Weed Takes Root

Marijuana's steady creep toward legalization nationwide.

Jon Gettman, a former NORML president who operates a public data bank at drugscience.org, claims that legalizing marijuana would enrich the public by $42 billion a year. In breaking down that sum, Gettman puts the current cost of legal enforcement at nearly $11 billion. He also claims that federal, state and local governments lose out on $31 billion annually in taxes and charges that could be gleaned from the massive industry, based on an overall estimate of a marijuana trade that totals $113 billion a year.

Mirken, the Marijuana Policy Project spokesman, concedes that squishy numbers invite attacks from critics. But he adds, "No doubt it's a big hunk of money."

Watching that money flow to criminals and cartel bosses has added impetus to the push for change.

Students at Oaksterdam University are taught the best methods of producing healthy cannabis plants.
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Students at Oaksterdam University are taught the best methods of producing healthy cannabis plants.
Medical marijuana supporter Bruce Mirken stands handcuffed to the fence at the White House in 2002.
Roger L. Wollenberg UPI
Medical marijuana supporter Bruce Mirken stands handcuffed to the fence at the White House in 2002.

Pro-marijuana forces, well financed and increasingly centralized in New York and Washington, D.C., are often directly involved in helping to craft reform legislation because of their deep knowledge about a subject murky to many in power.

The New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, for example, employs 45 people and operates satellite offices in Washington, D.C., and in the states of New Mexico and California. Its annual budget of $8 million comes in part from George Soros's Open Policy Institute and also from about 25,000 small donors and a number of very wealthy businessmen, most notably tech guru John Gilmore of Cygnus Solutions, Peter B. Lewis of Progressive Insurance, John Glen Sperling of the University of Phoenix and George Zimmer of the Men's Wearhouse.

Nadelmann, the 52-year-old DPA top executive, says he spends about half of his time on the road, engaging in debates, giving speeches and conferring with pot advocates to draft voter initiatives and to map out strategies.

Close contact with local groups enables him to marshal resources where they are needed and also to bring hot spots to nationwide media attention. Nadelmann can rattle off lists of issues and locales — the drive that brought medical pot this year to Maine, the statewide decriminalization approved in Massachusetts, the ballot tussles ahead in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. He claims significant credit for Proposition 215, California's landmark 1996 state ballot measure that authorized medical cannabis.

"The 215 campaign was being run by local activists," Nadelmann says. "I got involved, put together major funders and campaign managers, and turned it into a professional campaign and won that thing." During a recent stretch, Nadelmann was flying from Santa Barbara to Houston, then to San Diego, then back to New York, then returning to Los Angeles — all to preach pot, all in a span of a few weeks.

As advocates step up the pressure, public opinions are shifting. The Gallup Poll showed 23 percent support for legalization in 1983. This year, the finding was 44 percent, with more than half of the voters in California in favor.

The number of highly placed government officials and jurists who have joined the public call for marijuana reform would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. One example is retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, author of the 2001 book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It.

Gray argues that drug prohibitions are a "golden goose" for terrorist organizations, a view that has gained traction with the public.

"We truly are seeing the most rapid gains in public support for making marijuana legal that I've ever seen," Nadelmann says. "It really feels like a new age."

In Nadelmann's view, the changing attitudes largely stem from the efforts of the Drug Policy Alliance — formed by a merger of two smaller groups in 2000 — and similar organizations, such as NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project.

While activists know there may be a limited time to seize the chance offered by today's market conditions and Obama's laissez-faire policies, they are also buoyed by fundamental changes going on in America. The biggest of these is irreversible — the supplanting of hard-line ideologues with baby boomers weaned on Woodstock and flower power.

"A whole generation didn't know the difference between heroin and marijuana," Nadelmann says. "That generation is mostly dying off. [In its place] are tens of millions of parents and middle-aged people who smoked marijuana and didn't become drug addicts."

On the contrary, they now fill elected seats and boardrooms. Is it any wonder the tide seems unstoppable?

"We're looking at a perfect storm here," says California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who symbolizes that new type of leader. A former stand-up comic, Ammiano spent part of the 1960s among the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, grooving to the Grateful Dead. Now 68, he is one of the most watched figures in the national marijuana struggle for one compelling reason: Assembly Bill 390, legislation he introduced in early 2009 that would make California the first state in the nation to legalize and tax recreational pot.

Considered bold even among marijuana activists, Ammiano's measure would remove cannabis from the state's banned-substances list, allow private cultivation, levy fees and sales taxes and prohibit sales to minors and driving under the influence. A state analysis projects annual revenues of $1.4 billion, a number that critics claim is inflated. That figure does not include the enormous amount of state and federal income and business taxes that would be paid by growers, retailers and their employees as part of a fully realized economic model.

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