There are other threads in the growing acceptance of pot.
People think it’s not as dangerous as once believed; some reflect back on what they see as their own harmless experience in their youth. They worry about high school kids getting an arrest record that will haunt them for life. They see racial inequity in the way marijuana laws are enforced. They’re weary of the “war on drugs,” and want law enforcement to focus on other areas.
“I don’t plan to use marijuana, but it just seemed we waste a lot of time and energy trying to enforce something when there are other things we should be focused on,” says Sherri Georges, who works at a Colorado Springs, Colo., saddle shop. “I think that alcohol is a way bigger problem than marijuana, especially for kids.”
Opponents have retorts at the ready.
They point to a 2012 study finding that regular use of marijuana during teen years can lead to a long-term drop in IQ, and a different study indicating marijuana use can induce and exacerbate psychotic illness in susceptible people. They question the idea that regulating pot will bring in big money, saying revenue estimates are grossly exaggerated.
They counter the claim that prisons are bulging with people convicted of simple possession by citing federal statistics showing only a small percentage of federal and state inmates are behind bars for that alone. Slack said the vast majority of people jailed for marijuana possession were originally charged with dealing drugs and accepted plea bargains for possession. The average possession charge for those in jail is 115 pounds, Slack says, which he calls enough for “personal use for a small city.”
Over and over, marijuana opponents warn that baby boomers who are drawing on their own innocuous experiences with pot are overlooking the much higher potency of the marijuana now in circulation.
In 2009, concentrations of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot, averaged close to 10 percent in marijuana, compared with about 4 percent in the 1980s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. An estimated 9 percent of people who try marijuana eventually become addicted, and the numbers are higher for those who start using pot when they are young. That’s less than the addiction rates for nicotine or alcohol, but still significant.
“If marijuana legalization was about my old buddies at Berkeley smoking in People’s Park once a week I don’t think many of us would care that much,” says Sabet, who helped to found Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization. “But it’s not about that. It’s really about creating a new industry that’s going to target kids and target minorities and our vulnerable populations just like our legal industries do today.”
So how bad, or good, is pot?
There are studies that set off medical alarm bells but also studies that support the safer-than-alcohol crowd and suggest promising therapeutic uses.
J. Michael Bostwick, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, set out to sort through more than 100 sometimes conflicting studies after his teenage son became addicted to pot. In a 22-page article for Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2012, he laid out the contradictions in U.S. policy and declared that “little about cannabis is straightforward.”
“Anybody can find data to support almost any position,” Bostwick says now.
For all of the talk that smoking pot is no big deal, Bostwick says, he determined that “it was a very big deal. There were addiction issues. There were psychosis issues. But there was also this very large body of literature suggesting that it could potentially have very valuable pharmaceutical applications but the research was stymied” by federal barriers.
Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under 1970 law, meaning the government deems it to have “no currently accepted medical use” and a “high potential for abuse.” The only federally authorized source of marijuana for research is grown at the University of Mississippi, and the government tightly regulates its use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says plenty of work with cannabis is ongoing, but Bostwick says federal restrictions have caused a “near-cessation of scientific research.”
The American Medical Association opposes legalizing pot, calling it a “dangerous drug” and a public health concern. But it also is urging the government to review marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug in the interest of promoting more research.
“The evidence is pretty clear that in 1970 the decision to make the drug illegal, or put it on Schedule I, was a political decision,” says Bostwick. “And it seems pretty obvious in 2013 that states, making their decisions the way they are, are making political decisions. Science is not present in either situation to the degree that it needs to be.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s director, Dr. Nora Volkow, says that for all the potential dangers of marijuana, “cannabinoids are just amazing compounds, and understanding how to use them properly could be actually very beneficial therapeutically.” But she worries that legalizing pot will result in increased use of marijuana by young people, and impair their brain development.
“You cannot mess around with the cognitive capacity of your young people because you are going to rely on them,” she says. “Think about it: Do you want a nation where your young people are stoned?”
As state after state moves toward a more liberal approach to marijuana, the turnaround is drawing comparisons to shifting attitudes on gay marriage, for which polls find rapidly growing acceptance, especially among younger voters. That could point toward durable majority support as this population ages. Gay marriage is now legal in 12 states and Washington, D.C.
On marijuana, “we’re having a hard time almost believing how fast public opinion is changing in our direction,” says Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance.
But William Galston and E.J. Dionne, who co-wrote a paper on the new politics of marijuana for the Brookings Institution, believe marijuana legalization hasn’t achieved a deep enough level of support to suggest a tipping point, with attitudes toward legalization marked by ambivalence and uncertainty.
“Compared with attitudes toward same-sex marriage, support for marijuana legalization is much less driven by moral conviction and much more by the belief that it is not a moral issue at all,” they wrote.
No one expects Congress to change federal law anytime soon.
Partisans on both sides think people in other states will keep a close eye on the precedent-setting experiment underway in Colorado and Washington as they decide whether to give the green light to marijuana elsewhere.
“It will happen very suddenly,” predicts the Cato Institute’s Lynch. “In 10-15 years, it will be hard to find a politician who will say they were ever against legalization.”
Sabet worries that things will move so fast that the negative effects of legalization won’t yet be fully apparent when other states start giving the go-ahead to pot. He’s hoping for a different outcome.
“I actually think that this is going to wake a lot of people up who might have looked the other way during the medical marijuana debate,” he says. “In many ways, it actually might be the catalyst to turn things around.”
Past predictions on pot have been wildly off-base, in both directions.
The 1972 commission that recommended decriminalizing marijuana speculated pot might be nothing more than a fad.
Then there’s “Reefer Madness,” the 1936 propaganda movie that pot fans rediscovered and turned into a cult classic in the 1970s. It labeled pot “The Real Public Enemy Number One!”
The movie spins a tale of dire consequences “leading finally to acts of shocking violence … ending often in incurable insanity.”
Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt in Denver, Gene Johnson in Seattle, Lauran Neergaard in Washington and AP researcher Monika Mathur in Washington contributed to this report.