Weed Takes Root

Marijuana’s steady creep toward legalization nationwide.

These are not your run-of-the-mill potheads jammed into the long, narrow classroom at Oaksterdam University, a tiny campus with no sign to betray its location on busy San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles. A serious vibe fills the loftlike space, where rows of desks are arranged like church pews under exposed ducts. No one clowns around or even smiles much. Instead, eyes fix intently on a screen at the front of the darkened room. Projected there is a photograph of a healthy marijuana plant under an array of lights. Tonight's subject, Cannabis 101: growing the weed in indoor gardens. It's delicate alchemy, as most of these students, who range in age from their early 20s to nearly 60, already know. During the 13-week semester, many tend—and keep notes on—their own clandestine nurseries in bedrooms and garages scattered around Los Angeles.Encouraged by instructors, and by the prospect of staking out ground-floor positions in the emerging world of "cannabusinesses," they cultivate popular varieties of bud while experimenting with soils, temperatures, and light sources.From the rear of the room, a baritone voice pipes up—a student remarking on the crystalline texture of the leaves when the plants are raised under light-emitting diodes."With the LEDs, it just looks way frostier than anything under the high-pressure sodium," he says.Details get technical, as in any science class, but the larger lesson is clear to see. Here, as in many other places across America, the future of cannabis is being sown—and it is a future high on promise.Oaksterdam takes its name from Oakland, where the university began, and pot-friendly Amsterdam. Here, new growers and dispensary operators are being trained like whole legions of Johnny Appleseeds, soon to spread pot's blessings from one coast to the other. Not that anywhere is truly virgin ground, but consider: The pro-marijuana movement has never had an army so large, politically sophisticated, and well-funded, even if supporters downplay the millions that roll in. Nor has it enjoyed such a frenzied period of media exposure, a startling amount of it positive.Never has there been such a concerted thrust to legalize the drug nationwide—for medical purposes, for the plain old joy of getting stoned, and for a gold mine in profits to be reaped by those who control the multipronged industry. Together with a rapidly shifting public attitude toward pot and a White House willing to accept state medical-marijuana laws, legalization seems as inevitable today as it was unthinkable a generation ago.In Olympia, State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) introduced a bill last session that would downgrade marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a ticketable infraction. Another Seattle Democrat, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, will be introducing a bill in the House that goes even further, calling for marijuana to be flat-out legalized, then sold, and taxed, in state liquor stores. Seattle voters already instructed the SPD to make marijuana possession cases a low priority, and newly elected city attorney Pete Holmes has said he won't bother enforcing the misdemeanor law that's currently on the books, or tack on pot-possession charges to extend the sentences of people charged with other crimes."We're almost at a zeitgeist," says one of the high-profile lobbyists who is making it happen: Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington, D.C.Zeitgeist has become one of the buzzwords of the campaign—meaning, in context, a sort of coming-together of favorable forces. St. Pierre, who can call on advisory-board input from the likes of Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson, is a glib 44-year-old former altar boy and preppy from Massachusetts who likes to wear a marijuana-leaf lapel pin. He says this year NORML has seen an unprecedented escalation of Web-page hits, podcast downloads, new memberships, and media calls."We monitor [newspaper] columns, and editors have swung in favor of reform," he says. "I will go give a lecture in Des Moines, Iowa. The questions people are asking come right out of watching Weeds on Showtime. It's quite remarkable."Badgering newspapers and television programs to pay attention to the subject used to be one of the critical challenges for people like St. Pierre. Getting a meaningful dialogue started was half the battle.Now the buzz is self-sustaining, indicating America's willingness, as a whole, to engage the subject."The first time, nearly eight years ago, I attempted to pitch a marijuana-related story to CNN, they literally laughed at me," remembers Bruce Mirken, a San Francisco–based spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The person who answered the phone burst out laughing. Now they're calling us. We've been on various broadcasts and cable network shows 21 times this year—at least a couple on CNN. We've also been on the Today show, ABC World News, really all over."CNBC has run and rerun its recent documentary Marijuana, Inc.: Inside America's Pot Industry, exposing the booming pot trade and the sordid side of California's largest cash crop—the shootings, thefts, and arson fires; the homes in Humboldt and Mendocino counties gutted to make room for illegal indoor nurseries; the secluded parcels of national forest planted with pot by Mexican cartels intent on cornering metropolitan markets.In September, Fortune magazine ran the headline "How Marijuana Became Legal," as if the outcome of the fight were a fait accompli. "We're referring to a cultural phenomenon that has been evolving for 15 years," observed that article's author, Roger Parloff, who suggested that the critical, sea-changing climax might turn out to be a "policy reversal that was quietly instituted [this year] by President Barack Obama."Many attribute a good share of the present impetus to Obama, the third president in a row to acknowledge smoking weed. Bill Clinton famously claimed he never inhaled. George W. Bush 'fessed up only after a private admission was secretly recorded and leaked to ABC News. Obama won the everlasting affection of the pro-pot crowd when he addressed the matter of inhaling and asked, "Isn't that the point?"He also elicited joyous whoops when he jettisoned existing Bush-era policy last fall and instructed Attorney General Eric Holder and the vast federal antidrug apparatus to stand down in the protracted war with states over medical marijuana. No longer would the private holder of a medical-marijuana card have to fear being busted by federal agents after picking up a supply of kush from the corner dispensary. Nor would the dispensary owner have to worry about the feds.For the marijuana lobby and its broader aims, the win was gigantic. It removed—for the current presidential term, at least—the daunting specter of federal interference and turned virtually the entire continental U.S. into one big, wide-open game board. Pot advocates divide that game board state by state, believing that the surest way to overcome conservative inertia that keeps pot outlawed is to spread legalization keyed to states' rights to craft their own statutes.Medical marijuana has been on the move since 1996 and is now legal in a dozen states, including Washington, with at least a dozen more to debate it soon. Proponents predict it will continue to hopscotch from state to state, much as legalized gambling expanded along the Mississippi River and throughout a lot of the country in the 1980s and '90s."We believe medical marijuana will be in more than half the states in two years...and maybe 47 states in the next 10 years," says attorney Sean T. McAllister, who led a successful crusade this past fall to get pot legalized in the small ski-resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado. The vote was largely symbolic, given that possession remains a misdemeanor under Colorado law.McAllister acknowledges that the medicinal use of weed is a wedge to help pro-pot activists gain leverage in advancing recreational use of the drug. "Medical marijuana is really leading the way, letting us see what a taxed and regulated market for marijuana would look like," McAllister says.As Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, puts it, "The face of marijuana isn't some 17-year-old, pimply-faced kid; it's an older person needing help."The widening perception that cannabis is a godsend for people who suffer from cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, and other afflictions has partially erased its entrenched stigmas, including a reputation for dulling the intellect. One Web site, CannabisCenters.com, boasts of more than 240 maladies that respond to marijuana, from writers' cramp to cystic fibrosis. For prostate cancer, Huntington's disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus, and grand mal seizures, pot promises at least a whiff of relief.But pot's also a source of carcinogens. According to the National Institutes of Health, "Marijuana smoke contains some of the same, and sometimes even more, of the cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Studies show that someone who smokes five joints per day may be taking in as many cancer-causing chemicals as someone who smokes a full pack of cigarettes every day." (On the other hand, someone smoking five joints a day probably has bigger problems than the risk of cancer.)The multimillion-dollar pot lobby has used the drug's analgesic properties to press a more challenging agenda: to remove the barriers to recreational use, either through outright legalization or, at minimum, decriminalization, which in most cases means that being caught with less than an ounce is only a legal infraction comparable to a parking ticket.On maps tracking their national progress, activists can already block out 10 states—among them, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York—where a first offense involving simple possession no longer carries jail time.The image makeover is but one of the important factors now propelling the movement. Another is the violence and obscene profits of drug cartels. Those problems have given rise to the Al Capone argument: If you make it legal, criminal dealers can't command exorbitant sums from customers desperate for a high—cash later spent on bribes, machine guns, and smuggling. Licensed, fully vetted growers, operating just down the street, would render the bloody drug kingpin as irrelevant as the Chicago bootlegger.In Mirken's words, "You don't need Al Capone to ship alcohol when you have Anheuser-Busch."At a time when governments all around the country are facing deficits, licensing and taxing marijuana suddenly makes sense to many.Lawful growers and retailers could cough up, say, $50 an ounce in taxes or fees and still charge consumers less than the $150-an-ounce prices common on the black market. Governments would rake it in—and also save a fantastic amount by not arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning pot offenders.In Washington, Rep. Dickerson says her plan to sell pot in liquor stores and tax it at 15 percent per gram could eventually bring in more than $300 million a year.Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron, author of the 2004 book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, makes the case that legalizing all banned drugs would benefit taxpayers nationwide by $77 billion a year, both by generating new tax income and eliminating the costs of arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning offenders. Since marijuana represents about a third of the illicit-drug economy, legalizing pot would make a difference of roughly $25 billion, he says.Miron's estimate is generally in line with figures compiled by pot-advocacy organizations, although getting firm numbers is notoriously difficult given the vastly different ways that law-enforcement agencies catalog arrests and report marijuana data.Jon Gettman, a former NORML president who operates a public data bank at drugscience.org, claims that legalizing marijuana would enrich the public by $42 billion a year. Breaking down that sum, Gettman puts the current cost of legal enforcement at nearly $11 billion. He also claims that federal, state, and local governments lose out on $31 billion annually in taxes and charges that could be gleaned from the massive industry, based on an overall estimate of a marijuana trade that totals $113 billion a year.Mirken concedes that squishy numbers invite attacks from critics. But he adds, "No doubt it's a big hunk of money."Watching that money flow to criminals and cartel bosses has added impetus to the push for change.Pro-marijuana forces, well-financed and increasingly centralized in New York and Washington, D.C., are often directly involved in helping to craft reform legislation because of their deep knowledge about a subject murky to many in power.The New York–based Drug Policy Alliance, for example, employs 45 people and operates satellite offices in Washington, D.C., New Mexico, and California. Its annual budget of $8 million comes in part from George Soros' Open Policy Institute, about 25,000 small donors, and a number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, most notably tech guru John Gilmore of Cygnus Solutions, Peter B. Lewis of Progressive Insurance, John Glen Sperling of the University of Phoenix, and George Zimmer of Men's Wearhouse.The Drug Policy Alliance's Nadelmann, 52, says he spends about half of his time on the road, engaging in debates, giving speeches, and conferring with pot advocates to draft voter initiatives and map strategies.Close contact with local groups enables him to marshal resources where they are needed and bring hot spots to nationwide media attention. Nadelmann can rattle off lists of issues and locales—the drive that brought medical pot to Maine in 2009, the statewide decriminalization approved in Massachusetts, the ballot tussles ahead in Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon. He claims significant credit for Proposition 215, California's landmark 1996 state ballot measure that authorized medical cannabis."The 215 campaign was being run by local activists," Nadelmann says. "I got involved, put together major funders and campaign managers, and turned it into a professional campaign and won that thing." On one recent trip, Nadelmann flew from Santa Barbara to Houston, then to San Diego, back to New York, then to Los Angeles—all to preach pot, all in the span of a few weeks.As advocates step up the pressure, public opinion is shifting. The Gallup Poll showed 23 percent support for legalization in 1983. In 2009, the figure was 44 percent.The number of highly placed government officials and jurists who have joined the public call for marijuana reform would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. One example is retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, author of the 2001 book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It. Gray argues that drug prohibitions are a "golden goose" for terrorist organizations, a view that has gained traction with the public."We truly are seeing the most rapid gains in public support for making marijuana legal that I've ever seen," Nadelmann says. "It really feels like a new age." In his view, the changing attitudes largely stem from the efforts of the Drug Policy Alliance—formed by a merger of two smaller groups in 2000—and similar organizations, such as NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project.While activists know there may be a limited time to seize the chance offered by today's market conditions and Obama's laissez-faire policies, they are also buoyed by fundamental changes in America. The biggest of these is irreversible—the supplanting of hard-line ideologues with baby boomers weaned on Woodstock and flower power."A whole generation didn't know the difference between heroin and marijuana," Nadelmann says. "That generation is mostly dying off. [In its place] are tens of millions of parents and middle-aged people who smoked marijuana and didn't become drug addicts." Furthermore, they now fill elected seats and boardrooms. Is it any wonder the tide seems unstoppable?"We're looking at a perfect storm here," says California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D–San Francisco), who symbolizes that new type of leader. A former stand-up comic, Ammiano spent part of the 1960s among the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. Now 68, he is one of the most watched figures in the national marijuana struggle for one compelling reason: Assembly Bill 390, legislation he introduced in early 2009 that would make California the first state in the nation to legalize and tax recreational pot.Considered bold even among marijuana activists, Ammiano's measure would remove cannabis from the state's banned-substances list, allow private cultivation, levy fees and sales taxes, and prohibit sales to minors and driving under the influence. A state analysis projects annual revenues of $1.4 billion, a number that critics claim is inflated. That figure does not include the enormous amount of state and federal income and business taxes that would be paid by growers, retailers, and their employees as part of a fully realized economic model."Our economic situation is egregious," says Ammiano, who plans to begin conducting hearings this month. "I think people have begun to take it seriously."If Ammiano's bill fails—and many think it's too much, too soon—pot advocates have a Plan B, a narrower statewide initiative expected to reach the California ballot next November. This measure would rewrite criminal drug laws to make an exception for small amounts of marijuana. The mastermind and chief bankroller of Tax Cannabis 2010 is Richard Lee, the 47-year-old founder of Oaksterdam.Lee, who opened his first campus in Oakland two years ago, says 6,000 people have taken his courses, which are organized into $250 weekend seminars and $650 one-semester courses. At any given time, he says, 500 students are enrolled in classes at the three campuses: in Los Angeles; Sebastopol, an hour north of San Francisco; and Oakland, where Lee just unveiled a three-story teaching facility.The formidable revenue flow helps Lee finance further marijuana reform efforts. So far, he says, he has invested $1 million of his own money in the initiative. Faced with a February deadline for submitting 433,000 signatures, he claims he has already gathered well over 600,000 and is collecting more, just to be certain that enough are valid."The response has been overwhelming," Lee says.If Californians light up, the beacon will be visible from sea to shining sea. Nadelmann says both Ammiano and Lee consulted him on the language of their proposals, and points out that California has always been a bellwether of cultural change, especially when it comes to pot."Look what happened with [the passage of] Proposition 215," Nadelmann says, referring to the 1996 medical-pot act. "We were able to go to other states and get it on the ballot. It's not as if the dominoes start falling, but people see that something's possible." Proposition 36, California's 2000 initiative to favor drug treatment over jail time, was another example. "Once that passed, we started seeing queries from probably half the states over the following few years," Nadelmann says.Marijuana activists readily acknowledge that the quickening pace of change raises risks of a backlash. Intense concern already centers on the poorly regulated mess in Los Angeles, where a confused and largely paralyzed City Council has allowed the proliferation of more than 540 medical-marijuana dispensaries without regard to zoning or other restrictions imposed elsewhere in California.Law enforcement was never amenable to legalizing pot, but the situation in L.A.—a black eye to reformers everywhere—can only galvanize the resistance.John Lovell, a lobbyist for the 4,000-member California Peace Officers' Association, fairly bristles when confronted with the argument that pot should be made legal because it's no worse than booze. "What good comes of it?" he asks. "Right now we have enormous social and public-safety problems caused by alcohol abuse...[and] by pharmaceuticals. What is the good of adding another mind-altering substance? Look at all the highway fatalities. Why do we want to create another lawful substance that will add exponentially to that?"That line of thinking suggests that society today would be soberer and safer if alcohol or pharmaceuticals were banned—an argument that U.S. history, particularly the Prohibition era, does not bear out.Says Lovell, "I think everyone in law enforcement will take on this fight. I think people concerned about the social consequences of drug abuse will take on this fight. I think there will be a broad range of opposition."Out in the streets, the counterinsurgency is readily apparent. Marijuana arrests are up in California, despite rising public tolerance. Activists theorize it is not just because more people are smoking the drug.A similar spike has occurred in New York, even though it was one of the first states to decriminalize small stashes of marijuana, 34 years ago. In fact, if there is a world capital for cannabis busts, it is New York City, where 40,000 people were arrested on pot charges during the past year.Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levine is an expert on drug-abuse patterns, and co-author, with Craig Reinarman, of 1997's Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice. "What we have in New York is what you could call an epidemic of marijuana arrests," Levine says. "The number-one criminal offense in New York City is marijuana possession."How is that possible, when pot has long been decriminalized there?Levine explored the question by interviewing veteran and retired police officers, legal-aid attorneys, and jailed smokers, producing a scathing 100-page review of the NYPD. It became apparent, he says, that police—who have a vested interest in making as many arrests as possible—profit from pot, and often "trick" their suspects into violating a specific law against openly displaying the weed in public."Technically, [police officers] are not allowed to go into people's pockets," Levine says. "But they can lie to people. Lying to suspects is considered good policing. They say...'We're going to have to search you. If we find anything, it's going to be a mess for you...so take it out and show it to us now.'" As intimidated young people—most of them ethnic minorities—empty their pockets of a joint or a nickel bag, they're charged with a misdemeanor.Such busts are huge business for the police, Levine points out. Not only do they sweep potential bad guys into the system, generating vast databases of fingerprints and photographs, but the arrests also beef up crime statistics. Departments in big cities and small towns alike use the numbers to secure fortunes in federal funding.Levine says his research has pointed to the same pattern in other American cities. "Atlanta and Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago..." He rattles off a long list. "The Southwest is really bad. Houston...San Antonio."El Paso is another city where the ideological battle has flared dramatically. With cartels committing 1,600 murders in a year's span just across the border in Juarez, Mexico, El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke pushed a resolution last January calling for a discussion on legalizing drugs to undercut the illegal market. "Mind you, it was not to legalize anything, necessarily," says O'Rourke, whose 10th-floor office overlooks the Rio Grande and the impoverished Mexican metropolis beyond. "Basically, it was a way of saying the current policy had failed; we need to put everything on the table and have a dialogue."The City Council approved the resolution without dissent, but it was vetoed by Mayor John F. Cook. An irked O'Rourke tried to override the veto, only to be strong-armed by U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who phoned all eight council members to make sure the matter was quashed. "You need to cut this out," Reyes said, as O'Rourke remembers. "It's going to be tough to get [federal] money for the community if you pass this."Reyes, a tough law-enforcement man who spent 27 years in the U.S. Border Patrol, might have handled the matter differently if the resolution had dealt only with marijuana, rather than all drugs, says his press deputy, Vincent Perez. As it was, the resolution was defeated—and drug deaths in Juarez have continued to climb."We're almost at 2,300 murders for [2009]," O'Rourke says.NORML had a field day lambasting Reyes on its Web site. The "intense blowback" over the failed resolution actually achieved what O'Rourke termed a Pyrrhic victory for the hard-liners and a step forward for those willing to consider change. "All of a sudden we had calls from all over the country," O'Rourke says.A new class is in session at Oaksterdam, a how-to about opening and running medical-marijuana dispensaries. Dark-haired, bespectacled lecturer Don Duncan, a prominent pot man due to his lobbying efforts at Los Angeles City Hall and his ownership of a busy outlet in West Hollywood, warns a roomful of rapt students to be mindful of the rules. After federal agents raided his business in 2007, Duncan says, the state Board of Equalization slapped a lien on his house for nonpayment of taxes."Don't mess with those guys," Duncan says. "Pay your taxes. Pay your rent on time. Don't drive a Bentley and take 'round-the-world vacations if you're running a nonprofit collective."But if you earn a healthy salary because you work hard, that's OK," Duncan says. "That's actually a very patriotic and American way of life."Next to speak is Robert A. Raich, a leading marijuana-issues attorney most remarkable for his halolike crown of white hair. Raich gets down to the nitty-gritty of applying for business licenses. Medical marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government, even if the Obama administration is backing away from enforcement. So be creative when you have to fill out forms describing what you plan to sell, Raich says."Let me give you some truthful euphemisms," offers Raich, who seems to delight in presenting them: medicinal herbs, Chinese herbs, cut flowers, dried flowers... "You don't want to lie to the government," he says cheerfully. "You just don't want to give them too much information."news@seattleweekly.comThis story was produced by LA Weekly.

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