What is the Matter With Mary Jane?

New York Times, 15 Oct. 2000

The medicinal use of marijuana has scored some smashing victories at the polls in recent years, winning approval by voters in seven states, and it's on the ballot in two this fall. But in Alaska, an important test is at hand for those who use images like "Trojan horse" and "camel's nose under the tent" to argue that medical marijuana's advocates are really out to clear the way for the legal recreational use of the drug.

Just two years after Alaska's voters backed a measure allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes, they are being asked whether the state should become the nation's first to legalize it, period. The measure is sweeping, allowing use by anyone 18 or older, giving amnesty for anyone ever convicted of growing or possessing marijuana, and even moving toward restitution for them.

Regardless of the outcome, the fact that legalization is being so openly discussed is clearly a step in some sort of direction. It's a backward one, of course, in the minds of drug opponents, and a forward one for those who feel that America's approach to what they call "soft drugs" is unduly harsh and lags behind the European tack.

The Netherlands has basically legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and several countries, including Germany and France, have all but stopped enforcing laws against it. Switzerland's cabinet has proposed making it legal to smoke it.

And in Britain, the push to legalize marijuana has picked up surprising steam in recent days, owing in no small part to a backlash against a Conservative Party proposal to impose a "zero tolerance" measure for its possession as a platform plank. The Conservative leader, William Hague, was forced to back down on the policy last week after seven leaders in his party, in response to a survey, admitted to having smoked marijuana in their youth. Several leading newspapers and politicians of other parties have come forward to argue that marijuana should be legalized or decriminalized.

Whether the same movement is afoot in the United States is harder to determine. Aside from the Alaska measure, voters in Mendocino County in northern California will be asked on Nov. 7 whether to allow residents to grow marijuana for personal use. That citizen-sponsored initiative is expected to pass, though Mendocino, in the heart of an area where marijuana is widely described as the leading cash crop and use of the drug has long been tolerated, is hardly a bastion of mainstream opinion on the issue.

And polls on legalization are a bit tricky to read, too. Generally, if Americans are asked whether they wish to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, they say no -- depending on exactly how the question is worded, the majorities range from just above 50 percent to much higher. But, notes Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director of the Norml Foundation (Norml stands for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the same question, asked differently, can yield dramatically different results.

"If you say, should an adult who gets arrested with a small amount of marijuana face any jail time, the number who say 'no' goes way up," he said. His group supports the Alaska initiative, though he says its creators may have gotten a bit carried away with the restitution component. "It has a little bit of a radical tinge to it that isn't associated with Norml," he explained.

In Alaska, supporters are out in force. Willie Nelson has taped a radio ad. "The vast majority of these millions of marijuana smokers are good citizens who work hard, raise families and contribute to their communities," he says. "They are not part of the crime problem and they don't deserve to be treated like criminals."

Drug critics worry that the Alaska campaign, gauzed in a certain amount of humor, could catch on. "It would not surprise me if there are a lot of people in Alaska right now saying, 'Look, I can have a joint, and I can handle it, so this is O.K.,' " said Dr. Herbert D. Kleber, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and medical director of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. "We simply do not have the same historical connection with marijuana that we do with alcohol. And anything that legalizes it for adults is basically going to make it more available for kids."

In surveys, he said, roughly 50 percent of high school seniors say they have used alcohol in the last 30 days, while 24 percent have used marijuana -- a figure he said would rise if marijuana were legally available to adults.

Marijuana, he argued, is a particularly insidious drug for adolescents, because it interferes with memory, decreases energy and stunts development of some "psychosocial skills," a key task during the teenage years.

Those are all arguments that proponents of the Alaska measure, not surprisingly, reject. In a pamphlet distributed by a group called Free Hemp in Alaska, alcohol seems far worse than marijuana. A marijuana-smoking group is "more likely to talk of politics, art, music and comparable topics as the children play nearby," it argues. "Adults intoxicated by marijuana still behave like grownups. They enjoy the youngsters and can help care for the babies."

And, it adds, "men using marijuana are more respectful, thoughtful, charitable and less foolhardy than when drunk."

For now, most of the debate is framed as medical. Surveys suggest that in Colorado and Nevada, measures allowing medicinal use will pass Nov. 7. (Nevada approved it with 59 percent of the vote in 1998; adding it to the state constitution requires a second yes vote.) Like measures have passed in California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Alaska, Maine and the District of Columbia, though they have gone into effect in the face of federal drug laws. (None addresses the even more complex issue of selling marijuana.)

Medical marijuana advocates say the drug is enormously helpful to chemotherapy patients, and many insist, in the words of Dan Geary, a leader of the Nevada movement, that "this is a public-health issue completely unrelated to the war on drugs."

Other proponents say the two issues are indeed linked. Ironically, opponents like Dr. Kleber, at Columbia, agree that the two issues are separate, but say there is perhaps less of a reason to put medical marijuana to a vote than legalization. "They really are two totally different issues," he said. "One is in many ways a political issue, but the other is a scientific issue. Marijuana for medicinal purposes should not be decided by referendum. Would you have had a referendum on penicillin for pneumonia? You don't decide these things by popular vote. You decide them by the science."

By Sam Howe Verhovek

© 2000, New York Times