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Monday, December 5, 2016

Today Weekend Reader brings you A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition, by award-winning investigative journalists Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian, whose work has also appeared in The New York Times and The Nation. Martin and Rashidian argue that American society is now at a turning point, heading toward increasing acceptance and inevitable legalization of cannabis across the country. The growing number of Americans using medical marijuana is on the rise in states that now legalize the practice. Colorado and Washington have led the way, passing recreational legalization laws and demonstrating the benefits of ending the prohibition of marijuana. A New Leaf is a collection of interviews with individuals from a broad spectrum of this debate: from activists and politicians to patients and growers.  

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When voters in Washington and Colorado closed the curtain, considered their choices, and punched the ballot on Election Day 2012, why did most choose cannabis legalization?

Over the past two decades, more Americans have been exposed to cannabis than at any other time in recent history. According to The Path Forward, a report co-authored by Colorado representative Jared  Polis and Oregon representative Earl Blumenauer and released in February 2013, more than 106 million people now live where cannabis is legal for medical or general use. As of April 2013, according to Pew Research, 77 percent of Americans believe cannabis can legitimately be medicine and a landmark majority, 52 percent, support legalization for general use. Yet the federal government refuses to accept these broader societal shifts. Americans are, for the first time, truly weighing the harms of cannabis prohibition against the harms of cannabis. For example, prohibition has led to more than 8 million cannabis-related arrests in the last decade—of those, 88 percent were for mere possession.

One reason for the change in public opinion is the education Americans have received from over twenty years of access to medical cannabis. The more often people saw the cannabis plant on TV screens, in newspapers, and, sometimes, down the street, the more comfortable they grew with the notion of legalization. When he led the reefer madness crusade to banish cannabis in 1937, Harry J. Anslinger, first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, warned, “This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.”  But if cannabis now legally replaces or supplements conventional pharmaceuticals for an estimated 1 million Americans in twenty states and Washington, D.C., it’s increasingly clear that it must not be as dangerous as we were—and, in some cases, continue to be—told.

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More Americans feel comfortable coming out about their cannabis use, too. Forty-eight percent of adults eighteen or older admit they tried cannabis at some point in their lives. Popular culture has accurately reflected shifting views about the plant. Increased use and acceptance of cannabis for medical (and “medical”) reasons might be why even Meryl Streep and Steve Martin could light a joint, party with the kids, and feast on chocolate croissants in the movie It’s Complicated without controversy.

On top of that, numerous influential types have spoken in favor of reforming drug policy, including Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffington Post; Deepak Chopra, the man who made millions by making people feel better holistically; and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. All three sit on the honorary boards of the nation’s foremost drug policy reform organization, the Drug Policy Alliance. Year after year, cannabis continues to make the strangest bedfellows, uniting liberal Barney Frank and Tea Partier Ron Paul in Congress, for instance; they worked on two cannabis law reform bills and co-authored a letter to President Barack Obama to insist the federal government not intervene in states with cannabis laws.

The economic and social implications of cannabis legalization, both domestic and international, have also become more apparent in recent years. As Americans clawed their way out of a recession, more and more states passed medical cannabis laws and, slowly, more brick-and-mortar storefronts emerged. It soon became obvious that there is money to be made. When budgets started to feel the recession pinch, voters wanted to harness the economic power of cannabis to mitigate the impact. Colorado earned $5.4 million from medical cannabis sales taxes between 2011 and 2012; California estimates annual sales tax revenues between $58 million and $105 million. Now, with the passage of Initiative 502, voters in Washington have opened the door to over half a billion dollars in annual tax and fee revenue for their state, money that can be directed toward cannabis education, research, and dependence treatment, among other public health initiatives. Voters in Colorado know that, beginning in 2014, $40 million in tax dollars from general-use cannabis each year will be earmarked for schools.

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