Push to Legalize Pot at 'Tipping Point,' Experts Say

PHOTO: People march in support of the Florida Attorney General candidate, Jim Lewis, who is running on a platform of legalizing marijuana, Oct. 12, 2010 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
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Dude, pot could be legal everywhere soon.

That's the sentiment expressed by advocates and experts in reaction to the recent votes in Washington and Colorado to legalize marijuana, which have re-energized the discussion about whether pot should be legalized once and for all in America.

"It's clear and it has been clear now for a number of years that we are at a tipping point when it comes to a majority of Americans' view toward the way we treat marijuana in this country," Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pot lobby group Norml, told ABC News.

"Whether you are looking at Gallup or Rasmussen (polls), you'll find more Americans are saying marijuana ought to be legalized and regulated in a manner similar to alcohol or tobacco rather than support the current policy," he said.

"I think it's only a matter of another two or three states following suit before the federal government realizes it doesn't have the mechanism in place to enforce prohibition, and they would most likely go ahead and leave it up to states," Armentano said.

Lobbyists and pot proponents are jumping onto what may be pot's zeitgest moment, with bills to legalize marijuana already introduced in Maine and Rhode Island, discussion of possible bills in states including Massachusetts and Vermont, and talk of ballot initiatives in California and Oregon during the next major elections.

The conversation has spread from legislative offices to major publications' editorial pages, as both the Washington Post and the Oregonian newspapers have written editorials recently endorsing pot legalization or decriminalization. The New York Daily News wrote on Monday that New York should say no to medical marijuana, but not necessarily reject legalized pot.

"That's the debate New York should have -- full legalization or nothing," the paper wrote.

And a marijuana joint graced the cover of this week's New York Magazine where a feature story covered the thriving pot industry in Humboldt County, Calif.

Now, Humboldt State University has launched the Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, in Humboldt County, as part of the University of California system. The institute will try and answer questions about marijuana, including how the marijuana industry affects Humboldt County and the changing role of marijuana in American society.

"We can all see that nationally, public opinion has shifted," said Josh Mesiel, a sociology professor at the school and co-director of the institute.

Meisel cites data showing that in 1969, 13 percent of Americans supported legalization of marijuana. In 2010, the number was nearly half of all Americans. Twenty states have modified their laws regarding pot consumption, whether focused on decriminalization or outright legalization, he said.

"I think people are recognizing that we need to learn more about what the potential impacts are of marijuana becoming part of the mainstream," Meisel said. "It's become part of the mainstream in term of public opinion."

The sudden surge in discussions about marijuana could point toward a swift end to the prohibition on pot, according to Armentano, the legalize-pot lobbyist. He likens the movement's current status to the end of alcohol prohibition in America in the early 20th century, when the federal government decided to stop enforcing the ban on alcohol as states began to decide they would no longer prosecute people who consumed alcohol.

There are also indications that the country is not ready to treat a drug like marijuana on the same level as alcohol and tobacco. In recent years, bills to legalize pot have rejected by voters in California and Oregon, and in New York and Hawaii bills were blocked by lawmakers.

And many law enforcement groups are fighting it.

"We oppose it," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police union. "I think the law enforcement community is universally consistent in its opposition to legalizing pot, in the interest of public safety and public health."

Pasco said his group is also against legalizing medical marijuana.

"There's no scientific or medical basis in lighting something and breathing it in. Further, you have no idea how it was handled, and it's bad for you. If you want medicine to be good for you, you get it in pill form," he said.

Is The Country at a Tipping Point for Legalizing Marijuana?

The federal government has yet to rule on how it will handle the new laws in Washington and Colorado. Growing, possessing, and buying marijuana is still against federal law, though experts doubt that the federal government has the capacity to enforce the laws in those states.

"The feds undoubtedly have the authority to shut down any institution or selling shop," explained Richard Collins, law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "(But) that would leave in place the right to possess an ounce and the right to grow six plants, which I doubt the U.S. attorney has the capacity to deal with."

"They don't have the manpower to do so, the resources to do so, and the public clearly would not be supportive of them doing so," Armentano said. "It think because these votes passed with such a solid majority, I don't think the political will in D.C. permits the federal government to do so. With that said, the federal government doesn't have a whole lot of options."

Collins points out that many voters in Colorado voted to approve the legalization of marijuana because it would provide an extra revenue source for the state in the form of new tax dollars. That argument is a central point of lobbyists' pitch to convince lawmakers that the regulation of the marijuana industry would be beneficial to states.

"If they do (outlaw selling shops), the existing black market would continue and the state won't get tax money, and if you ask voters why they voted for this, they say 'because it should be taxed like booze.' So if the U.S. attorney does this he'll be a really unpopular guy," Collins said.

Now, experts agree, all eyes are on the Department of Justice as it decides how to handle Washington and Colorado, and whether those states will pave the way for legal pot around the country.

"The significance is that (the votes in Washington and Colorado) are going to push up the timeline for the states and the federal government to resolve their differences," Meisel said. "I think many other states are going to be looking anxiously at this in terms of how it is resolved."

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