Medical marijuana is so over. Talk to the activists, doctors and lawyers, they’ll tell you as much. Look closely at how it’s being implemented in New Jersey and you’ll agree. Despite the fact that Arizona just became the 15th state to pass legislation permitting the use of medicinal marijuana, supporters say their movement “peaked” in California and Colorado and is moving toward a model of extreme regulation, perhaps even a takeover by Big Pharma as marijuana-imitating pills, arm patches, and eye drops enter the market and alter the politics.
Needless to say, NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, isn’t too stoked about that. Pharmaceutical companies are getting through the FDA by saying they’re taking the high out of the drug. “Politicians don’t like passing medical marijuana laws because, it’s true, people get high,” Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s Executive Director, said. “In the comings years patients who cant afford pharmaceutical drugs will have to get access through full legalization.”
That seems to be the plan.
NORML has always thought of medical marijuana merely as a strategy: a means to a full-legalization end. As long ago as 1979 they described the medical movement as a “red herring to give marijuana a good name,” and their research suggests that it already served that purpose. St. Pierre claims that 8 – 9 states poll over with over 50% approval. Fellow advocate Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance also recently opined that a once strong headwind is blowing at their back. Washington activists are mulling a 2011 ballot measure, and Colorado and Oregon are looking toward 2012. These three are still long shots, but California organizers are righteously optimistic. St. Pierre gave me five reasons why marijuana may be legalized there in 2012:
It’s the economy, bro
Many argue that the prohibition of alcohol would have continued for decades longer than the 13-plus years it lasted, had it not been for the Great Depression. Acute economic times sharpen the attitudes of politicians; Prohibition starts to look like a luxury. As Governor Schwarzenegger recently demonstrated, governments “cannot afford to expend limited resources” enforcing what some call unenforceable laws. They also reexamine the prohibition of taxable goods, a drastic measure in good times that suddenly becomes politically safe, if not savvy.
“It’s bittersweet considering most of us have to suffer these economic times,” St Pierre said. But as Rahm Emanuel quipped, you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.
Baby Boomers bring new attitudes
The Greatest Generation has passed the torch of government, media, education, entertainment and law to Baby Boomers, who bring with them a much different experience with marijuana. Grandma is still locked into that “reefer madness” era, St. Pierre said, and even if she doesn’t work anymore, she still votes with those hardened values. “Sad as it will be for the family,” he said, “as she passes, God bless her, largely goes that ideology.” Baby boomers and their children have more tolerant attitudes towards cannabis.
Medical marijuana has changed perceptions
One in eight Americans live in California, and over 50% of the counties in that state allow for the retail sale of medical marijuana on Main Street. Add them to the citizens of Colorado, Nevada and Washington, which permit retail sales as well, and that means tens of millions of Americans live in communities where they can walk by a medical marijuana dispensary on their way to 7-11, the bank, or the dry cleaner. “It’s right there,” St. Pierre said, “and there’s no real issue with it being there, except for zoning and land use if anything.
“Many people just don’t see the problem with legalizing marijuana, considering the medical dispensaries haven’t been that big a deal.”
The Internet is allowing them to organize and educate
NORML has 1.3 million people in its opt-in network, but if it had to sent each of them a 1 once mailing tomorrow it’d be bankrupt. The Internet allows them to communicate rapidly, and at little cost, in a way that would never work conventionally.
Before the internet, if people wanted information about marijuana, they had to go to a library and dig through dewy decimal system. They might have to ask a librarian for embarrassing and potentially problematic information. Now they can just download a gazillion pages to their computers.
“The dissemination of information that is verifiable and credible is important,” St. Pierre said. “One of the biggest criticisms we have, as to why prohibition has lasted so long, is that mainstream American media has largely been a lapdog, not a watchdog, in regards to the government’s failed marijuana policies. Right up to the mid-90s, for a group of people who disagreed with something the government was doing, it was harder and more expensive to communicate with each other. Today in 20 minutes you can get a Facebook page up about something you like or don’t like. You can start to organize around a concept immediately.”
Prop 19 was also a victory
The media delighted in calling the Prop 19 — California’s recent measure to legalize marijuana — a “pipe dream” that didn’t so much fall short as go “up in smoke”. It’s most seasoned backers however, NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance, never intended 2010 to be their year. Initially, they advised its organizers in Oakland to save their energy for 2012, when the presidential elections would draw a larger youth vote. Oaksterdam, the school that organized the petition, went ahead anyway. And it turned into a rather productive dress rehearsal. First off, their coalition building was unprecedented. Never before have so many minority groups, large unions, and law enforcement organizations rallied behind this cause. Secondly, the initiative drew some very affluent twenty-somethings out of their smoke-filled closets. Dustin Moskowitz, co-creator of Facebook, Sean Parker, former-Facebook president and co-founder of Napster, and Paul Buchheit, the founder of Gmail, each plunked down generous donations. “We’ve been around and they could have contacted us in advance,” St. Pierre said. “But it was the initiative that got them off the sidelines.” Third, a significant portion of Prop 19’s opponents came out against the bill’s structure, rather than it’s. The editorial boards of the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee, for example, generally agreed that while Prop 19 was flawed, the war on drugs has been an “abject failure“, legalization is “valid subject for discussion“, and “it might even be time for a ballot initiative to change the law.“
Finally, Prop 19 was voted down by a vote of 54%-to-46%, but for a flawed bill on a midterm ballot, that turnout kind of turnout is nothing to scoff at. “It’s a pretty remarkable base to build upon for 2012,” St. Pierre said.
Until then …
In the coming years, NORML will join other local and national organizations in challenging the pharmaceutical remodeling of medical marijuana, a looming political trend that they call “anti-pleasure seeking, hypocritical” policy toward intoxicating drugs. Meanwhile, they’ll insist that California, as the American vanguard of marijuana policy, is the greatest hope medical marijuana users have.