US Policy Invites Medical Marijuana Golden Age

The National Equality March drew an affable response from President Barack Obama, who stepped into the spotlight with a major speech about gay rights.

The next week another campaign commitment received different handling from the administration. Medical marijuana was sent out of town for try-outs.

And nearly everyone is happy with the result.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s new policy allows states to develop their own medical marijuana laws and regulations. Reformer Ethan Nadelmann, of the Drug Policy Alliance, praised the administration for sending “a persuasive signal that the feds will respect state medical marijuana laws and no longer exercise or threaten the constitutional trump card of federal supremacy.”

The policy shift has an immediate impact on Rhode Island and New Mexico. They have passed MMJ laws and are now drafting regulations licensing medical marijuana dispensaries. Officials in the states will be in a position to use their best judgment without worrying that hostile US officials will second-guessing their decisions.

The old laws are still being enforced, but a new attitude is blossoming. The audience receptive to permissive policies is growing. The Gallup Poll found that 54 percent of all Democrats favor legalization. Support for legal smokes in the general public has reached 44 percent, up from 31 percent in 2000 when George Bush was elected president. This is not medical marijuana; this is legalization. Go to the store, buy a joint, and pay your taxes.

Of course, the federal government did not legalize pot. Major growers and drug enterprises remain in trouble. A few days after the attorney general’s announcement, 300 members of a Mexican drug cartel operating in the United State were indicted. In the San Francisco Bay Area, US attorneys indicted 18 for converting suburban homes into grow houses like the ones so vividly portrayed on Showtime’s “Weeds.” Marijuana is still illegal, and the government continues to crack down on international drug enterprises. But a door has opened, and those who want to end drug prohibition can now see a path to walking through it.

The most permissive medical marijuana law was passed by referendum in California. There, almost any disorder a patient describes can qualify them for medical marijuana. Rhode Island and New Mexico may develop tighter standards.

The California law shields users from one of the greatest harms smoking poses — getting arrested. It creates safe places for buying cannabis in a form that can be smoked — or drunk or eaten, for that matter. Many doctors prefer that their patients chew marijuana brownies or use marijuana teas. These safer ingestion routes are seldom prepared in illegal markets.

Less certain is the impact that creating a medical setting for marijuana use will have. Will people less focused on the illicit liberation of the underground pot world be more cognizant of dosing and less likely to take risks? It’s clear that the venue for acquiring marijuana has improved dramatically under the California law; the markets for pot and for other drugs are severed. Medical pot buyers can’t include in their one-stop shopping meth, cocaine, and heroin, drugs that pose far greater problems. A Californian can toke on grass without establishing social ties with criminals.

New York State will choose its own approach to MMJ. Congress will not be debating the issue any time soon, but it seems probable that the State Legislature will be confronting it as early as next year. Medical Marijuana is a popular policy, making it likely that the Albany debate will be focused on just how liberal a law to settle on. Agreement may elude the Legislature next year, given that 2010 is an election year, but the issue will arrive foursquare on its agenda in any event. This represents a drastic change in the political climate, and even though there will be no debate on Capitol Hill in Washington, the US attorney general’s action has proved already how big a difference a Democratic administration makes.

In New York City, the question is how much longer the police department will send people to jail overnight for public possession of marijuana. The issue didn’t surface in the 2009 mayoral election — really, what issue did? — but it may catch the public’s eye next year.