2012: The year we all got high

2012 was a "watershed" year for marijuana reform -- and not just in Washington and Colorado

Published December 27, 2012 4:40PM (EST)

  (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=288533'>belterz</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>/Salon)
(belterz via iStock/Salon)

If liberalizing marijuana laws becomes the next big social issue, we will have 2012 to thank for it, as this was the year that the issue finally moved from the fringes to the center of American politics.

“In the now nearly fifty-year-old effort to end cannabis prohibition laws led by non-profit citizen advocacy groups, 2012 must be viewed as a watershed year for cannabis law reformers,” said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, a leading marijuana reform group.

Tom Angell, the chairman of Marijuana Majority, agreed. "This was the year that we broke through and succeeded in getting prominent political observers and the media to pay attention to the fact that this is quickly becoming a mainstream issue.”

The biggest victories for advocates, of course, came in Washington and Colorado, where voters approved ballot measures to legalize cannabis for private recreational use. Washington’s law has already gone into effect, while Colorado’s will soon. Advocates hope that if all goes according to plan, other states will see there’s nothing to be afraid of and follow the example.

“It's hard to ignore marijuana legalization when it gets more votes than a winning presidential candidate in an important swing state, as occurred in Colorado this year,” Angell said. Indeed, President Obama received 1.23 million votes in the state while Amendment 64 earned 1.29 million votes, greater than 53,000 more.

But the 2012 effect extended beyond Colorado and Washington. Nationally, marijuana is now more accepted than ever, with numerous public opinion polls showing support for legalization breaching the critical 50 percent mark. Nearly two-thirds -- 64 percent -- of Americans want the federal government to stay out of states that legalized the drug. Support for medical marijuana also climbed to new highs, with polls showing up to 83 percent of Americans now favor allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis for certain ailments.

“Public support for ending marijuana prohibition is greater than ever before,” said Mason Tvert, the communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “More Americans than ever before recognize the fact that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society. We can all agree that alcohol prohibition was an abject failure, and people are increasingly coming to appreciate that marijuana prohibition is just as bad a policy.”

Other states also made advances. Rhode Island became the 15th state to decriminalize possession while Massachusetts and Connecticut came in as the 17th and 18th states to establish medical marijuana regimes.

In Washington, the White House signaled it may reverse its crackdown on marijuana liberalization when Obama told Barbara Walters that it doesn’t “make sense” for the federal government to be “going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.” While the news should be taken with a grain of salt, it’s unquestionably a step in the right direction from an administration that has been the harshest in history when it comes to states with medical marijuana laws. A tiny but growing group of lawmakers also worked to advance pro-reform legislation.

The capital itself will soon have its own medical marijuana dispensaries, with the district government approving a handful of dispensaries and growing centers this year.

And while difficult to quantify, there is a marked shift in the media coverage of the issue. No longer does every story on marijuana get snickering treatment and puns about the munchies or Bob Marley. Google Trends shows an enormous spike in news coverage of medical marijuana and legalization around the election, matching a jump in general web searches. There were 2,830 news stories written and broadcast about legalization in the past year, according to Nexis, up from just 812 in 2011.

Tvert credits the states for changing the way people talk about marijuana. “The successful initiatives this year in Colorado and Washington inspired thoughtful and open dialogue about the potential benefits of taking marijuana out of the underground market and regulating it like alcohol. The debate is no longer just about whether marijuana should be legal. The debate is also about how we should move forward now that it is becoming legal,” he said.

And a growing, and sometimes surprising, cadre of leaders from across the political spectrum recognized the need for reform this year. 2012 was the year that Pat Robertson, of all people, said, “I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol.” It was also the year that Bill Clinton, a leading drug warrior in his time in the White House, said the drug war “hasn’t worked” and called for dramatic reform.

At the same time, it was almost impossible to find pundits or other voices who strongly opposed legalization. The silence was almost more surprising than the support.

Meanwhile, there was a host of good news coming out of academia for reformers. A big study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no adverse pulmonary effects from moderate long-term usage; a federally-funded criminology study found marijuana dispensaries don’t increase crime rates, as some critics feared; while other studies found positive benefits for diabetes and treatment-resistant MS. A major literature review found the federal government’s classification of the drug -- Schedule I, the most severe, which holds there is zero medical benefit -- to be scientifically “not tenable” and “not accurate.”

Still, advocates say there is plenty of work to do. They’re eager to make sure Colorado's and Washington’s examples go well, aware that a negative outcome could doom the entire project in other states -- Rhode Island, Maine and California are eyed next -- and even set things back. California passed a very loose medical marijuana law years before other states, but did such a poor job in writing and implementing the law that it made other states wary and led to a federal government crackdown in 2010 and 2011.

“I think a lot of states will take a ‘wait and see’ attitude -- about the federal response, about the effects on consumption, and about the revenue possibilities,” said Rob MacCoun, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley who studies marijuana policy.

But there’s no question that 2012 has fundamentally changed things going forward.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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