Pot advocates see their once-smoldering issue heating up

For marijuana lobbyists, the grass is looking greener in Washington.

Talk of legalizing pot has flooded the public spotlight since the beginning of the year. Former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) have made public comments in support of legalizing the drug, and President Obama fielded a marijuana-related question at his first virtual presidential town hall meeting in March. In the past six weeks, more than half of the dozen congressional hearings on the U.S.-Mexico border violence have entertained the idea of legalizing it.

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“We are seeing a massive explosion of interest in this issue, very rapidly, across many different fronts,” said Aaron Houston, the director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project.

As Houston and other lobbyists find a stronger focus on the issue, 12-hour workdays are no longer the exception.

“It’s definitely been difficult to keep up [and] extremely difficult to respond to all of the events that are occurring at such a rapid pace and all of the interest we see in the issue,” said Houston, referring to the swarm of attention marijuana legalization has gotten lately.

“But we’ve been bolstering our staff and we’ve [talked to] a record number of members at this point,” he said of the push.

The movement has also become a national security issue, Houston said. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have contacted him for help on figuring out how to combat the Mexican drug cartels that have plagued the U.S.-Mexico border. If pot could be legal and regulated at the state or federal level, Houston said, it would strip the drug cartels of profits.

Even Obama commented on the issue this year. In a nationwide e-town hall meeting, more questions were posed to him concerning the drug’s legalization than on any other topic. Obama laughed when asked whether he would consider taxing and legalizing marijuana to boost the economy and relieve prisons of non-violent drug offenders.

“I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” he said, adding that he did not think it was a good strategy.

Despite the president’s dismissal, legalization advocates said they saw a flood of public response in the hours and days after his remarks.

“It’s a bittersweet thing when the president dabbles in your subject matter,” said Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

“In [Obama’s] mind marijuana legalization is not a serious concern and he’s got to confront it, so at least he did, and at least the audience chuckled,” he said. “I’ve been here long enough that, had [President George H.W. Bush] been in that same situation, in a hand-picked audience, they would have hissed in 1991. So this is all moving largely in a very positive direction.”

St. Pierre, who has been an outspoken advocate of marijuana for 18 years, said the baby boomer generation is largely responsible for the shift in discussions on marijuana laws.

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“That generation is coming to age now,” he said. “They run our institutions, they run our media, academics, businesses and, frankly, our politics. So as that baby boom generation takes over, their proclivities toward reforming laws are much greater than the prior generation.”

While passage of a federal law legalizing marijuana may be years off, momentum toward decriminalizing the drug — relaxing criminal penalties for violators — is generally viewed by advocates as a positive sign.

In a reversal of a Bush administration policy, Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month that the Justice Department would stop focusing its resources on medical marijuana growers who abide by state laws. The move has not been embraced by all of Capitol Hill.

“By this attorney general not enforcing marijuana laws, marijuana is a gateway to more hard drugs,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, in a teleconference after the announcement.

The public and political momentum has yet to achieve a level that results in action on Capitol Hill, said Mason Tvert, the executive director of Safer Alternative to Enjoyable Recreation, which advocates for the legalization of marijuana and tighter laws on alcohol consumption.

“Public support is growing in many places around the country,” Tvert said, “but there’s not a critical mass of public support that has resulted in sweeping changes yet, and that’s what’s necessary for federal officials to take action.”

High-profile instances, like the photos of Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps smoking pot last year and his subsequent confession, will be key in driving the national conversation, Tvert said.

“What if Michael Phelps stepped in front of the podium, in front of hundreds of reporters, and instead of saying he made a mistake and he’s sorry, he said, ‘I understand what I did was illegal; however, I was making the choice to use a substance that is undeniably less harmful than a drug that sponsors the Olympics’?” said Tvert, referring to beer maker and Olympic sponsor Anheuser-Busch.

“If that was the big story, that could have led to massive discussion and changes,” he said.

Two of the last three presidents — Bill Clinton and Obama — have admitted to smoking marijuana. President George W. Bush has declined to admit whether or not he has used drugs.

“The people who have supported our cause over the years but have felt that they couldn’t be taken seriously by our politicians, those same people are writing to the White House and saying, ‘This is what we want,’ ” said Houston.