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"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.
After-effects continue to ripple. Support for both medicinal and recreational pot use has grown demonstrably stronger throughout the West—especially in Oregon and Washington state. An estimated 200,000 revelers attended the annual Hempfest this past year in Seattle.
In otherwise conservative Colorado, advocates staged a massive smokers' rally in Boulder, and voters are expected to weigh a statewide legalization measure in the next few years.
Whether the "devil weed" will ever play in Peoria is open to debate, but in October the Illinois Senate narrowly approved a medical-marijuana bill, meaning it could become law in the next few months, and pockets of support for pot have become evident in Missouri and elsewhere in the heartland.
California's actions in 2010 may greatly influence the speed of those campaigns.
Reefer 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 Los Angeles—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 more sober and safe if alcohol or pharmaceuticals were banned—an argument U.S. history, particularly the era of Prohibition, 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 the 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 in the last year.
Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levine is an expert on drug-abuse patterns who co-wrote (along with Craig Reinarman) the 1997 book 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 No. 1 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 more people 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. Street cops have an angle too: They like to nab docile pot users—easy to find in poor pockets of town—at the end of their patrol shifts, when the extra hours filling out reports at the precinct house get charged as overtime. In the jargon, the practice is known as "collars for dollars."