Today, Medical Marijuana. Tomorrow, Legalize It!

Gone to Pot
Think the medical-marijuana movement in California and beyond is the vanguard of a broader effort to completely legalize the devil weed? You’re right!

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, south of the Beverly Center. 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 are fixed 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 is 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 Southern California.

Encouraged by instructors and by the prospects 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 remarks 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.

Oaksterdam takes its name from a bastardization of Oakland, where the university began, and pot-friendly Amsterdam. New growers and dispensary operators are being trained like whole legions of Johnny Appleseeds, soon to spread pot’s blessings from one coastline 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 goldmine 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.

“We’re almost at a zeitgeist,” says 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 preppie from Massachusetts who likes to wear a marijuana-leaf lapel pin. The high-profile lobbyist says NORML has seen an unprecedented escalation this year of webpage 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.

“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; and 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 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.”

Ah, 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. But 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 anti-drug 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 board state by state. Medical marijuana has been on the move since 1996 and is now legal in 14 states, including California, with at least a dozen more to debate it soon. Proponents predict it will continue to hopscotch from state to state much the way legalized gambling expanded along the Mississippi River and throughout much of the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

“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. In a vote that was largely symbolic, given that possession remains a misdemeanor under Colorado law, 72 percent of Breckenridge voters favored changing local laws to remove any sanctions for private possession and use of less than an ounce of pot.

McAllister acknowledges that 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, put 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 sufferers of cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and other afflictions has partially erased its own entrenched stigmas. To be sure, the purported benefits of marijuana—so vital to its broadening acceptance—are not without controversy. One website,, boasts 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 it’s also a source of carcinogens. According to the federal 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.”

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 where activists track their progress nationally, they can already block out 10 states—among them California, Colorado, Massachusetts and New York — where the 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: the violence and obscene profits of the 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 that would later be 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 the words of Mirken, “You don’t need Al Capone to ship alcohol when you have Anheuser Busch.”

*     *     *

A good idea can become a great one if it involves making money—and doubly so if it generates new forms of tax revenue. At a time of housing foreclosures and bank failures, when California’s state government faces a whopping $21 billion projected budget deficit, licensing and taxing marijuana suddenly make sense even to some who might have abhorred the idea.


Lawful growers and retailers could cough up, say, $50 per ounce in taxes or fees and still charge less to consumers than the $150-per-ounce prices common on the black market. Governments would rake it in—and also save a fantastic amount by not arresting, not prosecuting and not imprisoning pot offenders.

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 per year by both generating new tax income and eliminating the costs of enforcement. 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 in which law-enforcement agencies catalog arrests and report marijuana data.

Jon Gettman, a former NORML president who operates a public databank at, claims legalizing marijuana would enrich the public by $42 billion per year. In 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 per 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., and in the states of New Mexico and California. Its annual budget of $8 million comes in part from George Soros’ Open Policy Institute and also from about 25,000 small donors and a number of very wealthy businessmen, 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 the Men’s Wearhouse.

Nadelmann, the 52-year-old top executive, 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 to map out strategies. Close contact with local groups enables him to marshal resources where they are needed and also to bring hot spots to nationwide media attention. Nadelmann can rattle off lists of issues and locales—the drive that brought medical pot this year to Maine; 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 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.”

As advocates step up the pressure, public opinions are shifting. The Gallup Poll showed 23 percent support for legalization in 1983. This year, the finding was 44 percent, with more than half of the voters in California in favor.

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. A onetime Republican U.S. Senate candidate—and a conservative one to boot—he says of our nation’s drug policy: “We couldn’t do worse if we tried.”

“I’ve been doing this [arguing for marijuana legalization] for 17 years,” Gray tells the Weekly. “Most of that time I felt like I was running into the wind. Now, there’s wind at my back. People who once thought I was a nut are finally realizing that the way we treat drugs in our society is not working. I can get a standing ovation at the ACLU or from the Young Republicans. That says something.”

“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.”

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 going on 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.”

On the contrary, they now fill elected seats and boardrooms. California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D–San Francisco) epitomizes that new type of leader. A former standup comic, Ammiano spent part of the 1960s among the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, grooving to the Grateful Dead. 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 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.

According to the same state budget analysis, the value of today’s annual marijuana harvest in California is $13.8 billion, making weed one of the state’s biggest export crops. The value of the nation’s entire pot harvest is $35.8 billion, according to the analysis. Since legalized medical cannabis is only a tiny fraction of the market and the dispensaries typically operate as nonprofits, virtually no income tax is collected.

“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 ballot next November. That measure would rewrite the criminal drug laws to make an exception for small amounts of marijuana. Its mastermind and chief bankroller 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 flow of revenue helps Lee to finance further marijuana reform. 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 more than 600,000 and is still 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 he consulted with both Ammiano and Lee 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. “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.”

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. An estimated 200,000 revelers attended Seattle’s annual “Hempfest” this past year.

“What’s happening is really amazing,” says Gray. “Everybody, despite their political views, their religious views, their level of education and their age—everybody is beginning to be on the same page because our policy isn’t working.”

Gray can point to a remarkable June event as evidence. In the heart of OC, his pro-legalization stump speech slammed law enforcement for blocking reform because of its own addiction to generous government funding. From a crowd dominated by 60-, 70-, even 80-year-old women sipping tea and eating cake, Gray’s presentation received loud applause.

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 elsewhere in the heartland.


California’s actions in 2010 may greatly influence the speed of those campaigns.

*     *     *

Reefer activists readily acknowledge 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.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the 4,000-member California Peace Officers’ Association, 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. “I think everyone in law enforcement will take on this fight,” Lovell says. “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.”

On the streets, the crackdown 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. El Paso, Texas, is another place 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. “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,” O’Rourke recalls Reyes saying. “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 it differently if the resolution had only dealt 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 website. 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.

The psychological war is one the marijuana movement can win—and why weed advocates will likely win, barring the unforeseen. It is not quite a done deal, however, because the question of pot use, for many, becomes a moral argument, and moral values are slow to change. “People long for rules,” says sociologist B.J. Gallagher, an author and lecturer in Los Angeles. “Without them, the world would be chaotic and unpredictable. We’d be having sex with each other’s spouses, we’d be stealing things. . . . If we legalize pot, what next? Cocaine? Heroin?

“That’s what people are afraid of. It’s not the pot, per se. It’s the bigger issue—where do we draw the line? So they say, ‘Let’s not change the line.’”

But history shows that the line does change—eventually. “When a majority are saying, ‘This does not make sense,’ the line will shift,” Gallagher says. “We’ve seen it with [alcohol] prohibition, slavery, women’s rights. We’re now seeing it with gay rights. Our moral values change over time, despite the objection of people who are terrified.”

*     *     *

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 LA City Hall and his ownership of a busy outlet in West Hollywood, warns a room 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 okay,” Duncan says. “That’s actually a very patriotic and American way of life.”

Senior Editor R. Scott Moxley contributed to this story.


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