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As feds acquiesce on marijuana, might the South legalize? (+video)

Now that the Department of Justice has said it won’t interfere with state regulation of cannabis in Washington and Colorado, a number of other states are moving forward with legalization plans. Will that include the socially conservative South?

By Staff writer / August 31, 2013

Sgt. Dorcy Riddle, with the Conroe Police Department, talks about the development of the marijuana plants found in west Conroe, Texas on Aug. 21, 2013. As many as 20,000 marijuana plants have been discovered on several plots in a heavily wooded area north of Houston.

Jason Fochtman/The Courier/AP

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ATLANTA

Ask a Southerner when states in the former Confederacy will legalize recreational marijuana and you’re likely to get a chuckle and a bemused shake of the head. “Not happenin’ soon, son,” is a common reply.

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While a growing number of states mostly out West and up in New England are on a legalization path after the Department of Justice’s decision to shrug its shoulders at state regulation (as long as it doesn’t involve kids, the black market, or federal property), none of them so far are in the South, where bedrock Baptist morals still push, not always successfully, against the sin of intoxication.

But look a little closer at Dixie’s denizens and one sees small but potent signs of a legalization groundswell, in part fueled by the South’s unique contributions to marijuana culture and prohibition. In Texas and all over the South, there are a lot Willie Nelson-style social and cultural “outlaw” attitudes, all of which overlap with Ron Paul libertarianism.

Indeed, some marijuana policy experts argue that Southern states may begin deciding to regulate instead of ban the use of the cannabis plant for medical and recreational purposes.

"This is an issue that hasn't been ready for primetime yet in the South. It may be that it's starting to be, and that's a good thing," Jill Harris, managing director of Drug Policy Action, told the Associated Press last year.

To be sure, the South and Midwest have remained mostly on the sidelines in the nation's marijuana-reform movement. Voters in the one semi-southern state to put it on the ballot last year – Arkansas – rebuffed it by a narrow margin.

Resisters cite culture and religious values and traditions, but others suggest political opposition may have more to do with the flow of government resources, says former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, including the prison industrial complex that’s rooted deeply in the South.

“Everyone who profits from the drug war, from the prison industrial complex to violent cartels and street traffickers, is invested in maintaining the status quo,” writes Mr. Stamper on Friday, in the Huffington Post.

Yet with the South being a complex creature, there are countervailing trends that suggest legalization isn’t such a long shot.

For one, states with different traditions but similar political mindset as Southern states – think Alaska – are putting legalization measures on the ballot next year.

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