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Pot activists should focus locally, not nationally

BY ADAM B SULLIVAN | OCTOBER 19, 2011 7:20 AM

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Potheads, rejoice … But don't get too excited.

For the first time ever, half of Americans support legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup Poll.

The case for legalization is so painfully clear and so well-reasoned elsewhere that it's hardly even worth devoting space to here. But if you need some more persuasion, consider this: Nobody has ever died from overdosing on marijuana. Nobody. Ever. Need more? Pot tax revenue and savings from not jailing tokers would create an economic boon. Still not satisfied? There's no Constitutional basis for a federal ban on marijuana. Need another reason still? Uh, remember alcohol Prohibition?

But see, half of Americans support a lot of things that won't happen. For instance, Rasmussen Reports says most voters think cops ought to check immigration status during traffic stops, a Gallup study showed something around 60 percent of Americans say they want higher taxes for the rich, and half of Iowans say they'd vote to ban gay marriage, according to Public Policy Polling.

Despite their majority support, widespread immigration checks, pre-Reagan tax rates, and a ban on gay marriage here are unlikely to take hold any time soon. Similarly, the road to legalization — or even decriminalization or widespread medicinal legalization — is still years or decades away.

Still, open support for pot in Washington, D.C., is sparse. While loosening the law to allow marijuana to be used as a medicine has earned some support, there are only a few lawmakers who admit they support outright legalization.

And in the 2012 presidential race, the picture is pretty grim as well. President Obama — who has admitted to toking up and who kind of said he supported decriminalization during the 2008 campaign — has actually increased federal attacks on growers in medical-marijuana states. That's right — the youth's political savior is once again worse than George W. Bush.

The Republican side of the 2012 race isn't much better, of course. Most of the candidates are staunchly opposed to loosening federal drug policy and would likely carry on Obama's drug war.

But then there are U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. Paul wants to get the federal government out of drug policy and let states consider prohibition, while Johnson supports outright legalization, regulation, and taxation of pot. That's promising, however Paul has failed to use his campaign to preach for reasonable drug policy, and Johnson has flown almost entirely under the radar this election season.

But while there's little hope of the federal government coming around any time soon, there are ways we can jury-rig reasonable solutions at the state and local level.

The obvious start is to legalize medical marijuana in Iowa. A medical-marijuana bill advanced in last year's legislative session but failed to earn enough support and died in committee. Similar legislation will likely be introduced this year. Its passage is a long shot but certainly plausible.

And in Iowa City — where support for legalization is no doubt higher than 50 percent — there are things we can do as well. While local policymakers can't one-up the state or the feds by legalizing pot, the city can install de facto decriminalization by instructing cops to make pot busts a low priority. That's not to say people could light up on the Ped Mall, but cops could refrain from investigating apparent marijuana use in homes and residences.

And let's get even more local — the University of Iowa. A couple years ago, the UI police joined with other area agencies to bust a dozen potheads in campus residence halls. But it wasn't the campus police who initiated the investigation — it was UI Residence Life. With binge drinking still a dangerous problem and with numerous reports of on-campus sexual assaults in the last couple years, is busting potheads really what our publicly paid university officials ought to focus on?


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