Standing outside Sunset Holistic, a medical-marijuana dispensary on Hollywood Blvd., short-order cook Steve Jones still remembers the day 20 years ago when his college roommate was arrested for possessing an ounce of cannabis.
"Back then, marijuana was the evil ganja weed of 'Reefer Madness,' " says Mr. Jones. "Now they say it's medicine and you take it to heal.... What'll it be next, the corner ganjaria?"
The prospect suddenly doesn't seem so far out – and not just in California. Thirteen states allow for the legal possession and use of medical marijuana with a doctor's authorization, and several more are considering it. Though marijuana remains banned federally, the Obama administration has decided to end federal raids on medical-pot sellers in these states. And the American Medical Association recently made news when it called on the government to reconsider marijuana's classification as a dangerous drug to allow more medical research.
Medical-marijuana advocates call the trend progress, but opponents view it as an alarming first step on the road to outright legalization. States such as Massachusetts have already decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
"[I]t's basically the same thing as the government being in bed with drug traffickers. It sends the wrong signals to children – not just that it's OK to use marijuana, but that it's OK to use all drugs," says Gregory Lee, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and author of "Global Drug Enforcement."
There's no question, however, that American attitudes toward marijuana have changed. National polls show that Americans increasingly favor legalizing marijuana. More than 40 percent of Americans consistently supported legalization this year. Gallup surveys put that support at 44 percent now, up from 25 percent in 1995.
That's in line with global trends. Mexico and Argentina both have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. A commission headed by three former Latin American presidents, including Brazil's, concluded this year that the "war on drugs" had failed, and said Europe's approach toward drug use as a public health matter was "more humane."
"[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.
"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.