Q. Does smoking marijuana make men infertile?

A. With medical marijuana use on the rise, more researchers are studying the connection between cannabinoids, the active chemical components in marijuana, and the brain. Few have tackled the question of marijuana use and fertility.

Several studies have drawn a link between men who smoke marijuana and a higher prevalence of problems that could cause infertility, including lower testosterone levels, less vigorous sperm swimming patterns, and testicular cancer. Nevertheless, no studies have proven that marijuana use leads to male infertility, in animals or humans.

“More research is required to know exactly what are the effects of smoking marijuana,’’ said S.K. Dey, director of the reproductive sciences division at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. One study that Dey helped conduct (published in the March issue of the journal Cancer) showed that men who had smoked marijuana had a higher risk of testicular cancer, especially if they smoked before age 18. “What studies we have done suggest that the risk factors could be more if exposed at an earlier age.’’

Lani Burkman, a professor emerita of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine, runs a business that gives fertility tests to men and women who have used drugs including marijuana. She advises couples who are trying to become pregnant that the man and woman should quit smoking marijuana for at least a year prior to when they want to conceive. Burkman said there are “no hard studies’’ that support that specific time frame, but it’s an estimate she bases on research that shows that marijuana chemicals get stored in the body’s fat tissue, which suggests it could take at least a year or two to “work its way out of your system.’’

Marijuana use by women during pregnancy, on the other hand, has been linked to a variety of problems in the children, including low birth weight and cognitive problems. Source.

December 5, 2009 – In September, ladymag Marieclaire ruffled some feathers when it published a piece about women who smoke weed. But its most interesting effect was not the “marijuana moms” chatter it unleashed, and instead the fact that it brought to the mainstream media a more open discussion of the fact that women can be avid tokers, too.

Public acceptance of pot is at an all-time high, and the fact that women have drastically changed their attitudes may be what is most fascinating about the sea change in public opinion — and policy — regarding marijuana. In 2005, only 32 percent of polled women told Gallup they approved legalizing pot, but this year 44 percent of them were for it, compared to 45 percent of men. In effect, women have narrowed what had been a 12-point gender gap.

Women are also smoking more weed. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that current marijuana use increased from 3.8 to 4.5 percent among women, while there was no significant statistical change for men.

Indeed, it appears the growing acceptance of marijuana is fueled by women having joined the movement for reform.

Women “can reach people’s hearts and minds,” says Mikki Norris, co-author of Shattered Lives: Portraits from America’s Drug War, managing editor of the West Coast Leaf, and director of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign. “I think we can really take it from the third- to the first-person, and make it personal.”

Norris, who’s participated in numerous successful marijuana campaigns, may be onto something. If pro-weed women are a new momentum behind the normalization of marijuana, they may also become the driving force behind game-changing drug reform.

If that’s the case, then it’s worth examining why some women have signed onto the marijuana reform movement — because it may soon be why many others will as well.

‘A bigger amygdala’

The avenue through which women have been foremost leaders in the movement is medical marijuana advocacy.

There are currently 13 states that have legalized medical marijuana use and at least 14 other states with pending legislation or ballot measures. In California, where cannabis has been legalized for medical use since 1996, a Field poll found 56 percent support for adult legalization — and the matter may very well make its way onto the 2010 ballot.

Every woman I spoke to referenced cannabis’ medicinal properties as a major reason they are so personally impassioned by the marijuana reform debate.

One of these is Valerie Corral, dubbed “the Mother Teresa of the medical marijuana movement,” by Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Corral was introduced to the medical benefits of marijuana in 1973, when she was the victim of a car crash that left her an epileptic. At one point, while on pharmaceuticals, she was having up to five seizures each day.

In 1974, her husband read an article in a medical journal that described how positively rats had reacted to cannabis when treated for certain ailments. Soon thereafter, Corral started applying a strict regimen of marijuana, and kept a catalog of its effects.

“Within a few weeks, I noticed change,” Corral said. And over time, she was able to control seizure activity in a way that allowed her to wean herself off the prescription drugs. To this day she does not take anything other than marijuana for her epilepsy.

Not only did medical marijuana change Corral’s quality of life, it changed its course. She went on to found Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a patient collective based in Santa Cruz, Calif. that offers organic medical marijuana and assistance to those who have received a terminal or chronic illness diagnosis.

WAMM currently serves about 170 patients. When I spoke to Corral, she was late to hit the road for her Thanksgiving holiday. She had spent the morning with a patient who was anxious about his radiation therapy. She then spent the afternoon delivering marijuana before counseling — “and learning from” — terminal patients.

While Corral knows first-hand the physical benefits of marijuana, she believes its most important effect is “the way it affects how we look at things that are difficult.”

“No matter what else happens to us,” Corral said, “the quality with which we live our lives is so important.”

Cheryl Shuman, a 49-year-old optician in Los Angeles, would agree. Up until she started using cannabis therapy to treat her cancer, she was on a daily regimen of 27 prescription drugs, attached to a mobile intravenous morphine pump, and undergoing constant CAT and MRI scans. In 2006, her doctors told her she’d be dead by the end of that year.

“I had to make a decision [regarding] which way I was going to go and quite frankly, I thought if I am going to die, I want to control how my life is going to be,” Shuman said, her voice breaking. “And the only side-effects were that I was happy and laughing.”

It turns out those may not have been the only effects of her cannabis therapy. Her cancer has been in remission for 18 months now — and that coincides precisely with the start of the marijuana treatment.

Shuman had previously used pot medicinally in 1994, when going through a harrowing divorce. Up to 80 milligrams of Prozac a day, coupled with multiple therapy sessions a week, did not help her get over the sense that she could barely make it through each day.

During one session, she says, “my therapist said, ‘I could lose my license, but I think what would help you more than anything is just smoking a joint.’ I didn’t know how to respond! I said I couldn’t do that — I don’t drink, I’ve never even smoked a cigarette!”

But after researching medical marijuana and realizing that cannabis had been available in pharmacies until the early 20th century, Shuman acquiesced and tried a joint. At 36 — after learning to inhale — Shuman says she found she “finally had some peace.”

This year, Shuman became the founding director of Beverly Hills’ National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) chapter — and she hopes to attract women to the cause.

Corral, for her part, acknowledges that the role she fills within the marijuana movement is one that fits the traditional female archetype. “Maybe it’s because we have a bigger amygdala,” she laughs, referring to the part of the brain that processes emotions. “It probably is!”

Debby Goldsberry, director of the Berkeley Patients Group, a medical marijuana dispensary, feels similarly: “It’s our job in our families and in our circles of friends to be caregivers. It makes sense that women would gravitate to cannabis.”

In a recent study of a sample of patient reviews at a chain of medical marijuana assessment clinics in California, Craig Reinarman, a sociology professor at UC-Santa Cruz, found that only 27.1 percent of the patients were female. Another study, conducted on a sample of patients at Goldsberry’s Berkeley dispensary, found that 30.7 percent of those patients were women.

Those numbers are close to the general expert estimate that women constitute about a third of marijuana consumers.

Mainstream myth-busting

Since more women are smoking weed, it’s no surprise there has finally been an onslaught of girl stoner coverage in the corporate media.

It probably started with “Weeds” — a Showtime series about a bodacious soccer mom who deals and smokes pot — which is now readying for its sixth season premiere. But the big dam opener this year was the aforementioned publication of the Marieclaire article, “Stiletto Stoners,” which paints the portrait of a whole class of “card-carrying, type A workaholics who just happen to prefer kicking back with a blunt instead of a bottle.”

Julie Holland, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, has been called onto NBC’s Today Show twice now to explain why women are gravitating towards weed.

During one of her appearances, Holland seemingly shocks the hosts by telling them that 100 million Americans have tried weed — 25 million of them over the past year. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that 10.6 million women used marijuana in 2008.

Also surprising to the TV hosts was Holland’s assertion that marijuana is the least addictive substance among many. According to a 1999 Institute of Medicine report, the rate at which people who try a substance and go on to become addicted is 32 percent for nicotine, 23 percent for heroin, 17 percent for cocaine, 15 percent for alcohol, and 9 percent for cannabis.

“Look at what the choices are. Cannabis isn’t toxic to your brain, to your liver, it doesn’t cause cancer, you can’t overdose, and there’s no evidence that it’s a gateway drug,” Holland said. “I believe that the majority of adults can healthfully integrate altered states into their lives, and it makes sense to do it with the least toxic substance you can. ”

The public seems to agree.

Societal mores around marijuana are at their most progressive in at least 40 years, when Gallup first started asking Americans whether they believed marijuana ought be legalized. This year, 44 percent of those polled — up from 36 percent in 2005 — said they are in favor of legalization. A May Zogby poll found marijuana legalization was even more popular with its respondents, at 52 percent.

Harry Levine, professor of sociology at Queens College and co-author of Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice, attributes a lot of the mainstreaming of progressive views on pot to the medical marijuana movement.

“What it has done is change the image of marijuana from this tie-dye 1960s hippie-dippy kind of thing to a real drug, a real substance that has medical uses,” he said. “You can separate it from the scary image of drugs.”

Why do girls smoke?

As weed is no longer considered by the public to be a “hard drug,” three presidents — 41, 42, and 43 — have admitted to smoking marijuana. “The whole association of failure and dropouts [with marijuana] has been smashed in an important kind of way,” Levine says.

In other words, you can smoke pot and be successful. Look at Natalie Angier, for example. In her book Woman: Intimate Geography, this Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer interjects a personal note of — and case for — female empowerment through weed:

All the women in my immediate family learned how to climax by smoking grass — my mother when she was over thirty and already the mother of four. Yet I have never seen anorgasmia on the list of indications for the medical use of marijuana. Instead we are told that some women don’t need to have orgasms to have a satisfying sex life, an argument as convincing as the insistence that homeless people like living outdoors.

As Angier writes, alcohol is a “global depressant of the nervous system” so marijuana can be a woman’s best friend. In that vein, Holland has clinically observed that many of her female patients choose marijuana over alcohol — for all kinds of social situations — because it makes them “more present instead of absent.”

“You can relax but not be incapacitated. You can keep your wits about you and protect yourself,” Holland told me, adding that women don’t always tolerate alcohol the way men do.

Diana, 37, a published writer in Madison is one such woman. She uses marijuana as a social lubricant: “If I drink, I know I’ll be throwing up by night’s end, even if it’s only a couple of beers. But with weed, I know I can make it to closing time — and keep up with all the steely-stomached drinkers.”

Paloma, 25, a Bay Area union organizer, told me she smokes weed two to three times a week to “relax, sleep, work on arts and crafts or clean the house and cook” without being distracted by what she calls her “explosive” attention deficit disorder.

A few women smokers said they did not initially like the effects marijuana had on them. Tessa, 29, a doctoral student in Portland, said, she didn’t enjoy weed in college “because I would not be able to do anything besides be high and stupid. Now I know to smoke less — maybe a hit or two — and then relax on that.”

What a lot of women like Tessa don’t know is that there are several kinds of weed that have different effects on the mind and body. Women who live in places where marijuana can be purchased at dispensaries are often more attuned to the fact that cannabis sativa gives a euphoric head high while cannabis indica results in a lazy body high. And then there are hybrids — the equivalent to blends in wine culture.

Ally, 34, an architect and mother in San Francisco, sees weed as similar to vino: “Smoking a joint and taking a bath is what drinking a glass of wine and taking a bath was to my mom,” she says, balancing a baby on her knee. “It’s ‘me’ time!”

Think of the children!

The acceptance of pot has led to discussion of how marijuana reform might positively impact families and children. This may change the debate because family values have long been employed by drug warriors as reasoning for why weed ought remain criminalized.

Enter Jessica Corry, a pro-life Republican from Denver. A mother of girls aged two and four, this 30-year-old newly-minted lawyer is widely hailed as a rising star in Colorado politics. She is currently working on her first book, which she described to me as an “analysis of how race consciousness and political correctness are silencing America’s students and our entrepreneurial spirit.”

A real conservative. Yet she is also one of the most outspoken proponents of marijuana legalization.

In 2006, she started a group called Guarding Our Children Against Marijuana Prohibition, which supported a statewide initiative to legalize marijuana.

“I had high-ranking Republicans politely encouraging me to write my political eulogy,” Corry said. “Fortunately, they were wrong. While the initiative failed, it garnered more general election support than that year’s Republican candidate for governor.”

Corry doesn’t smoke pot — though she is open about past use. “As a mother,” she says, “I’m far more concerned about my kids having access to a medicine cabinet than having access to a joint or a liquor cabinet. Marijuana, when consumed independently, has never been linked to a single death.”

Mothers like Corry are drawn to marijuana regulation as part of a larger appeal that encourages the use of harm reduction to more pragmatically deal with substance abuse. Examples of harm reduction include providing designated drivers for drinkers and clean needles for heroin addicts.

Concerned moms may be moved to action by studies such as the Teen Survey, conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia. This year, there was a 37 percent increase in teens who said pot is easier to buy than cigarettes, beer or prescription drugs. Nearly one-quarter said they can get weed within the hour.

Those stats matter to women. In light of this, children and family will be included in the mission statement of the Women’s Alliance, a group NORML will launch next year. The coordinator, Sabrina Fendrick, plans to include mention of how current marijuana policy undermines the American family and sends mixed messages to young people.

An economic savior?

The harm reduction approach extends itself from families and children to our ailing economy. With the largest economic recession since the Great Depression firmly in place, more people see the benefits of taxing and regulating marijuana for adults.

Economist Jeffrey Miron has calculated that, assuming a national market of about $13 billion annually, legalization would reap state and federal governments about $7 billion each year in extra tax revenues and save about $13.5 billion in law enforcement costs.

This kind of math attracts libertarian support, ranging from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California who recently called for an open discussion on legalization, to Rep. Ron Paul, a physician and Republican congressman from Texas, who has long advocated it.

The problem with a fiscal approach, however, might be that it could have more traction as a top-down rather than a bottom-up movement. Deborah Small, a drug reform veteran and founder of Break the Chains, a group that engages communities of color around drug reform policy, believes the reason the medical marijuana movement has been so successful is that its female leaders have made it a “real grassroots movement.”

“Male-dominated libertarian philosophy and money has dominated” the general marijuana reform movement, Small says, and “there’s a struggle in this next stage to see whether the movement will be driven by people with a lot of money or people on the ground — or if they can agree to work together.”

Perhaps male drug reform leaders can learn from the ladies. Jessica Corry, the GOP mom from Denver, turns the economic discussion back to the home: “It’s generational child abuse to waste billions of dollars every year on marijuana prohibition.”

Mikki Norris, the California marijuana activist, observed gender-specific focus groups in Oakland on Measure Z, a 2004 ballot initiative that ultimately succeeded in making marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority. She heard the women’s group speaking on behalf of their children — “they wanted money for their kids’ education and they didn’t want kids arrested for pot.” Men, on the other hand, were more worried about children getting involved with drugs, she told me.

Norris said, “I just think women have a better grasp of home economics,” or what’s really important in a family.

Today’s economic climate lends itself to easy parallels with the fight to repeal Prohibition in the 1920s, which was also framed as a family issue. Harry Levine, the sociologist, reminded me of Pauline Sabin, a high-society Chicago feminist who organized women in the fight to repeal the 18th Amendment.

“Sabin said that because of the violence, the corruption, the bootleggers, and all the resulting lost tax revenue, that alcohol undermined the home and therefore women should speak out for themselves and children,” Levine said.

Many point to the moment when women joined the fight against Prohibition as the tipping point for the ultimate success of the movement.

Women as a new force

The women in the marijuana reform movement have different reasons for trumpeting policy change. Some see cannabis as a medicinal wonder drug, others see tangible — and sensible — socio-economic benefits to taxing and regulating it.

Trends indicate that as more states legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes, more people will discover first-hand that legalization of marijuana does not equate with anarchy and instead with more effective control of a substance so readily available to Americans — and American kids — across the country.

And as Californians may next year, Americans will soon be exposed to the choice between regulating marijuana for adult use or continuing a failed drug war that incarcerates 850,000 people a year — tearing apart families, ruining futures, and siphoning from public funds that might otherwise benefit the next generation. All this for a relatively mild psychotropic that at least a third of us has tried.

As the recession continues to unravel communities across the country, the economic incentive to end this drug war will affect the opinions of many who might never otherwise have considered legalization. The time may very well be now.

Similar to the prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth century, what we have today is a federal policy that is at odds with public opinion. It is a policy without a plurality of citizen supporters.

And many women are at the vanguard of the movement that recognizes this and is fighting for change. Source.

December 5, 2009 – Canada’s justice minister says people who sell or grow marijuana belong in jail because pot is used as a “currency” to bring harder drugs into the country.

“This lubricates the business and that makes me nervous,” Rob Nicholson told the Commons justice committee yesterday as he faced tough questions about a controversial bill to impose automatic prison sentences for drug crimes, including growing as little as one pot plant.

“Marijuana is the currency that is used to bring other more serious drugs into the country,” the minister said.

Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act currently contains no mandatory prison sentences and judges use their own discretion about whether to send drug pushers and growers to jail.

But the Conservatives have proposed legislation which would impose one-year mandatory jail time for marijuana dealing, when it is linked to organized crime or a weapon is involved.

The sentence would be increased to two years for dealing drugs such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines to young people, or pushing drugs near a school or other places frequented by youths.

The proposed legislation would impose six months for growing one to 200 marijuana plants to sell, and two years for big-time growers of 500 plants or more.

The bill is arguably the most controversial piece of justice legislation introduced by the Conservative and critics have warned that, if passed, it could flood prisons and jails.

Opposition critics voiced concerns yesterday that a crackdown would not only target big-time dealers, but would end up sending drug addicts to provincial prisons, which have few treatment programs in place. Source.

December 3, 2009 – Marijuana is California’s largest agricultural commodity with $14 billion in sales yearly, distancing itself from the state’s second largest—milk and cream—which bring in $7.3 billion a year. But California’s coffers only receive a fraction of the marijuana sales, $200 million coming from the sale of medical marijuana. That could all change with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s (D-San Francisco) Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act (AB 390).

Since February, when the bill was introduced, it has made little headway in the Legislature. But in October, a hearing on the bill was held by the Public Safety Committee; marking the first time a legislative committee held a hearing on marijuana legalization.

AB 390 would create a system that would regulate marijuana much like alcohol is regulated. Those over the age of 21 could purchase pot from vendors with licenses to do so. The state’s Legislative Analyst and the Board of Equalization have estimated that pot sales could bring up to $1.3 billion in revenue yearly. That number is based off a proposed $50-per-oz. levy placed on marijuana purchases and sales tax.

With a projected deficit of $20 billion facing the state next fiscal year, sources of guaranteed revenue are needed. But there are those that believe that the social issues legalizing pot could have far outweigh any economic benefits.

“Why add another addictive element to our society? I don’t think we should criminalize marijuana, but I don’t think having marijuana where you can buy it like cigarettes or alcohol is something we ought to be doing as a society. I believe we are moving in the wrong direction on that,” said Steve Francis, a former San Diego mayoral candidate and founder of the site KeepComingBack.com—a site that focuses on news and research of alcohol and drug addiction.

Francis says that legalizing marijuana would ultimately cost the state money. He cited a report issued by the Marin Institute that found the economic cost of alcohol use is $38 billion annually, with the state covering $8.3 billion for health-care treatment of alcohol-caused illnesses, plus crime costs, traffic incidents and reduced worker productivity. The taxes and fees collected from alcohol sales only cover 22 percent of total government costs. He says there is every reason to believe the same would happen with marijuana.

“Whatever taxes the author of the legislation thinks we are going to collect on the taxation of marijuana will be very little compared to the social costs on California,” he said.

But the economic impact legalizing marijuana could have goes beyond taxation. Nearly a fifth of California’s 170,000 inmates are locked up because of drug-related crimes. Although most are convicted on crimes more severe than possession, legalizing marijuana would save the state $1 billion in law enforcement and corrections costs.

Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray says the best solution is to repeal the prohibition of marijuana, allowing the substance to become regulated and less available to children.

“We couldn’t make this drug any more available if we tried,” he said in TIME. “Unfortunately, every society in the history of mankind has had some form of mind-altering, sometimes addictive substance to use, misuse, abuse or get addicted to. Get used to it. They’re here to stay. So let’s try to reduce those harms, and right now we couldn’t do worse if we tried.”

Even if California were to legalize marijuana, there are those that believe that the gray area between federal and state law would only widen. Since California’s Compassionate Use Act was passed in 1996, medicinal marijuana has become more accessible to those need it. But it has opened the gates of confusion, as federal laws still consider marijuana illegal. In fact, cannabis is described as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has no medical use and cannot be prescribed by a physician. Many California municipalities have been reluctant to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, even though they were legalized 13 years ago.

There has been some indication that the federal government is starting to ease its control of marijuana. A few days after Ammiano introduced AB 390, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that states should be allowed to determine their own rules for medical marijuana and that federal raids on dispensaries would stop in California. President Obama’s nomination of Gil Kerlikowske to be the so-called drug czar and head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy indicated that a softer federal stance on marijuana is being taken. Kerlikowske is the former police chief in Seattle, where he made it clear that going after marijuana possession was not a priority for his department.

A vote by the Public Safety Committee on AB 390 is expected in January. Ammiano said the bill could take between a year and two years before it is heard or voted on in the Legislature. Until then, the debate over decriminalizing marijuana will continue amidst one of California’s worst economic times. BY Landon Bright Source.

December 3, 2009 – I attended the 1st National Clinical Conference on Medical Marijuana in Iowa in 1998. Arguably the most learned man on the subject of the effects of smoke on the lungs is named Donald Tashkin, Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary & Critical Care, at UCLA. He spoke for almost an hour at the Conference, showing slides of smoke-browned lungs. He showed how marijuana smoke seems to push pollutants towards the outer lining of the lungs.

His presentation did not portray marijuana smoke as harmless, but there was no solid evidence of disease associated with the browning of the lungs’ outer lining. Donald Tashkin has conducted the most extensive research involving the largest number of long-term marijuana-only smokers, as well as multi-drug smokers–marijuana, tobacco, cocaine, and other substances, for several decades. His critique of marijuana smoke was completely non-committal. (Considering the government is his largest source of funding, there is little doubt why his lecture at the first medical cannabis conference was short and unsupportive.)

When Dr. Tashkin finished his speech, he did not wait to answer questions. He grabbed his materials and bolted for the door. I raced after him and stopped him on the steps outside the conference hall. I showed him the passages I had written about his research in The New Prescription. I stood there and watched him read everything I had written about his work. He agreed that my synopsis was correct. Then I asked him the $64,000 question. I said, “Do you know of any cases of marijuana-only smokers who had lung cancer?” He said “Yes, there is one.” Then he smiled, explaining, “He was sixteen years old.” We both smiled, knowing a teenager could not possibly have sufficient exposure to marijuana smoke to cause lung cancer–his cancer was clearly due to some other cause. By: Martin Martinez. Source.

November 23, 2009 – The same day they rejected a gay marriage ballot measure, residents of Maine voted overwhelmingly to allow the sale of medical marijuana over the counter at state-licensed dispensaries.

Later in the month, the American Medical Association reversed a longtime position and urged the federal government to remove marijuana from Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act, which equates it with heroin and cocaine.

A few days later, advocates for easing marijuana laws left their biannual strategy conference with plans to press ahead on all fronts — state law, ballot measures, and court — in a movement that for the first time in decades appeared to be gaining ground.

“This issue is breaking out in a remarkably rapid way now,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Public opinion is changing very, very rapidly.”

The shift is widely described as generational. A Gallup poll in October found 44 percent of Americans favor full legalization of marijuana — a rise of 13 points since 2000. Gallup said that if public support continues growing at a rate of 1 to 2 percent per year, “the majority of Americans could favor legalization of the drug in as little as four years.”

A 53 percent majority already does so in the West, according to the survey. The finding heartens advocates collecting signatures to put the question of legalization before California voters in a 2010 initiative.

At last week’s International Drug Reform Conference, activists gamed specific proposals for taxing and regulating pot along the lines of cigarettes and alcohol, as a bill pending in the California Legislature would do. The measure is not expected to pass, but in urging its serious debate, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) gave credence to a potential revenue source that the state’s tax chief said could raise $1.3 billion in the recession, which advocates describe as a boon.

There were also tips on lobbying state legislatures, where measures decriminalizing possession of small amounts have passed in 14 states. Activists predict half of states will have laws allowing possession for medical purposes in the near future.

Interest in medical marijuana and easing other marijuana laws picked up markedly about 18 months ago, but advocates say the biggest surge came with the election of Barack Obama, the third straight president to acknowledge having smoked marijuana, and the first to regard it with anything like nonchalance.

“As a kid, I inhaled,” Barack Obama famously said on the campaign. “That was the whole point.”

In office, Obama made good on a promise to halt federal prosecutions of medical marijuana use where permitted by state law. That has recalibrated the federal attitude, which had been consistently hostile to marijuana since the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon cast aside the recommendations of a presidential commission arguing against lumping pot with hard drugs.

Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he was astonished recently to be invited to contribute thoughts to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, was police chief in Seattle, where voters officially made enforcement of marijuana laws the lowest priority.

“I’ve been thrown out of the ONDCP many times,” St. Pierre said. “Never invited to actually participate.”

Anti-drug advocates counter with surveys showing high school students nationwide already are more likely to smoke marijuana than tobacco — and that the five states with the highest rate of adolescent pot use permit medical marijuana.

“We are in the prevention business,” said Arthur Dean, chairman of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. “Kids are getting the message tobacco’s harmful, and they’re not getting the message marijuana is.”

In Los Angeles, city officials are dealing with elements of public backlash after more than 1,000 medical marijuana dispensaries opened, some employing in-house physicians to dispense legal permission to virtually all comers. The boom town atmosphere brought complaints from some neighbors, but little of the crime associated with underground drug-dealing.

Advocates cite the latter as evidence that, as with alcohol, violence associated with the marijuana trade flows from its prohibition.

“Seriously,” said Bruce Merkin, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group based in the District, “there is a reason you don’t have Mexican beer cartels planting fields of hops in the California forests.”

But the controversy over the dispensaries also has put pressure on advocates who specifically champion access for ailing patients, not just those who champion easing marijuana laws.

“I don’t want to say we keep arm’s length from the other groups. You end up with all of us in the same room,” said Joe Elford, counsel for Americans for Safe Access, which has led the court battle for medical marijuana and is squaring off with the Los Angeles City Council. “It’s a very broad-based movement.”
By Karl Vick. Source.

November 22, 2009 – With multiple initiatives in circulation and an Assembly bill gathering headlines, discussions about legalizing marijuana have become part of California’s political discourse.

Advocates on one side argue that the result will be an economic boon as tax revenues rolls in and jails rid themselves of nonviolent offenders. Defenders of prohibition say legalization would be a nightmare of stoned kids, addiction and highway deaths.

Or maybe the reality would be a lot more mundane.

“Most of the popular debate is dominated by two groups—avid pro-marijuana crowd, and the true prohibitionists,” said Michael Vitiello, a University of Pacific law professor who has written several articles on the topic, including a recent Wisconsin Law Review piece looking at the potential for legalization in California. Both sides, he said, are prone to “gross overstatements.”

By contrast, Vitiello calls himself a “tepid legalizer.” On the one hand, he said, he doesn’t “expect Western civilization as we know it to end” if pot becomes legal. He points to the widely-circulated statistic that per capita marijuana in the Netherlands, where pot has essentially been legal for years, is half that of the U.S — partially, he said, because few there view the drug as “cool.”

Medical research, Vitiello said, is increasingly pointing to the idea that people choose or avoid certain drugs based on their own brain chemistry. Marijuana is already so prevalent in California, he said, that most people who would use it probably already are.

On the other hand, he said he doubts projections that legalization will result in big tax revenues and thousands of non-violent offenders leaving prisons. The bigger impact would probably come on local jails, where many people head for a period after a marijuana arrest but never actually go to prison.

“The idea that we’re going to empty our prisons and save a billion, I don’t know how they’re getting that number,” Vitiello said.

Most in the debate agree that very few people are going to prison in California merely for smoking pot. The bigger issue is how many people are going back to prison on a parole violation of failing a drug test for marijuana. This has become a major rallying point for pro-legalization activists.

“My estimate is that there are thousands of people today in state prison in California for having done nothing but smoking marijuana because they were on parole,” said James Gray, a retired Orange County Superior Court judge who has become a major legalization and libertarian activists.

According to Corrections spokesman Paul Verke, only 256 were found to have violated parole in California last year solely for failing a marijuana test. He added that he did not know how many of these were returned to custody. Some in the legalization community say they have been seeking these figures, unsuccessfully, for years. “CCR will say it’s not many, parole officers will say they never do that, but on the other had we know family members who say that they have,” said Margaret Dooley- Sammuli, deputy state director with the Drug Policy Alliance. “Clearly this is an area where we don’t know what happening, and clearly this is a problem.”

Another area where the actual effect would be unclear is on tax revenue. The legalization initiative filed by the founder’s of Oakland’s Oaksterdam University, which teaches students about cultivation and other aspects of the medical marijuana business, cites a figure of $15 billion in illegal marijuana sales in California annually. While estimates vary, few contest that pot is California’s top cash crop, easily outpacing our state’s vaunted wine industry.

That initiative calls for unspecified taxes. AB 390, the marijuana legalization bill being carried by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, calls for a tax of $50 an ounce. Growers would pay a licensing fee of $5,000, with a $2,500 annual renewal. While it’s very unlikely AB 390 will get anywhere, some have pointed to these fees as a possible model of taxation.

But the state would be trying to overlay these taxes on an already-thriving illegal market, with numerous large operations already running without the knowledge of authorities. Legalization would also likely inspire more people to grow their own. Few people are going to grow and ferment their own wine, or grow and roll their own tobacco for that matter. But small amounts of marijuana can be successfully grown by anyone who can keep a houseplant alive.

In fact, Vitiello said, there is a natural tension between the desire to relax law enforcement and the hope of brining in tax revenue. If not reporting a crop is nothing more than a minor tax offense, he said, there will be little incentive for most people to report to the Franchise Tax Board. Making penalties strong enough to get people to report, however, could actually send more people to prison, at least in the short term.

John Lovell, lobbyist for the California Peace Officers Association and several other law enforcement groups, scoffs at the idea that legal pot would be a moneymaker for the state.

“The hard dollars will be far more than any revenue that is brought in through any kind of spurious tax effort,” Lovell said.

Lovell referred to studies from Maryland and British Columbia that he said point to the dangers of people driving while under the influence of marijuana—a problem he said would get much worse under legalization. He also pointed to a RAND Corp. study he said that shows pot taxes would be a fraction of what proponents claim. Most of the tax penalties in current bills and initiatives, he said, amount to little more than “licensing fees.”

Another issue is the penalties for selling to minors. Many proponents have said the penalties should be similar to those for adults who procure alcohol for kids. Both the Ammiano bill and Oaksterdam initiative allow legislative leeway in determining what these penalties should be.

“These things are negotiable,” Ammiano said. “My druthers are that we do look at sentencing and determinate sentencing. There are obviously areas we can negotiate on.”

Then there’s the question of where people could buy it. Most models point to a highly-regulated distribution system, perhaps akin to the state-run liquor stores in Washington State.

There could also be major local differences. There’s already been a decade of testing on what this might look like, in the form of the medical marijuana dispensaries that have been operating since California voters passed Proposition 215 by a wide margin in 1996. Some areas, particularly Los Angeles, have reported significant problems, with a large number of dispensaries operating. The more likely model might be West Hollywood, which operates a small number of heavily-regulated but thriving operations.

“What it’s going to look like in the future will entirely depend on the locals,” said Dale Clare, executive chancellor of Oaksterdam.

Clare also said that they’re set to pass half a million signatures on their initiative by next week. Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee has been quoted saying they will be able to marshal $20 million in donations to the initiative once it lands on next year’s ballot—a figure likely to be countered by millions from group’s opposing the measure.

Clare also points to an April Field Poll that found that 56 percent of voters would approve a legalization measure. This conflicts with a Capitol Weekly/Probolsky Research poll earlier this month that found likely voters opposed such a measure, 52 percent to 38 percent.

But the trend lines are clearly headed towards legalization. A February article on the popular political blog FiveThirtyEight.com said that support for marijuana legalization nationwide had passed the 40 percent threshold. Given greater support among younger voters and greatest opposition from older ones, “legalization would achieve 60 percent support at some point in 2022 or 2023,” according to author Nate Silver.

“If it goes to the ballot and fails, we’re that much closer for 2012,” Clare said. “This is an education campaign.”