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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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Kohl-Welles says legalizing cannabis would take a critical mass of legislators, and that budget issues might help create the climate for that. Gottfried says that it will take "very strong public support for it to become part of mainstream debate, let alone pass the Legislature."

To win that support, St. Pierre says, the legalization movement needs to sustain grassroots activism and become more multiracial instead of being almost all-white and mainly male. Advancing legalization would also need the support of charismatic politicians early in their careers, as "it's impossible to flip a 50- or 60-year-old alpha male in Washington."

Another danger, he says, is politicians who modify their positions to suit their ambitions. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, he notes, was an early and "full-throated" supporter of medical marijuana, but is now running for governor of California and opposes legalization.

In Texas, says Noelle Davis, activists face the daunting task of trying to persuade legislators in the Republican majority -- and the primary voters who elect them. This would require educating them about the safety of marijuana versus alcohol and the economic benefits that cannabis cultivation and sales could bring to the state.

One largely overlooked issue in Texas, she says, is drug violence on the border. Infighting among rival smuggling gangs has claimed hundreds of lives in the Mexican cities of Nuevo Laredo, just across the river from Laredo, and Juarez, across from El Paso.

For all the hype about potent domestic homegrown, commercial-grade Mexican dominates the cheaper end of the cannabis market, and "a lot of marijuana comes up IH-35," from Laredo through San Antonio, Austin and Dallas.

"We're still putting our hands over our ears and saying 'la-la-la,' " she says. "If marijuana were legal on a federal level, it would dramatically reduce the deaths associated with the drug trade."

Meanwhile, she says, the "silent majority" of pot smokers has to overcome their fear and get vocal. "When I was circulating a petition for medical marijuana, often people would giggle and say 'I'm not putting my name on a list,' " she recalls. "Don't be afraid of your legislator. Take time and build a relationship."

St. Pierre agrees. "We have not achieved the political legitimacy of the gay and lesbian community," he concludes. "As long as 0.1 percent of cannabis consumers are involved with their own liberation, reform is unlikely." If just 1 percent of the nation's estimated 36 million pot smokers would get involved, he says, that would be a constituency of 360,000 activists.

Legalizing cannabis may not be as life-and-death an issue as health care, global warming or the war in Afghanistan, but it is not a frivolous cause. Not any more than repealing Prohibition was in the depths of the Depression.

When the nation is mired in an economic and environmental crisis, why should we waste lives and money enforcing repressive, racist and crime-creating laws? In May 1932, thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, Detroit and other cities to demand the legalization of beer. They carried signs reading "We Want Beer and We Will Pay the Tax" and "We Want Beer but We Also Want Jobs."

Later that summer, the Democratic party, battered for being "wet" in the previous presidential election, endorsed the repeal of Prohibition. On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment went into effect, and Americans could legally drink again.

Of course, there was a fanatical former Prohibition official named Harry Anslinger, who had recently become head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics -- and was looking for a new way to advance his career.

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