LOS ANGELES -- James Gray once saw himself as a drug warrior, a former federal prosecutor and county judge who sent people to prison for dealing pot and other drug offenses. Gradually, though, he became convinced that the ban on marijuana was making it more accessible to young people, not less.
"I ask kids all the time, and they'll tell you it is easier to get marijuana than a six-pack of beer because that is controlled by the government," he said, noting that drug dealers don't ask for IDs or honor minimum age requirements.
So Gray -- who spent two decades as a superior court judge in Orange County, Calif., and once ran for Congress as a Republican -- switched sides in the war on drugs, becoming an advocate for legalizing marijuana.
"Let's face reality," he says. "Taxing and regulating marijuana will make it less available to children than it is today."
Gray is part of a growing national movement to rethink pot laws. From California, where lawmakers may outright legalize marijuana, to New Jersey, which implemented a medical use law Jan. 19, states are taking unprecedented steps to loosen marijuana restrictions. Advocates of legalizing marijuana say generational, political and cultural shifts have taken the USA to a unique moment in its history of drug prohibition that could topple 40 years of tough restrictions on both medicinal and recreational marijuana use.
A Gallup Poll last October found 44% favor making marijuana legal, an eight-point jump since the question was asked in 2005. An ABC News-Washington Post poll in January found 81% favor making marijuana legal for medical use.
Attorney General Eric Holder last fall announced that raiding medical marijuana facilities would be the lowest priority for U.S. law enforcement agents -- a major shift that is spurring many states to re-examine their policies. The American Medical Association recommended in November that Congress reclassify marijuana as a drug with possible medicinal benefit.
At least 14 states this year -- some deeply conservative and Republican-leaning, such as Kansas -- will consider legalizing pot for medical purposes or lessening the penalties for possessing small amounts for personal use. Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia already have liberalized their marijuana laws.
"We are absolutely in an important new era in which increasing majorities of Americans are not just questioning the wisdom and efficacy of marijuana prohibition but are demanding alternatives," says Stephen Gutwillig, California director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors legalizing marijuana.
Kurt Gardinier, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which promotes marijuana for medical use, calls Holder's shift "one of the most significant changes in federal drug policy in the last 30 years. It puts states at ease that they won't be in conflict with the federal government."
The Obama administration still opposes smoking marijuana for its medicinal benefit, says Tom McLellan, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He says more research is needed to deliver the medically useful ingredients in a non-smokable form.
"We have the safest medications in the world and it's not a coincidence. We have an enviable process by which we approve medications, and that's through the (Food and Drug Administration)," he says. "It's a bad idea to approve medication by popular vote."
Yet even a few prominent opponents admit it's getting harder for them to persuade lawmakers to continue tough restrictions on marijuana, though they vow to continue fighting against legalization and warn of dire long-term consequences.
"The momentum is not with us, and we understand that," says Michael Carroll, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the police chief of West Goshen Township in Chester County, Pa.
The 20,000-member police chiefs association opposes legalizing medical marijuana and decreasing penalties for possession because it fears abusers will cause drugged-driving accidents and other societal and health problems that come with drug abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says marijuana can cause heart irregularities, lung problems and addiction.
"We're going to multiply the problems we have with alcohol abuse," Carroll says. "Things are not going our way, but that's not stopping us for speaking out about it."
Among the states considering marijuana bills this year:
Alabama, Delaware, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are debating allowing medicinal use of marijuana for people with certain illnesses;
Hawaii and Rhode Island are considering bills to reduce the penalties for marijuana possession to fines rather than jail time;
Vermont is weighing whether to allow state-licensed liquor stores to sell medical marijuana.
California became the first state to allow marijuana for medical use when voters approved a statewide ballot issue in 1996, and its provisions are so broad that tens of thousands of people have obtained a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana for ailments from cancer to arthritis.
Now California's Legislature is considering a bill that would make it the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use as well. It is unlikely to pass this year, but Gray and other advocates hope to have a proposition on the November ballot that would legalize marijuana use for anyone 21 or older. California would levy taxes that the state tax board says could raise $1.3 billion or more a year for the deficit-plagued state, while saving tens of millions in prison and law-enforcement costs. Sponsors of the ballot issue have turned in 690,161 signatures on petitions for verification, far more than the 433,971 valid signatures required to get on the ballot.
A 2009 statewide Field Poll found 56% support making pot legal for recreational use and taxing it.
The economics argument may be the clincher, proponents hope. They call the proposition a matter of "tax and regulate" rather than "legalize," saying state control will take marijuana out of criminals' hands while generating badly needed revenue.
"It's history repeating itself, with (the) alcohol prohibition repeal during the Great Depression," says Richard Lee, an Oakland marijuana entrepreneur and president of Oaksterdam University, which trains people to work in the medical marijuana industry. Lee, who is pushing the ballot issue, says, "Now we have the Great Recession. That will be on people's minds."
Yet as changing attitudes and economic forces propel the legal pot movement in California, some wrinkles have emerged as the medical marijuana industry expands. After some complaints from neighbors, municipalities and prosecutors are moving to regulate the industry more closely to limit the growth of pot dispensaries and prevent sales for recreational use.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Diego contend that although the law allows marijuana for medical uses, it does not specifically permit the sale of marijuana. They have launched a series of raids aimed at closing some of the hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries now operating out of storefronts.
"I call it the slippery slope," says Dennis Zine, a Los Angeles city councilman. "Now we have it for medical purposes. Now let's expand it to anyone who wants to get high? I don't support that. ... Do we then legalize cocaine, legalize heroin?"
Tehama County, Calif., Sheriff Clay Parker said the state's current medical marijuana law is filled with gray areas that make enforcement uneven and difficult. He says he opposes further relaxation of state laws but would welcome a federal change that would drop marijuana's status as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the most tightly restricted, to a lower level that would place marijuana in a category with prescription drugs that pharmacies could dispense.
Gray, who retired as a judge in 2009, says many judges agree with him that sending marijuana users to jail places a costly burden on the state and clogs the justice system, ultimately taking police and court resources from pursuing violent criminals. Most judges, he says, fear saying so.
"Probably half of my colleagues talk privately the same way I do, but publicly they're concerned about standing out," he says.
Jeff Studdard, 46, is another onetime drug warrior who has changed his thinking. A former school police officer and Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, Studdard tried marijuana to ease pain and restore his appetite after a broken back forced him out of law enforcement. "I have stopped all my (other) pain meds now and I've gained weight. It's almost like a wonder drug," he says.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco who introduced the tax and regulate bill, predicts California eventually will legalize marijuana and other states will follow.
"It's inevitable that there will be some kind of legalization of recreational marijuana," Ammiano says. "How and where it's going to happen I think is an open question, but I think a lot sooner than later."
Despite growing popular acceptance of marijuana, battles are still fought in state legislatures when such bills are introduced, and many of the bills still fail. Yet advocates say politicians are more willing to take on what only a few years ago was a politically risky cause.
"Politicians are finally catching up with the American public," Gardinier says.
Most of the changes have come on the West Coast and Northeast, but lawmakers in a few Southern and Central states also are proposing bills, in part because they see marijuana as a potential moneymaker, says Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Rhode Island is among states considering legislation that would regulate and tax marijuana or reduce penalties for personal use to a misdemeanor and fine.
Rhode Island's Legislature adopted medical marijuana last year, setting up dispensaries and a registration system. A decriminalization bill introduced in the 75-member House has 35 co-signers, including three of the six Republican lawmakers.
Sen. Joshua Miller, a Democrat from Cranston, R.I., leads a Senate commission that is studying whether to drop tough penalties for marijuana use. He says statewide polls show 80% of Rhode Islanders favor decriminalization. Rhode Island borders Massachusetts, which decriminalized marijuana last year. The debate, he says, has been framed by the state's poor financial condition.
"We'd rather spend our resources on violent crime," he says. "I'd also argue that the best way to get to people who abuse drugs is treatment over incarceration."
That argument is being reinforced at the federal level by President Obama's drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who favors a treatment-driven approach to drug abuse.
Even in conservative Kansas, where the Legislature recently voted to outlaw a synthetic drug that mimics marijuana, backers of looser marijuana laws say they have hope.
Rep. Gail Finney, a first-term Democrat, has proposed legalizing marijuana for use by the critically ill. The bill is unlikely to pass this year, Finney says, but she wants to use the hearings to educate fellow lawmakers and plans to reintroduce it until it passes.
"It's time for Kansas to have an open, honest debate about this," she says.
She thinks many of her House colleagues would support the bill if they didn't fear backlash in an election year -- a fear she says is unfounded. A Feb. 2 poll of 500 Kansans by KWCH-TV in Wichita found 58% supported medical marijuana.
"If they were in touch and in tune with their constituents," Finney says, "they would know that this is what they want."
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