Clearing the Smoke on Marijuana Legalization

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There are plenty of things we don’t know about ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live, but in the year 2016, there are certain beliefs we hold to be self-evident. Cigarettes are bad, dogs are good, the Internet is equal parts of both, and marijuana probably shouldn’t be illegal.

Admittedly, one of those things is not like the others, but the overall sentiment prevails. A Gallup poll from October 2015 found that 58 percent of Americans favor legal marijuana, marking the third straight year of a majority for legalization. The majority has grown steadily since 1969, when marijuana was still relatively new to American public consciousness, and despite dips in support during the 1990s and some fluctuation over the past few years, that majority seems safe.

Perhaps that has to do with the sheer amount of favorable marijuana literature out there. Medicinally, cannabis has been used to positively treat symptoms of major conditions such as glaucoma, AIDS, and many types of cancer. It’s also a commonly used cure for pain relief, and has been advocated by athletes playing one of the most damaging sports our country has to offer (where painkillers are dished out like Halloween candy). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve marijuana as medicine, but has approved two medications that contain cannabinoids in pill form, suggesting further research might lead the agency to change its tune quickly.

Many states are on board—-26, including the District of Columbia, have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, with three more (Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota) set to vote on initiatives this year. Of those 26, four (Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon) have fully legalized cannabis, and many have decriminalized it—in New York, for example, simple possession warrants a mere $100 fine.

After decades of portrayal as a dangerous, life-altering drug, the shifting perception of marijuana appears to be reaching a stage where law, science, and public opinion coalesce, at the very least, into tepid agreement. Some, however, aren’t in on it.

Scott Chipman is the founder of Citizens Against the Legalization of Marijuana (CALM), a nonprofit founded in part to help defeat California’s Prop 19 in 2010. It began when Chipman noticed the curiously high number of drug paraphernalia stores in his neighborhood. While organizing to close down these stores, a marijuana dispensary opened up in town and shifted focus to the drug itself. Chipman and CALM have met roughly every week since the organization’s founding in 2009, and have opened up chapters all over California, where marijuana legalization has been shot down repeatedly in one form or another.

The only prevailing questions are how much time, how many people, and how much science will be required to push that 58 percent to a number so high even marijuana’s harshest critics can’t assail.

CALM also played an active role in Ohio, where in the Spring of 2015 it helped concerned citizens organize against an initiative to legalize marijuana—one that was voted down by a 65 percent majority, despite being outspent on organization and advertising, according to Chipman, by “$25 million to none.”

Chipman holds traditional, deep-seated beliefs about marijuana and its potential for abuse and addiction, ones that are probably laughed off by your cooler friends. As of now, however, the federal government agrees, as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently affirmed marijuana’s status as a Schedule I narcotic, keeping it in the same category as drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

“It’s a Schedule I drug for a reason,” Chipman says. “Marijuana is not dangerous because it’s illegal, it’s illegal because it’s dangerous.”

A caveat to the DEA’s reaffirmation was the announcement that it would be increasing marijuana access to scientists for research, which would help people and doctors better understand the benefits, if any, of cannabis use. Though many who have used marijuana as treatment for various illnesses and conditions can attest to its medicinal credibility, Chipman views that type of use as a means toward “backdoor legalization.”

“We’re 100 percent in favor of research and the FDA process,” he explains. “What we’re not in favor of is having city councilmen or mayors decide that marijuana is a medicine, so we’re just going to set up pseudo-pharmacies in our city and sell the drug. Basically, marijuana is the snake oil of the 21st century.”

The fear in that statement is palpable. It’s a fear for the health and safety of relatives, loved ones, and countrymen—fear that the American public is being duped into thinking a certain substance, which has been demonized for decades, is not only harmless, but potentially helpful.

It’s not totally unfounded, either, when one considers the potential dangers of industrializing a substance consumed with the overwhelming purpose of altering one’s state of mind. Similar were the fears of anti-alcohol activists prior to American prohibition in 1920, who stood on the grounds of morality and public safety. The justifiable nature of those fears made prohibition look good on its face, but it proved disastrous, opening up a spanking new, enormous revenue stream for criminal organizations.

The parallels between alcohol and marijuana prohibition are evident. Many on the legalization side of things believe alcohol’s socially accepted and heavily advertised image in society further legitimizes their case (one can overdose on alcohol, while overdosing on marijuana is virtually impossible). Marijuana use can induce anxiety and affect motor skills, though side-by-side with alcohol’s yearly mortality rates, it seems rather benign.

Those sentiments seem to make the case alone, but it doesn’t change the generations-long smear that marijuana must overcome to be accepted as overwhelmingly as alcohol has. Organizations like CALM and people who share its views have always existed, even if the mainstream view of marijuana has softened over time. Further research approved by the DEA will help to prove (or disprove) how helpful marijuana may be from a medicinal perspective, while millions of regular users across the country will continue attesting to its innocuous nature as a recreational drug. The only prevailing questions are how much time, how many people, and how much science will be required to push that 58 percent to a number so high even marijuana’s harshest critics can’t assail.