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Majority Favor Marijuana Legalization in California, Poll Finds

Support for marijuana legalization is above 50% among Californians, and even higher among likely voters, according to a new Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll released Thursday. While other pollsters have reported majority support for legalization in the past, especially in the run-up to the failed 2010 Proposition 19 effort, Thursday's poll marks the first time PPIC has recorded majority support for legalization.

PPIC polling in September 2011 had support for legalization at 46%, and that figure dropped to 45% in a March 2012 PPIC poll. Now, the numbers have flipped.

The poll found support for marijuana legalization at 52% among all respondents and 60% among likely voters. Conversely, 45% of all respondents and 38% of likely voters opposed legalization, with undecideds accounting for only 2% to 3% of respondents.

Democrats (64%), independents (60%), and men (57%) are more likely than Republicans (45%) and women (47%) to favor legalization. About six in 10 whites (63%) and blacks (61%) are in favor, Asians are divided (48% legal, 45% not legal), and about six in 10 Latinos are opposed (62%). About half across age groups think marijuana use should be legal.

The question asked was "In general, do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?"

The question was asked of 1,703 Californians, including 1,429 registered voters, between September 10 and 17. Among those likely voters responding, 46% were Democrats, 31% Republicans, and 17% independents. That generally follows current voter registration statistics. The racial makeup of likely voters was 61% white, 15% Latino, 12% Asian and 8% black. The poll has a margin of error of between 3.7% and 4.5% depending on the subgroup polled.

The poll results are likely to encourage efforts by California activists to get a legalization initiative on the 2014 ballot, even though many major drug reform players have cautioned that the state should wait for the higher voter turnout expected in the 2016 presidential election year. A divided activist community threw up several initiative proposals in 2012, but none of them managed to make the ballot.

One measure, the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative 2014, has already been cleared for circulation this year, and at least one more is in the works. Organizers face a daunting task, however; they need to gather more than half a million registered voter signatures, a process that typically requires at least a million-dollar investment. Whether the big money can be convinced that 2014 is both doable and winnable remains to be seen.

The poll also found that more than two-thirds (68%) of respondents said the federal government should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states where it is legal.

CA
United States

Slim Majority Favors Marijuana Legalization in California Poll

A Field poll of California voters released Wednesday had support for marijuana legalization at 54%, the highest number ever for a Field poll. Only 43% opposed legalization. The same poll reported that two-thirds of Californians want the federal government to end its crackdown on medical marijuana providers.

While the 54% in favor of legalization is the highest ever for Field, it is not high enough to make potential initiative organizers or contributors feel sanguine. The conventional wisdom about initiative experts is that they should be polling at 60% or above at the beginning of the campaign. However, it will be a few years before Californians are likely to vote on legalization again, and support for legalization has only continued to increase in recent years.

Proposition 19 in 2010 typically polled in the 50s in the run-up to the election last year before losing on election day with 47% of the vote. That year, the final Field poll to ask about marijuana legalization, four months ahead of the election, had support at 50%, but as is typical in initiative campaigns, support wavered at the end.

This week's Field poll found support for legalization at 60% or above for San Francisco Bay Area residents (66%), single people (64%), men (62%), voters under 40 (60%), and African- and Asian-Americans (60%).

Support was lowest among Latinos (41%), Republicans (42%), voters 65 and older (43%), and women (46%).

Californians strongly support their medical marijuana system, the poll found. In addition to the 67% calling on the federal government to end its crackdown, 72% said they favor the state's medical marijuana law. That figure, however, was down two points from 2004 and 2010 Field polls.

Some 58% of respondents would allow dispensaries in their communities. Support for dispensaries was highest in the Bay Area (65%) and lowest in "other Southern California" (San Diego, the Inland Empire and Central Valley).

CA
United States

At NORML, A Sharp Focus on the Marijuana Initiatives [FEATURE]

The 41st National NORML conference took place at a downtown Los Angeles hotel over the weekend under the theme of "The Final Days of Prohibition." With marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot in three states and medical marijuana on the ballot in two others, the several hundred attendees could almost smell the scent of victory come election day -- or at least a historic first win for legalization.

Rick Steves, Keith Stroup, Ethan Nadelmann, Brian Vicente for OR Amendment 64, Roy Kaufman for OR Measure 80 (radicalruss.com)
"This is a great movement, not because it's about marijuana, but because it's a movement about truth and freedom, the freedom to live our private lives as we wish," NORML board chairman Paul Kuhn told the crowd in his conference-opening remarks. "A White House that serves liquor, a president who smoked a lot of marijuana, and a speaker of the house who is addicted to nicotine -- they have no business demonizing us because we prefer a substance less dangerous than liquor or alcohol."

For Kuhn, as for many others at the conference, supporting the legalization initiatives was front and center. (While grumbling and gnashing of teeth was heard among some attendees, particularly over the Washington initiative's drugged driving provision, no initiative opponents were seen on any of the panels or presentations.)

"We're beyond the concept of legalization. Now, we're supporting real laws, and no law will satisfy everybody in this movement," Kuhn continued, implicitly acknowledging the dissension around the Washington initiative. "We have our differences, sometimes heated, and this is healthy and necessary if we are to evolve and craft the best laws and regulations, the best form of legalization. All of us in this movement are allies, we're friends, we share the same goals of truth and freedom and legal marijuana. We have worked too hard for too many years to let our opponents divide us, or worse, divide ourselves."

"These are the final days of prohibition. The data is clear," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre, pointing not only to public opinion polls but also to the political reality of the initiatives and the progress the movement has made in Congress and the states. "We have a cannabis caucus in our Congress and in the state houses, and we helped get them elected. There are 15 or 20 members of Congress who are genuine supporters of ending prohibition, most of them are Democrats. In the states, we now have sitting governors and representatives calling us and saying 'we want your support, your endorsement, your money.'"

 With the initiatives looming, much of the conference was devoted to the minutiae and arcana of legalization, regulation, and taxation models. Thursday afternoon saw extended discussions in panels on "Cannabis Legalization and Regulation: What it Might Look Like" and "Cannabis and the 'Demo' Gap: Who Doesn't Support Legalization and What We Can Do about It."

"How do we win the hearts and minds of non-smokers?" asked Patrick Oglesby of the Center for New Revenue. "The revenue card is one we can play. That gives people something to vote for. Every state in the union legalizes and taxes alcohol and tobacco. Revenue from marijuana isn't going to fix our economic problems, but let's start with the easy stuff, let's fix this and get some revenues."

"At least one state will tip in November, and others will follow," predicted Pepperdine University researcher and Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know coauthor Angela Hawken. "Parents will wake up and realize their children didn't turn into zombies."

Parents -- and mothers in particular -- are a key demographic that must be won over if marijuana legalization is to advance, and the way to win them over is to address their fears, panelists said.

"Women are more safety conscious and they tend to believe authority," noted NORML Women's Alliance coordinator Sabrina Fendrick. "They just need to be educated. Proposition 19 failed in large part because of women and seniors. Many were concerned over the driving issue and children being on the road with stoned drivers. The way to bring support up is to educate them about the difference between use and abuse, and to make women who support legalization feel safe about coming out."

The NORML Women's Alliance is working on that, and on increasing the number of female activists in a movement that has been male-dominated from the outset.

Law enforcement is another key bastion of opposition to legalization, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) representative Steven Downing told the audience the key to swaying law enforcement was not in the rank and file, but at the pinnacle of the command structure.

"We have to influence change at the top," he said. "When that comes, the young officers on the street will do as they're told. Many of them already agree with legalizing marijuana. Don't treat the police as the enemy, but as people who can benefit from the education you can give them. Do it in a way that they're not defensive, then refer them to LEAP," the former LAPD officer suggested. "Tell them that if they support the war on drugs, they're not supporting public safety."

On Friday, longtime Seattle marijuana activist-turned-journalist Dominic Holden gave a spirited defense of Washington's I-502 initiative and ripped into its movement critics, including calling out NORML board member and Seattle defense attorney Jeff Steinborn, who has been a vocal foe of the initiative despite a unanimous board vote to support it.

"Who is opposing 502?" Holden asked. "The law enforcement opposition has been quiet and halfhearted. It's Steve Sarich, who runs CannaCare, it's cannabis doc Gil Mobley, and a whole passel of pot activists along with them. The ones opposing pot legalization right now are the ones making money hand over fist with prohibition. If they're profiting off it, I don't give a rat's ass what they think," he said.

"They don't like the DUID provision and its per se standard. They say that someone who uses marijuana regularly will test positive, but there is not a single scientific study to back them up. Their argument is fundamentally flawed because it is a lie," Holden countered, mincing no words.

"There is also concern that if we pass it, the federal government will challenge us on legalizing pot. That's the damned point!" he thundered.

"But marijuana is going to be taxed, they complain. Shut up, Teabaggers!" Holden jeered. "What planet do you live on where they're not going to tax a huge agricultural commodity?"

He pointed out that Steinborn and Sensible Washington, who are opposing I-502, had tried unsuccessfully to mount an initiative of their own.

"If you want to run a winning campaign, you need a bunch of money, credible spokespeople, campaign professionals, and the polling on your side," he said. "Part of that is compromise. You don't always get what you want, you don't always get the initiative of your dreams. What you want is a bill that can win."

"This is poll driven," said travel writer, TV host, and I-502 proponent Rick Steves. "It isn't a utopian fix. We need to win this. This doesn't feel pro-pot, but anti-prohibition."

"Regulate marijuana like alcohol is our message," said Sensible Colorado head and Amendment 80 proponent Brian Vicente. "We don't talk about legalization, but regulation. We've built support for this through two avenues, medical marijuana, where we've worked hard to make our state a model for how it can be taxed and regulated, but also through consistent earned media pushes and ballot initiatives to introduce the public to the idea that this isn’t the demon weed. We're consistently ahead five to ten points in the polls. We think this will be a damned close election."

When Vicente noted that the Colorado initiative had no drugged driving provision, he was met with loud applause. 

Drug Policy Alliance
head Ethan Nadelmann provided a primer on what major donors look for when it comes to supporting initiatives.

"We don't pick out a state in advance," he explained. "We want to know at the get-go if there is already a serious majority in favor of legalization. To think you can use a campaign to move the public is not true; the role of the ballot process is to transform majoritarian public opinion into law when the state legislature is unable or unwilling to do so. You want to go in with 57% or 58% on your side. Anything short of that, you're going to lose."

And watch out for October, he warned.

"In the final weeks, the opposition mobilizes," Nadelmann said. "You get the cops, the politicians, the feds speaking out and scaring people -- that's why these are hard to win, and that's why I'm still really nervous."

Still, the Drug Policy Alliance is deeply involved in Colorado and has put a lot of money into Washington, Nadelmann said, while noting that the Marijuana Policy Project had also put big bucks into Colorado.

"We have to win this year so we can figure out how to win a bunch more in 2016," Nadelmann said, adding that he was looking toward California. "We're going to try to put together the best and most winnable legalization initiative in California in 2016.

NORML 2012 wasn't all about the initiatives -- there were also panels on advances in medical marijuana, advances in the Northeast, and the role of women in the movement, among others, and a rousing speech from long-time anti-war activist Tom Hayden and a new-born movement star in Ann Lee, the mother of Richard Lee -- but with the marijuana legalization movement looking like it's about to step foot in the Promised Land after decades in the political wilderness, next month's elections dominated. The prospect of imminent victory really focuses the mind.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Richard Lee's Mom Wows 'Em at NORML [FEATURE]

With a few more appearances like the one she put in at the 41st National NORML Conference this past weekend in Los Angeles, silver-haired Texas Republican Ann Lee won't be introduced as "Richard Lee's Mom" for much longer. The 84-year-old Lee wowed the crowd with her feisty appearances and her call for a Republican revolution against marijuana prohibition, threatening to become a movement star in her own right, and not merely as the mother of the man who founded Oaksterdam University and put 2010's California Proposition 19 on the ballot.

Ann Lee, 2012 NORML conference (radicalruss.com)
"Republicans believe in three things: limited government, fiscal responsibility, and less intrusion in your private life," Lee said in remarks last Thursday. "The drug war is against all the principles of the Republican Party. How about RAMP (Republicans against Marijuana Prohibition)?" she demanded to cheers of approval.

Lee explained how, like most people, she had believed her government when it told her marijuana was bad and dangerous, but that her son's advocacy for the herb after he began using it medicinally in the wake of a spinal injury helped her change her mind. And her role as an advocate for Prop 19 helped her sharpen her arguments.

"I fell hook, line, and sinker for the propaganda my government put out," she said. "I've come to question the government more than I ever did."

It isn't just pot, it's prohibition, Lee told the crowd, adding that she had read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and considered it a masterful explanation of the racial politics hiding behind prohibition.

"We've taken freedom away from way too many young blacks and Latinos."

The down home octogenarian also drew a long round of applause when she addressed the NORML Women's Alliance panel at the end of its Saturday session, reiterating her remarks about creating RAMP and urging the panel and the crowd not to forego opportunities for creating new allies.

Lee's first appearance was on a panel about demographic groups that have not been friendly to marijuana law reform. But if the white-haired Texas Republican woman demographic is slipping away from the prohibitionists, the end may indeed be nigh.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Oaksterdam University Will Carry On, But Without Richard Lee [FEATURE]

At an Oakland press conference Wednesday, Oaksterdam University announced that it would attempt to stay open in the wake of the April 2 federal raid on its campus and associated businesses, but that its founder, Richard Lee, would no longer be involved with the business. Lee, Oaksterdam representatives, and others also used the press conference to call for a national day of action Friday (4/20) and for people to barrage the Obama White House with phone calls demanding it end its policy of repression aimed at medical marijuana providers.

"My future is very uncertain," Lee said. "I'm waiting for a possible legal case. But I hope to be free to support marijuana legalization campaigns like in Colorado and Washington and medical marijuana campaigns like in Ohio. This is a big issue and getting bigger. If I can use my notoriety to help, I will do what I can."

Lee will be replaced at Oaksterdam University by Dale Sky Jones, who was the school's executive chancellor and who worked closely with Lee in 2010's Proposition 19 campaign. Jones and Oaksterdam will face some tough challenges. The federal raiders stripped the campus of all its equipment and computers, and the school has been unable to hold classes or pay staff. Instead, some 45 people are working on a volunteer basis to get it up and running again.

"The raid knocked the wind out of us," said Jones. "We will need help to get back on our feet in the short term, but in the long term, we will come back."

The school will have to move to a smaller, more affordable, space, Jones said.

"It's not sustainable in the current building," she explained. "We'll keep leasing the auditorium where we teach classes until further notice, and that will allow us to continue to enroll new students, which will allow us to buy new computers. But our office will move to a new location. We're staying in the heart of Oaksterdam, but with a much smaller office space. We've created a new parent company that will have the Oaksterdam trademark. Oaksterdam University will survive, just with a new parent company."

Some 15,000 people have taken courses at Oaksterdam, with a curriculum covering all aspects of the medical marijuana industry, from the basics of growing to how to run a business to how to navigate the maze of state, federal, and local laws and regulations. The school has been at the heart of the revitalization of Broadway in downtown Oakland, as well as at the heart of the East Bay medical marijuana community.

"In terms of public safety, I've been to downtown Oakland on numerous occasions, and if you think this will make it a safer community, it will do just the opposite," said Neill Franklin, a former Baltimore police commander in the city's Bureau of Drug and Criminal Enforcement, and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "Effective public safety is the result of healthy communities, not police action. When people come together, as they did in Oaksterdam, that's when crime is reduced. Now, we'll have patients forced back into the criminal market, funding organized crime. The public is trying to send a message to Washington, DC, that it's time to move away from these destructive prohibition policies."

"This cost the jobs of 100 union members, and those were good jobs with a decent wage," said Ron Lind, president of the UFCW's Local 5, which represents Bay area dispensary workers. "This misguided policy doesn't only impact patients; it also impacts workers. We will continue to support Oaksterdam and its reemergence. There is a huge potential for good middle-class jobs throughout this industry, and it's time for the federal government to stop undermining it."

"This administration is out of touch not only with the public, but with its own campaign pledges," said Franklin. "Obama won last time after forcefully pledging to back off from the federal attacks. Anyone who thinks this is a good electoral strategy needs to look at the polling," in which support for medical marijuana typically runs at 70% or higher.

Richard Lee surrounded by supporters in San Francisco a day after the April 2 raid
Given the ongoing federal crackdown, it is time for Oaksterdam University to broaden its mission, said Jones.

"Our focus has been on providing quality education to the cannabis community, but we need to start focusing on creating safer communities by controlling, taxing, and regulating cannabis," she said. "These days, it's more accessible than any other drugs. You're not getting it at the store, but behind the store. You don't see legal wine grape growers wielding machine guns."

"We want to thank Richard Lee and Oaksterdam for all you do," said Laura Thomas, interim state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, "both to increase access to medical cannabis and for Proposition 19. We join in calling on people to let the president know what you think of this raid and his drug policies in general. Obama has for the first time acknowledged that there needs to be debate on this topic. We need to let him know that legalization is something that should be talked about."

Oaksterdam supporters will gather at the campus Friday for a demonstration and march to the Oakland federal building. They are also urging sympathizers to sign a petition to President Obama urging him to stop the raids. It has more than 23,000 signatures so far.

"This is a big political issue," said Lee. "We're getting a lot of support right now, and the most recent polls show legalization with about a 5% lead across the country. The opponents of ending cannabis prohibition are fighting back. This issue is at the tipping point."

Oakland, CA
United States

Medical Marijuana Crackdown Sparks San Francisco Protest [FEATURE]

Members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and representatives of the city attorney, state legislators, and state officials jointed hundreds of medical marijuana patients and supporters for an energized rally at City Hall Tuesday afternoon before marching to the nearby federal building to demand that US Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag cease and desist in her attacks on the locally-regulated and -tolerated medical marijuana distribution in the city, the Bay area, and the state of California.

The crowd was large and outraged by Monday morning's federal raid on the movement's iconic Oaksterdam University, associated properties, and the home of Oaksterdam University founder and Proposition 19 funder Richard Lee. But that raid, which drew a heated reaction from activists who gathered in an emergency response to armed DEA, IRS, and US Marshals, went down after Tuesday's rallied had already been scheduled, and was only the latest in a recurring pattern of federal strikes against the movement and the industry going back to last fall.

Since October, when California's four US Attorneys jointly opened their campaign against the dispensaries, five have been forced to close because of federal threats in San Francisco alone, and others are under current threat. Across the state, the number of federally-induced shutdowns is in the dozens, including some of the state's most venerable and most regulated medical marijuana enterprises.

In San Francisco, patients, advocates, dispensary operators, the San Francisco chapter of Americans for Safe Access, and members of the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Task Force are launching a campaign, San Francisco United, to push city officials to take action to protect medical marijuana distribution in the city. It's not that they need a whole lot of pushing, given their recognition of the broad popularity of medical marijuana in the city where the movement was born.

Oaksterdam's Richard Lee made it to the rally after being detained Monday. He heard multiple expressions of support.
"By opposing federal interference, San Francisco officials are taking a stand for patients and for sensible public health policy," said ASA founder and Executive Director Steph Sherer. "The federal government must not be allowed to push patients into the illicit market without consequence."

Looking out at the crowd gathered around the steps of City Hall waving a sea of "Cannabis Is Medicine, Let States Regulate" signs, Sherer told her audience the movement is having an impact. "Haag and Holder are watching you. You're frightening them," she said to wild cheers.

"You're not alone; you have friends in city hall," Supervisor David Campos said as he stepped before the microphone. "This is a social justice issue; this is about safe access for patients," he said. "The voters have spoken, and we understand the importance of this issue. We need to expedite the permitting process so those closed dispensaries can reopen quickly."

Supervisor Christina Olague assailed Haag's campaign against the dispensaries. "This is absurd," she told the crowd, calling for solidarity. "When one of us is attacked, all of us are attacked," she said.

Cardboard cutouts of Haag's face on sticks allowed crowd members to wear "Haag masks" complete with blank speech balloons, on which protestors wrote "Quit vomiting and grow your own," "I love Romney," and similar witticisms.

Supervisor David Campos on the steps of city hall
"Melinda Haag didn't know what she was getting into," said Quintin Mecke, spokesman for drug reformer state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). "California is a sanctuary state, and California law is at stake. But this isn't just a San Francisco issue or a California issue, it's a national issue."

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws. In the past year, the DEA and other federal agencies have unleashed offensives against dispensaries in California, Colorado, and Montana, and have attempted to intimidate state officials in other medical marijuana states contemplating state-regulated distribution systems.

Mecke also announced that Ammiano's Assembly Bill 2312, which would set up a statewide system of regulated medical marijuana distribution, will get a first hearing next Tuesday in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

"I urge the federal government to halt its assault on dispensaries and cease its cruel attacks on patients and caregivers," said a spokesman for state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), another friend of drug reform in Sacramento. "Those federal dollars are better spent on programs that actually help people, and I'm concerned about this having a deleterious impact on the state's economy."

The "Haag mask"
Medical marijuana's contribution to the state economy is substantial, according to state Board of Equalization representative Allen Defazio. "The federal government needs to back off," he said. "The California system works, despite the federal government. Medical marijuana is generating $100 million a year in taxes."

Passing motorists honked frequently in support as protestors made the brief march down Golden Gate Avenue to the federal building, where US Attorney Haag has offices on the 19th floor. Stone-faced, uniformed federal police looked on as the crowd gathered on the building's plaza to chant and shake its fists at her towering aerie.

"This is an insult to San Francisco and California," fumed Dale Gieringer, longtime leader of California NORML. "The Department of Justice doesn't want patients to have safe, law-abiding access to medical marijuana. They want it to be criminal."

As the federal building action wound down, Americans for Safe Access national director Stephanie Sherer, who emceed the day's events, urged the crowd to chant loud enough for Haag to hear their voices on the 19th floor. There is no sign yet that she is hearing those voices, but the clamor is growing, and as long as she continues to go after dispensaries in Northern California, the racket there is just going to get louder and louder.

San Francisco, CA
United States

Feds Raid Oaksterdam University

Federal agents raided Oaksterdam University and associated businesses in downtown Oakland Monday morning shortly before 8:00am local time. The entire building was surrounded by yellow crime scene tape, and an hour later, agents were spotted carrying trash bags filled with unknown materials to a waiting van.

Also hit in the early morning raids were the nearby Oaksterdam Museum, the Oaksterdam gift shop, and the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club. None of those businesses actually distribute medical marijuana.

The Bay Citizen reported that Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee had been detained at his home and that four university plant tenders had been arrested. The Bay Citizen also reported that the former location of Lee's Blue Sky dispensary had been raided.

Oaksterdam University is the beating heart of the Oakland cannabis revival, which has helped revitalize the city's downtown core. Founded in 2007, it was the first institution in the country devoted to providing instruction in medical marijuana cultivation.

Owned and operated by Richard Lee, who put his personal fortune into getting 2010's Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana on the ballot, the university has trained thousands of people in how to grow their own medicine and other aspects of medical marijuana business. It has also served as an organizing center for the Bay area medical marijuana movement.

Medical marijuana defense groups, such as Americans for Safe Access, were mobilizing their members Monday morning and calling for supporters to head to the scene. They did so in large and angry numbers, shouting obscenities and imprecations at the federal agents. Oakland police were called in for crowd control after protestors spilled onto Broadway. Two people were arrested during the protest.

Federal officials were tight-lipped, with IRS spokeswoman Arlette Lee saying little more than that the raids were part of "an ongoing investigation."

Federal officials have been cracking down on California dispensaries for the past year, breaking with an earlier Obama administration stance that it would not bother operations that were in compliance with state law.

While in some cases, the federal crackdown has been assisted, or even instigated by, local officials, that is not the case in cannabis-friendly Oakland. The city has worked closely with medical marijuana providers and derives substantial tax revenues from them. It recently announced plans to double the number of dispensaries in the city from four to eight.

A previously scheduled press conference and protest march in San Francisco set for Tuesday should be even more energized after Monday's raids directed at what many see as the heart of the California medical marijuana scene.

Stay tuned.

Oakland , CA
United States

Teens Rejecting Alcohol, Tobacco; Selecting Marijuana [FEATURE]

The annual Monitoring the Future survey of substance use by eighth, 10th, and 12th graders was released Wednesday, and it shows students are drinking and smoking tobacco at historically low levels, but marijuana use is on the rise. Teen use of other drugs also generally declined, except for a slight increase in use of prescription drugs reported by seniors.

About one-third of seniors reported smoking pot during the past year, up slightly from the previous year. That's well above the 20% who did so in 1991, the nadir for teen marijuana use, but well below the more than 50% who did so in 1979, the apex of teen marijuana use. The number of seniors reporting annual pot use has been creeping up slightly since about 2007.

Federal drug war bureaucrats bemoaned the uptick in teen pot smoking at a Washington, DC, press conference rolling out the research results, but marijuana law reform activists had a different take on the numbers and what they mean.

Daily tobacco smoking by teens was down by 50% compared to the mid-1990s, while adolescent binge drinking had declined by 25% since 1997. About 10% of high school seniors reported daily cigarette smoking and about 20% reported smoking within the last month, down 40% from 1997. At all three grade levels, more students smoked pot in the last month than smoked cigarettes.

"The decrease is very dramatic," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "But despite the dramatic results, the prevalence of teen smoking and drinking is still high, so we can't become complacent. The troublesome news is that marijuana use has been trending upwards in the last few years. We've seen a significant decline in the perception that marijuana is risky. Fewer kids see smoking marijuana as having bad health effects."

While careful to point out that responsible marijuana reform activists do not encourage teen substance use, Mason Tvert, head of the activist group SAFER (Safe Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation) and coauthor of Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? dared to suggest that young people who do use drugs are making smarter choices about which drugs they choose to use.

"We're always concerned about young people using drugs, but it's clear that more young people are understanding that marijuana is a less harmful substance and making that choice," said Tvert. "While we certainly don't want to promote marijuana use among minors, this report suggests they are making the safer choice to use marijuana rather than alcohol."

Tvert attributed both the rise in teen use and the decline in their perceptions of marijuana's risks to their increasing exposure to knowledge about marijuana.

"Ultimately, people are hearing more and more about the facts surrounding marijuana, and as they continue to hear that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol, that it doesn't contribute to violence, that there is no danger of a deadly overdose, they are increasingly more comfortable making that choice."

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske used the Wednesday press conference to blame medical marijuana for the rise in teen pot smoking. 

"These last couple years, the amount of attention that's been given to medical marijuana has been huge," he said. "And when I've done focus groups with high school students in states where medical marijuana is legal, they say, 'Well, if it's called medicine and it's given to patients by caregivers, then that's really the wrong message for us as high school students.'"

While Volkow and Kerlikowske lauded the use of prevention campaigns in reducing teen smoking and drinking, they did not say why such a strategy was not appropriate for marijuana, nor did they break with the prevailing prohibitionist approach to marijuana.  That led to criticism from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

"This report, once again, clearly demonstrates that our nation's policymakers have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to addressing teen marijuana use," said Rob Kampia, MPP executive director. "Political leaders have for decades refused to regulate marijuana in order to keep it out of the hands of drug dealers who aren't required to check customer ID and have no qualms about selling marijuana to young people."

"The continued decline in teen tobacco and alcohol use is proof that sensible regulations, coupled with honest, and science-based public education can be effective in keeping substances away from young people," Kampia continued. "It's time we acknowledge that our current marijuana laws have utterly failed to accomplish one of their primary objectives -- to keep marijuana away from young people -- and do the right thing by regulating marijuana, bringing its sale under the rule of law, and working to reduce the easy access to marijuana that our irrational system gives teenagers."

"The decline in cigarette smoking is great news -- not just because it's the most deadly drug but also because it reveals that legal regulation and honest education are more effective than prohibition and criminalization," said DPA publications manager Jag Davies. "It's absurd, though, that the survey doesn't also include the fiscal, health and human costs of arresting more than 1.6 million Americans each year on drug charges, including more than 750,000 for marijuana possession alone."

"Rather than measuring success based on slight fluctuations in drug use, the primary measure of the effectiveness of our nation's drug policies should be the reduction of drug-related harm," Davies continued. "A rational drug policy would prioritize reducing the problems associated with drug misuse itself -- such as overdose, addiction and disease transmission -- and the problems associated with drug prohibition, such as mass incarceration, erosion of civil liberties, and egregious racial disparities in enforcement, prosecution and sentencing. Looking at use rates in a vacuum is missing the forest for the trees."

"Arresting people for marijuana simply does not stop young people from using it, and it never will," said Kampia. "It is time for a more sensible approach."

Washington, DC
United States

Prop 19 Backers Eye 2012 Medical Marijuana Initiative

A budding coalition of medical marijuana reform backers, including some of the same folks behind last year's Proposition 19, is working on an initiative for the 2012 ballot that would impose statewide regulation on California's crazy-quilt medical marijuana dispensary scene. The announcement came during a San Francisco press conference Tuesday preceding a demonstration during a visit to the city by President Obama.

"We need statewide regulation," said Dale Sky Jones, spokeswoman for last year's Prop 19 campaign and for the organization's current incarnation, the California Coalition for Cannabis Reform. "We are working on a regulatory framework for 2012, but it's still being drafted. Many Prop 19 supporters back this."

It's not just Prop 19 supporters, added Steve De Angelo, proprietor of Harborside Health Center, Oakland's largest dispensary -- which is now under attack by the IRS as part of the new federal offensive against medical marijuana distribution. "There is a broad based recognition that it's time for state regulation," he said.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 is also behind the effort. "We will speak to the specifics of the initiative within a couple of weeks," said the union's Cannabis Division Coordinator, Matthew Witemeyer.

Although California has a statewide medical marijuana law, cities and counties have created a patchwork of rules and regulations, so that what may be permissible in one area would leave someone subject to prosecution for undertaking the same activity in another one. Conflicting rulings from state courts have not resolved the situation, leaving Californians with varying levels of access to medical marijuana through dispensaries. Local approaches range from cooperative regulation and taxation to hostile permanent moratoria on dispensaries.

San Francisco, CA
United States

The Feds Can't Stop Medical Marijuana, CA Activists Say [FEATURE]

The ongoing federal offensive against medical marijuana production and distribution in California is weighing ominously over the state's billion-dollar-a-year medical marijuana business, but while the industry could take some casualties, patients could suffer, and the battle field could get ugly, the feds can't stop it, a trio of well-placed activist observers said this week.

medical marijuana protest, 2006 (photo courtesy ASA)
Despite the Obama administration's famous 2009 Justice Department memo saying it would not interfere with operations complying with state laws in states where it is legal, the federal government has been raiding medical marijuana operations at a pace faster than the Bush administration. This year, the administration has become evidently more hostile, with a range of federal agencies doing what they can to make life difficult.

The Treasury Department has been scaring financial institutions away from dealing with medical marijuana businesses, the IRS is exercising punitive tax policy decisions designed to run them out of business, and even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms has gotten into the act, warning gun dealers that medical marijuana patients are "addicts" who can't legally purchase weapons.

Tax liens and banking hassles are one thing, but being confronted by paramilitarized DEA raiders, threatened with having properties seized, or being faced with lengthy federal prison sentences is a whole other category of hurt. And that's what really has California's medical marijuana community up in arms. Between threatening news conferences by federal prosecutors, dozens of warning letters to landlords going out, and a steady drumbeat of DEA raids, medical marijuana patients and providers are scared -- and angry.

"I haven't seen people so outraged since the days of WAMM and the Ed Rosenthal raids," said long-time California NORML head Dale Gieringer. "I'm hearing life-long Democrats say they can't vote for this -- unless Obama does something, he's going to lose a lot of support. I know people who gave a lot of money to his campaign last time who are sitting on their cash now."

That anger is taking to the streets, as well as the phone lines and the Internet. There will be a statewide protest at the federal courthouse in Sacramento as well as other federal courthouses on November 9, local demonstrations have already taken place in San Francisco and San Diego, with more scheduled around the state, and plans are in the work to protest President Obama when he visits San Francisco and Los Angeles next week.

"There's a lot going on," said Gieringer. "I can't keep track of it all."

Activists already held a White House call-in day on Tuesday, and Gieringer urged people to call their US representatives to urge them to support H.R. 1983, the States' Medical Marijuana Protection Act.

"That would solve this problem," he said. "We really need to focus on Congress, but we also need to try to get something from this administration."

Americans for Safe Access
(ASA), the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy group, is deeply involved in waging the counteroffensive. It has sent out email action alerts to members and is mobilizing on the ground and at the courthouse as well, said spokesman Kris Hermes.

"ASA and other stakeholders are holding protests throughout California," he said, "and we intend to continue to apply pressure through the federal courts. At some point soon, we will file an appeal on the federal rescheduling petition case, and we'll be going head to head with Obama on that issue. Because the Obama administration is drawing so much attention to this, something has to break. We hope it leads to a more sensible public health policy."

But despite the angst aroused by the intensifying federal campaign, and despite acknowledging the real suffering likely to result -- from patients being denied medicine to local governments denied revenues to otherwise law-abiding citizens being subjected to federal raids and prison -- advocates said the federal campaign was ultimately doomed to failure.

"It's a serious threat in the sense that it will have an impact on the number of dispensaries and growers across California, and that will translate into hundreds if not thousands of patients being denied their medication and forced into the illicit market," ASA's Hermes. "I don't think that's the intention, but it will certainly be the effect."

But, citing the Bush administration's 2007 threat letter campaign, when warning missives went out to more than 300 landlords, resulting in the closing of some dispensaries, Hermes said the feds were fighting a losing battle.

"They don't have the resources or capacity to follow through on their threats, so there will be an impact, but it will be temporary," Hermes said. "When Bush did it, dozens of dispensaries shut down, but now there are twice the number of dispensaries in the state that there were then. It will be difficult for the feds to have a lasting impact, which is not to say they're not trying. And they're mounting this campaign on the backs of taxpayers."

"We've been through this before," sighed Cal NORML's Gieringer, citing not only the Bush threat letter campaign, but also the 2002-2003 crackdown under then Attorney General John Ashcroft, and the 1998 Clinton administration lawsuit against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Co-op.

"Every time, we've seen some damage done and some retrenchment, but every time the industry has come back stronger than ever in a year or two. I'm not sanguine about it," he said, "just used to being outraged. The government has a bankrupt policy that it can't really enforce very effectively. A lot of good people could get sent to prison, but at the end of the day, they're just flailing around."

Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University, owner of one of Oakland's dispensaries, and the man who put his personal fortune into last year's Proposition 19, has spent years looking over his shoulder for the feds. This is just another twitch of the dying dinosaur's tail, he said.

"We're always worried," Lee laughed mirthlessly. "But in the end, we'll win. There is too much for them to take out everybody. There will be sacrifices, people will be hurt, but now we have an army to fight back. In the long run, this just pushes us toward legalization."

Oakland also has a friendly city government and a history of pro-legalization voting, Lee pointed out in an oblique warning to the feds. "Here in Oakland, we passed Measure Z with 65% of the vote, and that made possession and sales by adults and patients the lowest law enforcement priority," Lee pointed out. "Right now, we have six or so Measure Z clubs open. If they shut down the dispensaries, there will be a lot more of them."

Not only did Oakland pass Measure Z, which directed city officials to lobby for complete legalization, Lee pointed out, it also overwhelmingly passed Proposition 19.

"We're well on record for complete legalization, and the city needs the tax money more than ever," he said. "This is an ongoing battle between local governments here and the feds, and tax dollars is part of this fight. Right now, it's got us the worst of both worlds -- prohibition and taxation -- but hopefully one day we'll get taxation with legalization. There's certainly an incentive for local governments."

Landlords may tremble, dispensaries may close, people may go to prison. Medical marijuana and pot legalization supporters will fight in the trenches, though, and they are confident time and the tides are on their side. But only time will tell if they are right.

CA
United States

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