Legalization Scenarios    


By Jon Gettman


What does the future hold for the issue of marijuana legalization?


While California voters consider marijuana regulation statewide, along with various local taxation initiatives, the issue of legalization remains challenging across the rest of the nation.


California has and will continue to lead the nation in the area of marijuana law reform. California innovates, the nation watches, learns, and ultimately begins developing new approaches of their own largely based on the California model. This was the case with the decriminalization of marijuana, this was the case with medical marijuana, and this is the likely outcome of the California’s consideration of Proposition 19 this fall.


Whether Proposition 19 wins or not the issue of regulation and taxation will be discussed throughout the nation. This bodes well for the issue. The more legalization is discussed, the more popular it becomes. Opponents of legalization want to portray it as a wild idea that is not even worthy of discussion. Debate, media coverage, petition drives to place similar measures before voters, and ultimately votes (millions of votes) legitimize marijuana’s legalization as viable public policy.


Of course, increased debate provides new platforms for the advocates of prohibition. They continue to argue that marijuana is a gateway drug leading the youth of America to the use of dangerous and addictive drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin. They continue to argue that marijuana use itself is more dangerous than most people realize and predict that scientific research will soon vindicate generations of concern. These claims, believe it or not, are great for the cause of legalization.


Renewed opposition is welcome, and actually strengthens the momentum for change. Why?


Well, first of all, scientific research has failed to validate claims that marijuana is a dangerous drug. In the 20 years since the discovery of the cannabinoid receptor system the overwhelming weight of scientific research on marijuana and THC has documented its relative safety as a pharmacological substance and highlighted its benefits as a therapeutic substance. There is no dispute that cannabinoid drugs found in marijuana have medical benefits; the only controversy is over whether these drugs should be delivered via smoking marijuana (such as in a vaporizer which eliminates harmful tars) or in some pharmaceutical form.


Opposition arguments are also welcome because the public has rejected them in the past and will continue to reject them in the future. Proposition 19 will receive substantial public support despite the best efforts of opponents to resurrect the greatest hits of reefer madness for a series of reunion tours throughout the country. Win or lose, discussion of legalization will increase and with increased discussion and debate, support – both public and political – will continue to grow.


It will get ugly. Many people involved in this debate are sincerely concerned about public health issues. Most of them are in fact reasonable, reject many of the hysterical arguments about pot, and have legitimate perspectives on a whole host of issues that must be addressed for society to have fair and effective regulatory policies about marijuana. However for many of the loudest, most emotional and most visible participants in the debate this is all about money.


Police don’t want to lose funding for marijuana-related enforcement efforts. Drug-treatment profiteers don’t want to lose revenue from court-ordered referrals. Anti-drug zealots don’t want to lose an issue they can exploit for public support, donations, and grants.


On the other hand, a lot of other people want to cash in on the profit potential of marijuana. This will be one of the key forces in bringing legalization about, but it won’t be pretty. As support for legalization grows the rush to get in on the ground floor of a new multi-billion dollar industry will turn into a stampede. Sure, government at all levels will slowly, but surely, embrace the idea of new sources of tax revenue that will result from legalized marijuana. But entrepreneurs and corporations will also decide it’s time to get in on the action. Many of these individuals will be strangers to the pot community. There will be a clash of values. Many marijuana users will be disgusted by the commercialization of their revered herb. 


It won’t be pretty. But neither is prohibition, with its selective enforcement, seizure of property, long-term incarceration of personal use growers, and over-priced pot.


The future of legalization brings conflicts. They should be welcomed. They also need to be overcome. There is only one way to meet the challenges presented by this oncoming debate: Get involved!




Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES.  A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues.  On October 8, 2002,  along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law.  This column will track that petition's progress.