ETHAN NADELMANN, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, has been advocating for legalization of marijuana for 20 years and says he's seen more progress in the last four months than in the previous two decades. "It's starting to cascade," he said. "Our model is the gay rights movement and their recent string of successes with gay marriage."
Mr. Nadelmann is a smart guy; he has a law degree and a doctorate from Harvard. He so impressed George Soros that the billionaire investor became the biggest financial backer for Mr. Nadelmann's advocacy. The Drug Policy Alliance has 45 staff members in seven offices nationwide working for legalization.
In the 25 years since Nancy Reagan advocated just saying no, Mr. Nadelmann has seen a progression through four public stages out of the five he believes are needed to achieve legalization.
"We need to drop the 'd' from 'smoked,' " Mr. Nadelmann said, "and move from past to present."
For many reasons, the advocates are feeling hopeful. The Obama administration has reversed a Bush policy of prosecuting medical marijuana use, which is now legal in 13 states; a recent Field poll in California showed for the first time that a majority of registered voters in that state favors legalizing and taxing pot; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has opposed legalization, now says he'd like to see a study done.
National polls also show growing support -- an ABC/Washington Post poll last month found that 46 percent of Americans favored legalizing small amounts of pot for personal use; when the poll last asked the question, in 1997, 22 percent supported legalization.
Every strategy for achieving legalization pins its hopes on the generation that first embraced pot en masse -- baby boomers -- gradually displacing older voters with no experience using the drug. The ABC poll found that 45 percent of boomers favored legalization, versus 30 percent of adults 65 and older.
Mr. Nadelmann, a boomer himself at 52, says the biggest difference since the last legalization push, in the late 1970s, is the drug savvy of parents now versus then. "In the '70s, that older generation of parents didn't know the difference between marijuana and heroin," Mr. Nadelmann said. "This generation of boomer parents has a high familiarity with marijuana. An awful lot tried it, liked it; the vast number never went on to cocaine or heroin or even had a problem with marijuana."
That would be me. The 20-something me used marijuana in moderation, did not fall victim to reefer madness, did not go on to harder drugs, believed it to be a drug superior to alcohol in many respects, enjoyed it like the mayor, and inhaled like the president.
The 20-something me preferred alcohol when socializing in large groups but pot for coupling.
The 20-something me smoked a joint, then went to the Central Square Cinema in Cambridge, Mass., and howled at the 1936 anti-drug documentary "Reefer Madness," which showed how pot-smoking could lead to hard drugs, murder, suicide, rape and the inevitable descent into insanity. ( Afterward, the 20-something me had major munchies and hurried to Elsie's restaurant for the enormous roast beef sandwich special. )
The 20-something me believes marijuana could be legalized, regulated and taxed like alcohol, providing much needed revenue.
But the 50-something me, the parent of three boys and a girl, ages 14 to 21, is not so sure. The 50-something me -- who hasn't smoked in more than 20 years -- knows stories in our little suburb about classmates of my kids smoking pot in middle school, using heroin in college, going into rehab, relapsing, trying again. The 50-something me has seen the eyes of those boomer parents -- good people -- seen the weariness and fear, and thought, "There but for the grace of God. ..."
Recently I read David Sheff's best seller, "Beautiful Boy," about his son Nic's addiction to methamphetamines, the boy's myriad rounds of rehab and repeated heartbreaking relapses. And while the problem drug in our house is legal ( our boys went through numerous rounds of painful, nerve-racking alcohol-related groundings during high school ), I was surprised by how much Mr. Sheff's book moved and frightened me as a parent.
He reminded me of me. Now 52, Mr. Sheff stopped smoking pot more than 20 years ago, about the time his first was born. He's a work-at-home dad who's put his children at the center of his life. He and his wife have raised three kids who sound funny and terrific. He seems to have a sense of balance and moderation.
And so I was stopped cold when I got to the part in the book where he talks about marijuana being addictive and leading to hard drugs.
He sounded like "Reefer Madness."
"I know what you mean," he told me in a telephone conversation. "Back then, I discounted all the warnings about pot being the gateway drug and rolled my eyes at the propaganda."
"Of course, everyone who smokes pot doesn't go on to heroin or other drugs," he said. "But everyone who does abuse heroin starts with pot. How do we navigate that?" His son Nic started smoking at 12, though the father didn't know it. Studies have shown the earlier kids start, the more likely they are to develop serious drug problems, so Mr. Sheff believes anything that can be done to delay using improves the odds.
He has mixed feelings about legalization. He believes drug abuse should be treated as a health problem, not a criminal one. "But I worry we're sending a message I don't agree with, that marijuana is harmless." He said he hopes his two younger children, Jasper, 15, and Daisy, 12, never smoke.
Mr. Nadelmann, the advocate, says making pot illegal hasn't worked any better than Prohibition. He says, while it's easier for teenagers to get their hands on alcohol than pot, it's easier for them to buy pot than alcohol. My sons agreed with this. As one said, "Dad, there are kids at the high school whose job is to sell you pot."
As to concern voiced by law enforcement officials that today's pot is far stronger than the drug smoked in the 1970s, Mr. Nadelmann maintains that if marijuana were legalized, the potency could be regulated the way it's done for alcohol.
Mr. Nadelmann has done thousands of interviews, and he knows drug policy so well it's hard to keep up with him. Only twice during our conversation did he hesitate. I asked if he smokes.
"Off the record?" he said.
I said I'd like his on-the-record answer.
"I smoke marijuana occasionally," he said, in the privacy of his home. "But I don't travel with it. I can't afford to put myself at risk."
I asked if his daughter, now 20, had seen him smoke when she was growing up. "She grew up seeing adults she knew and respected smoke the occasional joint, and saw they didn't change," he said.
So much is changing: our first African-American president; our worst economic collapse in 80 years; five states legalizing gay marriage. Is legalizing marijuana next? It may make sense. It may happen. But with so many boomers, including our president, now parents raising children, I'm not so sure.
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