California could be the first state to legalize marijuana

Photo illustration by Marlena Skrobe

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Services, 54 percent of the population has admitted to using marijuana by age 25. But you probably already knew that.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that the scare tactics used on the D.A.R.E. generation went completely ignored. Just Google “WebMD marijuana” and the first 15 links will expose myths about pot being a health risk.

“I can barely remember D.A.R.E.,” senior Kevin Small said. “But it’s taught too early, I didn’t see weed until high school and when I did, it wasn’t sketchy back-alley drug addicts, just my boys.”

Today, 14 states have approved the use of medical marijuana and 14 more have marijuana legislation pending. That doesn’t even include Massachusetts, which effectively decriminalized pot for recreational use in 2009, or Canada, which became the first country to legalize medical marijuana in 2003.

This week, California voters have a historic opportunity to legalize marijuana for recreational use through a ballot initiative known as Proposition 19. Also known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, the initiative allows possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and permits local governments to impose and collect marijuana-related fees and taxes.

After Reefer Madness in the 1930s, a campaign promoting the false dangers of marijuana, the possession or sale of cannabis in the United States became illegal in 1937. That same law is still in effect today.

So why, after 73 years of a marijuana prohibition, are states reconsidering the legality of this drug? For years, the justifications of legalizing weed have been as varied as prison overcrowding, money wasted on excessive law enforcement and anti-drug campaigns. Not to mention that the substance is thought by many to be no more harmful than tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs. There has been enough scientific evidence to prove marijuana can serve medicinal purposes, such as pain relief, since the 1990s.

“There has been a normative acceptance of marijuana as socially acceptable since roughly 1970,” said Dr. Bryan Page, a University of Miami anthropology professor who has spent over 30 years studying the street-based patterns of drug use in Miami. “It started with the baby boomers. In 1969, we thought that 10 years from now marijuana would be legal. But historically, changes to drug laws happen very, very slowly.”

As the country took a financial face-plant in 2003, California’s debt was estimated at $27.6 billion. Today, that number has nearly tripled to a staggering $77.8 billion.

“Marijuana is the number one cash crop in the state of California,” said Marc Gellman, a psychology professor specializing in psychoactive drugs at UM. “The only motivation is financial.”

With states like California hemorrhaging money and drug cartels dominating the multi-billion dollar industry, it is no surprise that government officials are beginning to clamor for a piece of the action.

On a national level, a Harvard economist recently estimated that legalizing pot could save the government $13 billion annually in prohibition costs and raise $7 billion in annual revenues if the plant was taxed.

If California legalizes pot and it works financially, it could be possible that other states may follow suit.

Eric Stevens hopes so. Stevens, a recent UM graduate, is the campaign manager behind Sensible Florida, a group campaigning for the decriminalization of marijuana in Miami Beach, Orlando and Jacksonville.

“People have become more self-educated on the topic, instead of just listening to all of the ridiculous claims,” Stevens said.

Three decades ago, the stereotypical pot smoker invoked images of tie-dye T-shirts and blood-shot eyes, not a man with a three-piece suit and successful career and not national leaders like Barack Obama and George W. Bush (both have admitted to being high).

“It’s accepted that everyone once in a while has run a red light or a stop sign,” Gellman said. “It’s dangerous and can get you killed, but everyone will admit they’ve done it.”

The same logic applies to marijuana, without the threat of vehicular manslaughter.

“Such a large percentage of the population in the current times have been exposed to it,” Gellman said. “It isn’t for minority use anymore.”

Slowly but surely, the movement for marijuana legalization that began in the 60s is reaching the tipping point. Budget gaps are growing wider, debt continues to rise and the untaxed marijuana industry is more lucrative than ever.

Tuesday, California will vote on Proposition 19 and may become the first state to allow the recreational use of marijuana. Come Election Day, the stars may finally be aligned for a drug that was frowned upon, to become accepted nationwide.

Parker Davis may be contacted at