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Medical marijuana gains momentum – 13 states and counting

Support for medical marijuana - and outright legalization - is increasing across the US. But in some California cities, pot dispensaries have become unwelcome.

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"[T]he criminal prohibition of marijuana is an abject failure," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). Pro-legalization groups such as NORML argue that the United States wastes vast amounts of money and manpower chasing and locking up marijuana users, which could be used to go after hard-core drug traffickers.

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"The criminal prohibition of marijuana has not dissuaded anyone from using marijuana or reduced its availability," says Mr. Armentano. What it has done, he says, is adversely affect "millions of people who simply elected to use a substance to relax.... It is time to amend criminal prohibition and replace it with a system of legalization, taxation, regulation, and education."

Some say it's only a matter of time before the US treats marijuana as a recreational drug that is taxed and regulated like cigarettes and alcohol. In California, several coalitions have already gotten 200,000 signatures for a 2010 initiative that would give cities and counties more options to do just that. And on July 22 this year, Oakland, Calif., became the first city in the US to approve a tax on marijuana.

That will backfire, counters DEA veteran Mr. Lee, who says the resulting upticks in crime will be more costly than any additional revenue.

Lee says he is sympathetic to patients who are helped by marijuana. But he says the fact that almost no one uses tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, which is legally available, proves that the "medical necessity" argument is fraudulent.

"I think the medical-marijuana advocates really wanted to help people, but now it's become so easy to get a prescription that the whole thing is a joke," says Lee. Opponents also point out that the pro-legalization view may be growing but it's still in the minority.

Even California may be having some regrets. Some 120 towns and cities there have banned medical-pot outlets since 2006, according to Americans for Safe Access. Los Angeles has close to 900 dispensaries now, and local officials say police nuisance calls have soared.

"Complaints have dramatically increased from parents and schools who think this is definitely not a good idea," says Lt. Paul Torrence of the LAPD's Gang and Narcotics Division. "They are concerned about the physical safety of their children around these establishments, as well as the signal it sends ... that marijuana smoking is morally okay."

"If [other] states haven't come up to the level of problems that California has seen, they soon will," Lee warns.