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Pot Is More Mainstream Than Ever, So Why Is Legalization Still Taboo?

Obama's drug czar has said "legalization" isn't in his vocabulary. Here's why it should be.

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The Seattle Democrat, who is sponsoring a bill to reduce the penalty for less than 40 grams of pot from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction, says that the state's prosecutors' support for legalizing medical marijuana gave conservatives political cover to vote for it but that law enforcement has largely opposed her decriminalization bill.

One reason for the lack of urgent political pressure, says Deborah Small of Break the Chains, is that the people most likely to get busted for pot are the ones who "don't have a political voice" -- young people of color from poor neighborhoods. In Atlanta, Baltimore and New York, which have among the highest marijuana-arrest rates in the nation, three-fourths of those popped are black or Latino and under 25, she points out. Adults and more affluent youths are largely safe from arrest, she adds.

Frontlines of the Debate

California is the one state where legalization is legitimately on the agenda. "Obama might have dismissed it, but we're having the most serious conversation in 35 years," says Quintin Mecke, spokesman for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would legalize marijuana in California. It would let people grow up to 10 plants for their own use and license commercial cultivation and sales, with a smoking age of 21 and a $50-an-ounce tax.

Hearings on the bill are scheduled for January. It would obviously conflict with federal law, but Mecke says, "the intent is to provoke a states' rights conversation A lot of folks are looking to California to push that issue."

Several factors make legalization politically possible in California, Mecke explains. First, it has had legally regulated medical marijuana for 13 years, and people have "seen that the sky did not fall. California may be in a fiscal crisis, but it's certainly not due to marijuana." Taxes and fees on cannabis could raise $1.4 billion in revenue for the cash-strapped state, the state Board of Equalization estimates. In addition, marijuana cultivation is an integral part of the local economy in many areas, especially the rural north.

"We're not expecting this to happen overnight," Mecke says. "But looking at the poll numbers, it will happen."

A Gallup poll conducted in early October backs that prediction. It found 44 percent of the people surveyed supporting legal marijuana, with 54 percent against. In contrast, previous surveys showed Americans rejecting legalization 73 percent to 23 percent in 1985 and 64 percent to 31 percent in 2000.

An overwhelming majority of liberals supported it, as did more than half of Westerners, Democrats and people under 50. Opposition was strongest among Republicans, conservatives and people over 65, but even in those groups, more than a quarter backed legalization.

"Public mores on legalization of marijuana have been changing this decade and are now at their most tolerant in at least 40 years," the Gallup organization stated. "If public support were to continue growing at a rate of 1 to 2 percentage points per year, as it has since 2000, the majority of Americans could favor legalization of the drug in as little as four years."

Disconnect Between the Country and Its Capital

There is a "huge disconnect" between the corridors of power in Washington and the rest of America on marijuana, contends St. Pierre.

Today, even the hardest-line prohibitionists rarely argue that people should go to jail for possession. In Washington, says Kohl-Welles, police and prosecutors claimed that decriminalization would be unnecessary because they don't put a lot of resources into making such minor arrests.

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