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Could marijuana soon be legalized?

July 27, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
A California legislator says he believes the intersection of public opinion, popular culture and politics may lead to the legalization of marijuana for recreational use sometime in the next five years. However, with some 800 medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles alone, some might argue we're already there.The Golden State seems to be getting greener every day. Marijuana is legal in California for medical purposes only.

A North Hollywood pot dispensary gave away free medical marijuana to the first 100 people who showed up last week. From chronic neck pain to dislocated hips, the list of reported medical ailments stretched as long as the line at the dispensary that day.

University of Southern California Professor Joel Hay says there are many people abusing California's medical marijuana law.

"You go to a doctor and say, 'I have a weak back.' And he says, 'When did it start?' 'Oh about a week back.' And he says, 'OK, here's your prescription for marijuana,'" said Hay, who teaches at the USC School of Pharmacy.

Hay points to a report from the nation's drug czar, which studied a San Diego marijuana dispensary. The report found that only 2 percent of patients had AIDs, glaucoma or cancer and that 80 percent of patients were under 40 years old.

Hay is also arguing against the growing movement toward legalization. At the federal and state level, legislators both liberal and conservative have introduced bills that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-District 46) is a co-sponsor for H.R. 2943, which would allow for personal use of up to 100 grams of marijuana by a responsible adult.

"The police are wasting their limited time and resources on, what ... An adult with a very small amount of marijuana, rather than some criminal who wants to rape or murder our families," said Rohrabacher.

State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's bill, AB 390, would allow the possession and cultivation of marijuana for anyone over the age of 21. It would also impose a tax of $50 per ounce.

"If we regulate it and ... also decriminalize it, we'd be able to tax it," said Ammiano.

As exemplified by President Bill Clinton, any hint of past drug use or advocating marijuana legalization used to be political suicide. But it seems something may have changed over the past 16 years.

"You have younger people, who were very supportive of Obama and more liberal laws supporting legalization," said Ammiano. "You also have the boomer generation ... who lived through the 70s, and doesn't quite see marijuana as the pernicious substance that some have characterized it as."

In addition, there has been a prevalence of pot in popular music, television shows and movies. That leaves some wondering if we have reached a tipping point with marijuana.

"When something is legalized, it's legitimate," said Professor Hay. "You're going to have big vested interests, sort of like the big beer company and big tobacco company ... We're now going to have the big marijuana company advertising on TV with various ways to persuade people to pick up the habit."

"It's not just going to go away just because the professor thinks that if we legalize it we're legitimizing it. It has legitimized itself," said Ammiano.

Most of those in favor of legalization also want marijuana to be taxed. Some may also argue it would help solve California's chronic budget problems and could help pull the rug out from under violent Mexican drug cartels.

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