The Great Persuader
Medical marijuana has powered a profound change in America’s attitudes.
Allen St. Pierre
The forces driving cannabis legalization today include the baby boomers and Gen Xers coming into power, the Internet, the economic recession and the country’s increasing weariness with 75 years of prohibition. However, when it comes to the average American’s perception of pot, medical marijuana has been the major instrument of change.
Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of NORML. Visit norml.org.
Following the founding of NORML in 1970, some of the earliest and most successful legal challenges to cannabis prohibition were wrought by contesting the federal government’s absurd assertion that cannabis has “no medical value.” The seminal case challenging this claim regarding the pharmacology of cannabis and its effects on humans was NORML v. DEA (1972-94). Though NORML ultimately lost in a two-to-one US Court of Appeals decision, the DEA’s chief administrative law judge, Francis Young, opined in favor of rescheduling cannabis, noting among other things that it is “the safest therapeutically active substance known to man,” one with “a remarkable track record of safety and efficacy,” and also that “cannabis in its natural form is safer than most foods that we eat,” with “no known lethal overdose recorded in human history.”
After losing this long-fought legal case against the Feds, cannabis-law reformers turned their sights to California, the
nation’s largest and most pro-cannabis state, only to have the then governor,
Pete Wilson, veto two consecutive medical marijuana bills in 1994 and ’95. But this hardly deterred the activists, and history was made in 1996 when voters passed Proposition 215, enabling patients to secure a doctor’s recommendation in order to use marijuana medicinally.
With momentum on their side, cannabis-law reformers—largely led by Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliancetargeted most of the entire western United States. By 2000, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Colorado (as well as Maine in the East) had deviated from the federal government’s War on Drugs by allowing medical cannabis.
Currently, 19 states have adopted medical cannabis access laws—half by voter initiative, the other half by conventional legislation. Today, public polling confirms a major shift in the country’s attitude toward cannabis, with
53 percent of those surveyed favoring legalization. Additionally, efforts to concentrate on medical cannabis-law reform, rather than decriminalization or legalization, have resulted in a remarkably effective educational campaign. Policymakers and the mainstream media now understand that cannabis is not only a safe and effective medicine, but nothing more than a mildly psychotropic herbal drug.
NORML estimates that there are well over one million medical marijuana patients now legally growing, selling and consuming cannabis products. This commerce, provided by an estimated 3,000 businesses, is largely happening right on Main Street USA, generating little to no serious local concern or political blowback. These days, with 70 percent of the American public supporting medical access, prohibitionist politicians are much better off keeping silent.
Still, there remains the tense legal friction between the states and the Feds. But the advent of legal medical cannabis in the United States has proven that this new industry can be regulated and controlled. It also produces welcome revenue for state and local governments—without the unwelcome health problems and public safety concerns associated with alcohol and tobacco use.^é-