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What Is It Going to Take for America to Turn into a Marijuana User's Paradise?

Is full legalization a realistic prospect, or will we forever have a patchwork of state laws?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/RomboStudio


Imagine a country where any adult could use marijuana for medicine, reflection, or just because they enjoy getting high, without fear of harassment or prosecution by police and politicians. That vision is a long way from becoming reality in America, but the country has in recent years taken enormous strides toward more rational and sensible marijuana policy, with more progress still to come.

Still an open question is whether full legalization is ever a realistic prospect, or if we are looking at a situation where we forever have a patchwork of state laws along the spectrum from legal recreational use, to progressive medical marijuana policy, to restrictive medical to full criminalization like we have now.  

The latest Gallup poll showed 58 percent of Americans in support of legalization, an all-time high, with only 39 percent opposing. This is a bellwether toward shifting attitudes and public acknowledgment that weed isn't the demon spawn Nancy Reagan would have you believe. The sky hasn't fallen after Washington and Colorado approved recreational use last year, and more states like California and Oregon could be poised to follow. Even former prohibitionists like Sanjay Gupta are publicly admitting the benefits of the drug.

It feels like only a matter of time before the federal government loosens its hysterical grip on marijuana, with its laissez-faire attitude toward Colorado and Washington a big first step.

“If public opinion continues to shift, I'd expect legalization at the national level, perhaps a decade from now,” said Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the UCLA School of Public Affairs who has written several books on drug policy and served as an adviser to a number of states for their medical and recreational policies.

However, even if the federal government were to drop marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, or if Congress were to eliminate federal laws against possession entirely, states could and would still keep it illegal under their own laws. There's no real avenue for a sweeping Supreme Court ruling that could do away with anti-pot laws across the land in the manner which the court had (but declined to exercise) the option to throw out the country's gay marriage bans in one swoop.

As a result, the patchwork, state-by-state process is the only way forward for now, providing for incremental if unsatisfactory progress. Some of the more recent states to allow medical marijuana, particularly those that passed it through the legislature as opposed to the ballot process, have been among those with the most restrictive laws as lawmakers trail behind the population in grasping the benign nature of the drug. Maryland, which enacted a medical bill earlier this year, barely qualifies as a medical use state since people can only legally get pot through hospital studies. New Jersey approved a medical bill in 2010 but only just started dispensing to patients last December, some of whom have been arrested despite the bill. Illinois, which passed a medical law this summer, strictly controls all growth and use of the plant. The state’s medical legalization law does not include chronic pain on its list of symptoms eligible for a doctor’s recommendation, blocking countless patients who could benefit.

“Legislators are easily cowed by well-financed law enforcement and drug treatment lobbying groups who trump up Reefer Madness myths about the dangers of marijuana, when in fact it has a much safer profile than many prescription drugs on the market today,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “The end result is that you wind up with a law that treats medical marijuana as a far more dangerous drug than it is.”

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