Pot advocates push legalization

Ads urge ending penalties for recreational marijuana use, as medicinal

In a year when Woodstock makes headlines and Austin Powers does well at the box office, another 1960s phenomenon is attempting its own comeback: legalization of marijuana.

Even as the courts, law enforcement, and the federal government continue to wrestle with growing acceptance of marijuana for medicinal purposes, advocates have begun the first serious campaign in decades to erase penalties for its recreational use.

Billboards are sprouting up across San Francisco this week, laced with some humor, but carrying the tagline: "Stop arresting responsible pot smokers."

"We decided it was time to try and move the marijuana debate beyond the medicinal issue," says Keith Stroup, founder of the Washington-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which is behind the new campaign.

While San Francisco, with its liberal reputation, was chosen as the launch site for the campaign, it is likely to spread to Los Angeles and other major cities in the coming months, Mr. Stroup says. The goal, he says, is to "introduce the concept of responsible marijuana use" by adults.

Wrong message?

Opponents worry about a nascent softening of marijuana laws in general, and object in particular to the ripple effect of this newest campaign.

"This message is dangerous because it tells teens that marijuana is a benign drug," says Joseph Califano, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York. In reality, marijuana is a gateway drug that can lead to use of cocaine and other harder drugs, according to the center.

While backers of the new campaign favor legalization, they're attempting as a first step revival of the decriminalization trend that took hold from the late 1960s through 1978.

During that decade, 11 states passed laws reducing penalties, generally to a fine, for the private use of small amounts of marijuana. The movement was broad and embraced states as dissimilar as Nebraska, North Carolina, New York, Mississippi, Oregon, and California.

Then in the 1980s, the nation's political environment changed dramatically, with soaring public angst over crime and the general direction of the nation's youth. By the 1990s, the war on drugs was under way and marijuana advocates had shifted their strategy to focus more narrowly on legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes.

Now marijuana proponents think the nation's mood is shifting once again and that, for a variety of reasons, sentiment favoring liberalization is building anew. The Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington group involved in the effort to permit medical marijuana, predicts that the number of states allowing such use will double from four currently to eight or so over the next 18 months. Maine will vote in November on a medical marijuana initiative, with other states to follow next year with ballot initiatives or legislation.

Shift in federal research

While the Clinton administration has been a staunch opponent of loosening marijuana laws, that line of opposition was breached slightly earlier this year when the Institute of Medicine ruled, after assessing a wide range of scientific studies, that marijuana can be effective as medicine.

The study, requested by the White House, ran counter to the administration's previous insistence that there was no evidence marijuana had any beneficial role in treating the ill.

The Institute of Medicine finding has prompted new guidelines for scientific research on a number of remaining issues related to medical marijuana. Proponents consider the move a major step forward after years when the government basically blocked additional inquiry.

Still, the federal government has not softened its position that federal law prohibiting marijuana trumps state laws allowing medicinal use.

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors won their first case against someone growing marijuana since California passed its medicinal marijuana initiative in 1996. A federal judge in Sacramento, disallowing any consideration of the state's voter-approved law, sentenced B.E. Smith to 27 months in prison for growing 87 pot plants.

Stroup says people are "fed up with the notion that we need to send everyone to prison for minor drug offenses," particularly for activities sanctioned by states. In fact, legislation in Congress would allow states to set medicinal-use policies without federal interference.

Most polls show strong public support of medical marijuana use, but most people do not favor legalization. Positions on decriminalization, where recreational use is punished with fines rather than jail, are less clear and depend on how the questions are phrased.

Decriminalization advocates say "prohibition" is a policy failure. The costs of funneling small-time marijuana users through the criminal courts far outweigh any discernible gains, they argue, particularly when penalties have not deterred the flood of marijuana on the streets. About 695,000 Americans were arrested in 1997 on marijuana charges, 83 percent for simple possession.

Still groups such as the Family Research Council say any easing of drug laws would send a dangerous signal, particularly to teens, that will only make a bad problem worse.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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