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United States Sees Profound Cultural Shift On Marijuana Legalization

By Matt Pearce and Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

More than a third of adults have smoked it — including the last three presidents. Dozens of songs and movies have been made about it.

Marijuana is no longer whispered about, nor hidden in back rooms and basements. It has come into the open in American life despite decades of prohibition and laws treating the drug as more dangerous than meth and cocaine.

When The New York Times‘ editorial board called this weekend for the U.S. government to end its ban on weed — and let states decide how to regulate it — the newspaper reflected what a majority of Americans have told pollsters: Marijuana should be legal.

The status quo, according to advocates and even the president, has resulted in the disproportionate arrests of minorities and the poor.

“The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast,” the editorial said. “There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to FBI figures, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin, and their derivatives. Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals.”

These are not new arguments. But this time they come from The New York Times, not High Times.

Support for marijuana legalization has grown so rapidly within the last decade, and especially within the last two years, that some advocates and pollsters have compared it with the sudden collapse of opposition to same-sex marriage as a culture-redefining event.

Gallup has found more popular support for legalizing marijuana than for legalizing same-sex marriage.

In Gallup’s most recent survey on the issue, in 2013, 58 percent of respondents said marijuana should be legal — up from 46 percent a year earlier and 31 percent in the early 2000s. This spring, 55 percent said gay and lesbian couples should be able to marry.

When Colorado passed a ballot measure in 2012 legalizing recreational marijuana, more residents voted for legal weed than for President Barack Obama (who carried the state). Washington state’s legalization effort also passed handily.

Yet through a combination of ballot measures, legislative action, and judicial action, same-sex marriage has found far more success across the United States, in a campaign supporters liken to the civil rights movement.

For marijuana, a better historical comparison is Prohibition — when alcohol was banned in the early 20th century. Public officials have moved more slowly on pot, in many cases taking incremental steps like decriminalizing possession of small amounts and legalizing the drug for medicinal use.

Taboos have slowly faded. Former President Bill Clinton confessed to smoking marijuana but famously claimed that he “didn’t inhale.” George W. Bush told a friend in a recorded conversation that he didn’t want to answer questions about past marijuana use because “I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried.” Obama was bolder, declaring before he was elected, “Of course I inhaled — that was the point!”

In a New Yorker interview published in January, Obama said, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” But he worried legalizing marijuana would create a slippery slope for legalizing more dangerous drugs.

The American Medical Association, while calling for more clinical testing, has expressed skepticism that medicinal marijuana meets federal safety standards for prescriptions. The American Psychiatric Association’s most recent policy statement says, “There is no current scientific evidence that marijuana is in any way beneficial for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder.”

Dissenters also worry that creating a legal marijuana industry would simply be the next Big Tobacco, with legalization bringing higher rates of addiction and mental health problems.

“When you look back at Prohibition, what you see is that per-capita use of alcohol during Prohibition dropped more than 50 percent; as a result of that, alcohol-related deaths dropped considerably as well,” says Stuart Gitlow, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “Prohibition was an enormous public health success.”

Even light marijuana use, Gitlow said, can harm brain function.

Gitlow added of tobacco: “We’ve gone over these past 30 to 40 years from about half the population smoking cigarettes to a much smaller figure. … Now the public wants to start that cycle again with a different drug they consider safer (when) the data aren’t all in. Why would we want to potentially start that disaster all over again?”

Colorado and Washington are de facto laboratories for legalization.

In Washington, where marijuana stores opened July 8, officials say it’s too early to draw many conclusions.

“There was a lot of concern that maybe it would end up being a three-ring circus, and we’d have people abusing it or overdosing on it,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said. “Those sorts of problems have not manifest themselves in relation to the few stores that are open.”

Alison Holcomb, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who drafted Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana in the state, said, “Things seem to be going very well in Washington.” For one thing, she said, the first 10 days of sales generated $318,000 in new tax revenue.

Holcomb added that in 2012, the year that I-502 passed, law enforcement officers made 5,531 marijuana-related arrests statewide. In 2013, that dropped to 120. She said it “would take a while” to evaluate whether full legalization affects use by young people.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes was third in line when legal weed sales came to the city. On Sunday, he said the only way to get rid of the black market was for legal stores to succeed and the unregulated medical marijuana system to be folded into the well-regulated recreational system.

“Prohibition has failed to keep marijuana out of the hands of children,” Holmes said. “It has made criminals wealthy and promoted violence and kept us in the dark about what rational regulation would look like.”

Colorado, where legal sales began Jan. 1, has had some stumbles. Sheriffs in neighboring states (where pot remains illegal) have complained they are arresting more drivers coming from Colorado with marijuana.

Fourth-graders have faced discipline after allegedly selling their grandparents’ legally purchased pot to classmates. Some emergency rooms have reported treating children who accidentally ate edible marijuana. And two consumers may have had deadly reactions — including a 19-year-old college student who plunged from a Denver balcony to his death after eating a pot cookie. Also in Denver, a 47-year-old man was accused of shooting his wife to death after taking drugs and eating marijuana-infused candy.

“Colorado is proving that legalization in practice is a lot uglier than legalization in theory,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the policy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who opposes legalization, citing reports of increased calls to poison centers for marijuana overexposure.

“I’ve urged all the governors to go cautiously on this because I think there are risks that we’re only just beginning to understand,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said in June. “But this is going to be one of the great social experiments of the 21st century.”

AFP Photo/Desiree Martin

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Northwest Fires Burn Almost 1 Million Acres, Dozens Of Homes

By Maria L. La Ganga and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times

An eruption of lightning-sparked wildfires across the northwestern United States over the last two weeks has scorched almost a million acres of land in Washington and Oregon while threatening thousands of houses and buildings.

Dozens of homes in separate communities were destroyed last week. In Washington, some places were left with nothing but charred foundations and scorched picket fences. As of Sunday, almost 9,000 firefighters and support personnel were battling more than 20 fires scattered across sparsely populated areas in both states.

In total, the fires in Washington and Oregon have incinerated timber and range land across more than 1,200 square miles — an area larger than Rhode Island.

Cooler, less windy weather Sunday was expected to give firefighters a welcome respite before more lightning storms arrive this week — potentially starting additional fires.

“When lightning comes through, it’s typical to have a lot of fires from it, and we usually get large fires when conditions are right,” said Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. “But rarely do we get this many at one time.”

Last week, a state of emergency was declared in 20 eastern counties in Washington and across the entire state of Oregon.

Firefighters on Sunday were battling 14 fires in Oregon, including a 369,000-acre complex fire that has claimed an area of land larger than the city of Los Angeles just six days after being sparked by a lightning strike.

The Buzzard Complex fire in drought-parched southeastern Oregon is the largest, but fire officials in the Pacific Northwest were more worried Sunday about the 237,890-acre Carlton Complex fire in Washington.

The Carlton fire is the worst of Washington state’s seven fires, having destroyed between 80 and 100 homes, forced road closures, and caused power outages in the north-central part of the state. Runaway horses and jittery dogs, some with burned paws, have been found fleeing the fire.

About 1,000 additional homes remain under evacuation threat from the Carlton fire, authorities said Sunday afternoon, and 1,400 firefighters and support personnel are battling the blaze, which was started by lightning strikes a week ago.

“Firefighters started work on containment lines on Saturday and their primary objective has been structure protection and public safety,” said Glenn Kohler, a spokesman for Washington Incident Management Team 3.

“Right now we have no estimate of containment or control,” Connolly, the Northwest center spokeswoman, said. “Because of the intermittent services, our information has been really slow coming in.”

The Northwestern wildfires have put much of eastern Washington and northern Idaho under an air-quality alert as smoke from the fires drift eastward.

La Ganga reported from Seattle and Pearce from Los Angeles.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Firefighters Face New Lightning Storms In Northwest

By Maria La Ganga and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times

SEATTLE — An eruption of lightning-sparked wildfires across the northwestern United States over the last two weeks has scorched almost a million acres of land in Washington and Oregon while threatening thousands of houses and buildings.

Dozens of homes in separate communities were destroyed last week. In Washington, some places were left with nothing but charred foundations and scorched picket fences. As of Sunday, almost 9,000 firefighters and support personnel were battling more than 20 fires scattered across sparsely populated areas in both states.

In total, the fires in Washington and Oregon have incinerated timber and range land across more than 1,200 square miles — an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Cooler, less windy weather Sunday was expected to give firefighters a welcome respite before more lightning storms arrive this week — potentially starting additional fires.

“When lightning comes through, it’s typical to have a lot of fires from it, and we usually get large fires when conditions are right,” said Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. “But rarely do we get this many at one time.”

Last week, a state of emergency was declared in 20 eastern counties in Washington and across the entire state of Oregon.

Firefighters on Sunday were battling 14 fires in Oregon, including a 369,000-acre complex fire that has claimed an area of land larger than the city of Los Angeles just six days after being sparked by a lightning strike.

The Buzzard Complex fire in drought-parched southeastern Oregon is the nation’s largest wildfire, but fire officials in the Pacific Northwest were more worried Sunday about the 237,890-acre Carlton Complex fire in Washington.

The Carlton fire is the worst of Washington state’s seven fires, having destroyed between 80 and 100 homes, forced road closures, and caused power outages in the north-central part of the state. Runaway horses and jittery dogs, some with burned paws, have been found fleeing the fire and seeking safety.

About 1,000 additional homes remain under evacuation threat from the Carlton fire, authorities said Sunday afternoon, and 1,400 firefighters and support personnel are battling the blaze, which was started by lightning strikes a week ago.

“Firefighters started work on containment lines on Saturday and their primary objective has been structure protection and public safety,” said Glenn Kohler, a spokesman for Washington Incident Management Team 3.

“Right now we have no estimate of containment or control,” Connolly, the Northwest center spokeswoman, said. “Because of the intermittent services, our information has been really slow coming in.”

The northwestern wildfires have put much of eastern Washington and northern Idaho under an air-quality alert as smoke from the fires drift eastward.

La Ganga reported from Seattle and Pearce from Los Angeles.

AFP Photo/Jorge Cruz

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After Huge Washington Mudslide, There’s ‘No Sign Of Life’

By Maria L. La Ganga and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times

ARLINGTON, Wash. — The voices heard late Saturday night from the rubble of a massive mudslide have gone silent.

Thwarted for hours by ooze treacherous as quicksand, rescuers were able to resume their search for victims Sunday. But instead of survivors, they found more bodies.

What remains on the banks of the Stillaguamish River about an hour north of Seattle is a square mile of damp destruction and a small town’s worth of sadness and fear. Elected officials grappled to describe the devastation, which was as bad, one said, as “Mout St. Helens 34 years ago when it erupted.”

At least eight people were confirmed dead, officials said late Sunday. Seven victims remained hospitalized, including a 6-month-old in critical condition. Harborview Medical Center spokeswoman Elizabeth Hunter described most of the wounds as “crushing injuries.”

“Basically the people were swept away, pinned up against things, covered,” she said.

About 18 people are missing, and officials characterized that tally as “fluid” and “growing.”

“I get a sense we’re going to have some hard news here,” Governor Jay Inslee said at an afternoon news conference.

Reed Miller was in the grocery store check-out line here in Arlington on Saturday morning when ambulances began to scream by. His son Joseph, 47, who has a history of mental illness, was home in the tiny rural enclave of Oso about 12 miles northeast.

“The grocery lady said there was a big mudslide in Oso, and to call her back when I got home OK,” the 75-year-old resident of a hard-hit neighborhood recounted Sunday. “I never got there. Nope.”

Instead, the retired sawmill worker spent the night on a hard cot at a Red Cross shelter in the Post Middle School gymnasium here. His home is destroyed. His son is missing. And there is nothing he can do but wait.

“I was planning on moving this year,” Miller said, looking frail and dazed in over-sized aviator glasses and a baggy blue-and-yellow jacket. “But not this way.”

The Millers planned to sell the house where the elder Miller had lived for a generation. Joseph Miller was at the top of the list for an apartment in nearby Darrington, population 1,359, which has been largely cut off by the slide. His father was next in line.

“Joe was going to move in the first of April,” Miller said.

For about 24 hours after the mudslide swept across State Route 530 in rural northwest Washington, water dammed up behind the debris field made approaching the wreckage largely too perilous, officials said.

A crew of geologists flew over the disaster site Sunday morning and deemed the risk to have diminished, said Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 21. So rescue workers resumed their search of the region, where an estimated 30 homes were destroyed.

“I’m disappointed to tell you, after searching a very large area of that debris field on foot, we didn’t find anybody alive,” Hots said Sunday evening. “There was no sign of life.

“The person that we found out there that was deceased is still out there and mostly buried in the mud,” he said in the afternoon, after searchers found the first body of the day. “It’s going to take quite a bit of time to get that person out of there.”

Inslee, who issued a disaster declaration Saturday, flew up from the state capital Sunday for an aerial tour. He attended a community meeting in Darrington and met with local officials.

“Mother Nature holds the cards here,” Inslee told reporters, describing the destruction as “just unrelenting and awesome — there really is no stick standing in the path of the slide.”

Under sunny skies and crisp spring temperatures that gave lie to the nearby damage, a stream of worried people made their way to the Arlington shelter on Sunday.

A little boy brought a plastic bag of cookies his mother had baked for the 27 men and women who spent the night there in the slide’s wake. A coffee shop owner brought strong brew. A couple drove up with a big tub of paper towels and blankets. Others came with checkbooks.

And Caroline Neal came looking for word of her father, Stephen. The 52-year-old plumber lives in Arlington but had been called to Oso on Saturday morning to service a hot water tank for a woman who had just moved to the area.

Stephen Neal was nowhere to be found on Sunday. Nor was the woman who hired him, nor another contractor working on her house. Caroline Neal, 31, stood outside the Red Cross shelter, clutching pictures of her father and hoping against hope.

“I just have to think he’s somewhere safe and they can’t reach him,” she said, looking stunned behind big, dark sunglasses. “He thinks fast on his feet. If he had any warning, he would have done everything he could to stay safe.”

Neal said she was playing Monopoly with her sons Saturday afternoon when she got word of the mudslide. Her mother called, asking her to go the hospital near her Arlington home to see whether her father had been admitted.

The hospital was teeming with neighbors wanting to volunteer, she said, but her father wasn’t there. So she headed to the Red Cross shelter. Ditto. She returned Sunday morning.

“My mother keeps saying she doesn’t think he’s gone,” Neal said. “They’ve been together 33 years. I have to believe her. They have a really good connection.”

The mudslide, which has blocked rural State Route 530 as well as the Stillaguamish River, came after an unusually heavy month of rain. More precipitation is expected in the week ahead, with Snohomish County on flash flood watch through Monday afternoon.

An evacuation order for residents downstream was lifted Sunday morning, but officials warned that it could be reinstated: Water was building up behind a dam created by the mudslide and could give way again. By late Sunday, however, officials said the risk was easing, with the river carving a path through the slurry.

AFP Photo