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Legal marijuana no longer a pipe dream in U.S.

07222009marijuana-636x357Rocky Mountain Independent
By Charles Ashby

Mason Tvert is a happy man. Well, maybe not that happy. As a guy who has worked to get Denver and Colorado to legalize marijuana, Tvert is happy that people outside the state seem to be coming around to his way of thinking.

He’ll be really happy, of course, if he can get more Coloradans to think his way, too.

Around the nation, there are increasing signs that Americans are beginning to accept the idea:

  • In addition to Denver, 11 other cities have approved laws making it a low priority for law enforcement officials to arrest people using small amounts of marijuana.
  • In addition to Colorado, 12 other states have approved its use for medicinal purposes.
  • In Massachusetts, voters approved making the possession of small quantities of pot a petty offense, payable by a penalty similar to that of a traffic ticket.
  • And just this week, voters in Oakland, Calif., overwhelmingly imposed the nation’s first-ever sales tax on companies that dispense the ganja weed to people certified to use it for medical reasons.

Tvert has become well-known around Denver in his quest to convince people that if they need a mind-altering substance, marijuana is far superior to alcohol. It totally irks him, dude, that pot is illegal, whereas alcohol is a central part of many people’s lives. Not only would drinking and driving be less of a problem if pot were legal, but there would be fewer cases of domestic violence, he says. Someone who smokes weed is far tamer than someone wasted on hard liquor, he says.

Still, marijuana has earned a stigma as a gateway drug, no different than heroin or cocaine. In 1969, a Gallup poll showed that only about 12 percent of Americans supported the idea of legalizing marijuana. But that’s changing. Last spring, Zogby released a poll that indicated nearly half of voters in the nation like the idea. That same poll even showed that a plurality of voters on the West Coast — 58 percent — now support the idea.

Tvert and other marijuana-legalization advocates say there are several reasons for the change in attitudes. In these trying economic times, people are realizing that states and local governments not only can earn money by taxing pot, but also save money by not having to arrest, try and jail marijuana users. At the same time, legalization would take marijuana out of the hands of criminals and take away a major part of their business.

“Al Capone was essentially taken out of the liquor business with the repeal of Prohibition, and the same could be said of some of these drug cartels,” Tvert said. “When someone uses alcohol, they don’t come across methamphetamine when they’re shopping for alcohol. But when someone’s shopping for marijuana in that illegal marketplace, it’s possible they’re going to stumble across those other products.”

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Policy Alliance Network, said that members of Congress and other prominent people are starting to talk about legalization, too. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Gov. David Patterson, among others, all have recently said that a national debate on the issue needs to begin.

Piper said the economy is only one factor in the renewed interest.

“There’s also a growing sense, especially in the Western states, that drug prohibition is fueling the Mexican drug trafficking organizations. That’s a one-two punch, but the third punch is this realization that we have too many people in prison and it’s not sustainable,” he said.

Tvert said it makes no sense to turn a young kid into a felon for possessing a small amount of pot. Talk about a gateway drug into other criminal activities, never mind the added expense of having to prosecute, incarcerate or just place on probation someone for a petty offense, he said.

Piper and Tvert are heartened by what they saw in Oakland this week and in two other proposals that have cropped up recently. In California, a San Francisco state assemblyman has introduced a bill to impose a sales tax on marijuana, while U.S. Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, have introduced a bill in Congress to decriminalize hemp.

Rep. Paul Weissmann, majority leader in the Colorado House, said he, too, supports the idea of legalizing marijuana but doesn’t see it happening here anytime soon, certainly not before Congress acts on it. Still, he thinks it’s inevitable, and, like Tvert and Piper, sees the changes nationwide as baby steps in getting there.

“I see it happening in our lifetimes, but not in the next decade,” the Louisville Democrat said. “I think the way the (advocates) are going about it, don’t prosecute on one ounce or less, is probably the way to do it.

“The thing is, the aura is gone. The gateway drug myth is gone because you see the person who smoked a couple of joints in college isn’t doing heroin or cocaine. They’re living a normal life and doing fine. The myth was that wouldn’t happen. Those people are now older, and voting now. Even folks my parents’ age have seen people survive that as well. At some point, the wider policy has to be looked at.”

And trust that people like Tvert, who’s coming out with a book on the subject in a couple of months, will be there to help make sure it happens. He’s happy to do it.