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'Backdoor' Legalization

November 1, 1996



The effort to legalize illicit drugs - particularly marijuana - will get a substantial boost if Proposition 215 is passed by Californians next Tuesday.

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The measure has a benevolent face. It is portrayed by backers as a means of making marijuana's reputed pain-relieving powers more available to the sick. The cultivation, possession, and use of the drug for medical purposes would be legalized. A similar proposition, which includes heroin as well as marijuana, is on the ballot in Arizona.

Under the California proposal, a doctor's authorization would be needed to get marijuana through legal channels, but critics of the proposition suggest that people who want to use the drug should have no problem finding a cooperative physician. Their concern, as voiced by the chief federal antidrug official, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, is that the "backdoor" to legalization opened by 215 would lead inevitably to much wider use of marijuana and a breakdown in law enforcement efforts to control drugs.

General McCaffrey's alarms have been joined by warning words from both President Clinton and Bob Dole, and from former Presidents Bush, Carter, and Ford. All decry a move toward legalization at a time when youthful drug use, especially marijuana use, is already on the increase. Teenagers should not be sent the message, asserts McCaffrey, that "marijuana is medicine."

Polls indicate many Californians are swayed by the argument that people should be allowed to seek relief from pain any way they can. But a bigger issue, surely, is whether Americans want to move toward giving societal approval to the production, sale, and use of yet another addictive substance.