In the “medication area” of the nation’s biggest marijuana exposition, scantily clad young women hand out marshmallows they’ve dipped into a rushing fountain of pot-laced chocolate. A few steps away, Anthony Ramirez offers free hits from a bong filled with the waxy marijuana extract that his family started producing when a friend’s mother needed relief from the pain of lupus.
Across a vast outdoor plaza lined with hundreds of booths, this month’s Cannabis Cup gathering in Southern California has attracted more than 10,000 visitors at $40 a ticket. By midafternoon, some of them are sprawled on overstuffed couches that merchants have thoughtfully provided. Others move from booth to booth, sampling wares from businesses that have risen from the underground economy to create a burgeoning industry of hazy legality.
Vendors hawk brightly colored candies, chocolate bars, slickly designed jars of gourmet peanut butter — all infused with weed. Smokers sample e-cigarettes, vaporizers and the latest in bongs and glassware. Agricultural firms display industrial-sized machinery for harvesting plants, electronics firms offer a dazzling array of grow lights, and everywhere, growers lovingly explain the virtues of dozens of plant strains such as Gorilla Glue, Silver Haze and Crystal Coma.
All in a state where marijuana is not yet quite legal, and all without a single police officer to be seen. America has been at the edge of marijuana legalization several times during the past half-century, but never as close to mass acceptance of the drug as the nation is today.
Since the 1960s, the United States has traveled on a herky-jerky trip from hippies and head shops to grass-roots backlash by suburban parents, from enthusiastic funding of the war on drugs to a gathering consensus that the war had little effect on marijuana use. Now, for the first time, marijuana legalization is winning majority support in public opinion polls and a drug used by about 6 percent of Americans — and one-third of the nation’s high school seniors — is starting to shake off its counterculture reputation. It is winning acceptance even from some police, prosecutors and politicians.
But is this time really different? Why is the current campaign for legalization resonating when previous ones did not? Today’s leap toward legality is entwined with the financial desperation of cash-strapped states, an Internet-driven revolution in how Americans learn about marijuana and its medicinal uses, and a rising libertarian sensibility in which many liberals and conservatives alike have grown skeptical of government’s role in telling citizens how to medicate themselves.
The skies looked bright for legalization at several other points in recent decades, and those efforts ultimately went nowhere, as campaigns by parents combined with sharp opposition by law enforcement and elected officials to keep marijuana on the list of substances that can land you in jail.
But in 20 states and the District, the booming medical marijuana industry (the drug first became legal to treat ailments in California in 1996) has raised expectations of full legalization. In 2012, legalized marijuana outpolled President Obama in Colorado; the votes for pot and Obama in Washington state were almost identical at 56 percent each.
Activists in at least six states and the District are working to put legalization initiatives on the ballot this year or in 2016, and legislatures in 13 states are considering bills to legalize a plant that in 80 years has traveled from widely used patent medicine to felony to misdemeanor and now to the cusp of acceptance as one more taxed and regulated mind-altering substance, akin to alcohol or tobacco.
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