented responsibly – both by state regulators (many of whom may be motivated to over-regulate the plant) as well as by the cannabis community (some of whom may try to exploit these nascent laws). It is up to the reform movement to insist that egregious violations of the spirit of these laws do not occur.

This movement is now acting on a national stage. Politicians and voters from around the nation, if not the world, are waiting to see that this movement and the cannabis community can legally regulate the plant in a manner that is allied with the voters’ sentiments and that they can do so in a way that does not negatively impact public safety. Assuring the proper and appropriate implementation of cannabis legalization in Colorado and Washington will galvanize support for the enactment of similar policies in other states around the country. But the failure to do so will undercut the public’s support for legalization and could provoke a nationwide backlash the reform movement can ill afford.

Be Open to Regulation, But Be Wary of Over-Regulation

Reformers in the months and years ahead must better engage the public as to the safety of cannabis relative to other controlled substances, including most therapeutic drugs, herbal supplements or social intoxicants. Marijuana poses a very low risk of toxicity to healthy cells and organs. It lacks overdose death potential in humans, and it possesses an unparalleled safety profile (ratio of effective dose to fatal dose). Further, compared to virtually all legally marketed synthetic agents, cannabis possesses a much longer and wider history of human use. As a result, scientists today arguably do not need to speculate as to the long-term effects of cannabis use by adults. Rather, society ought to acknowledge that human beings from all walks of life have largely used cannabis safely for thousands of years.

Why is this discussion so important? It’s important because as America transitions from a policy of cannabis prohibition to one of legalization, reformers must be ready and willing to engage in serious conversations with lawmakers and the public regarding the enactment and imposition of appropriate regulations guiding cannabis’ consumption, production, and distribution. Ideally, the facts surrounding marijuana’s unique and exceptional safety profile relative to other legally available substances must drive this conversation. Regulators are unlikely, at least at first, to accept legalizing cannabis without imposing significant regulations upon it. It is the job of reformers to see to it that these regulations are not overly burdensome to the adult cannabis consumer and that they do not inadvertently foster a lucrative grey market.

As a consumer lobby, NORML is accepting of proposed regulations that are intended to benefit the adult cannabis user. These potentially include: the enactment of regulations regarding retail product testing for purity and potency, some level of product standardization (again, this would be applicable to commercially produced and distributed cannabis only), the imposition of state or local licensing requirements for commercial producers, guidelines governing how the product may or may not be marketed publicly, the imposition of labeling requirements regarding concurrent use of the product with other psychotropic substances, warning labeling regarding cannabis’ influence of psychomotor performance, and/or labeling requirements specific to substance’s potential risks among certain subpopulations who may be more prone to risks (such as those with a history of mental illness or psychiatric disorders). The enactment of some or all of these regulations would better inform the prospective cannabis consumer, be consistent with those governing similar products in the marketplace, and would be in accordance with the plant’s relatively low risk potential.

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