Skip to main content

Weed advocates see gains as opponents mobilize for new votes

By Matt Smith, CNN
updated 10:03 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 20 U.S. states now allow medical marijuana
  • Leading medical groups remain ambivalent on the issue
  • There is growing pressure to change marijuana's Schedule I classification
  • Anti-legalization groups are mobilizing to combat upcoming votes

Don't miss "Weed 2: Cannabis Madness: Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports," at 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Also, Dr. Gupta will be answering your questions on Reddit at noon ET Tuesday.

(CNN) -- With 20 U.S. states allowing medical marijuana, and others weighing its medicinal or recreational use, advocates of looser laws on weed appear to have the advantage.

But leading medical groups remain ambivalent, and opponents are now trying to mobilize for upcoming votes in three states.

Florida will vote on whether to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana in November. In New York and Georgia, the state legislatures are debating medical marijuana, while the District of Columbia City Council voted Tuesday to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot.

Meanwhile, two more states -- Oregon and Alaska -- are expected to follow the lead of Colorado and Washington and put full legalization on the ballot in 2014. And in the year-plus since the Colorado and Washington votes, public opinion has swung sharply in favor of loosening marijuana laws.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta explores politics of pot
Dr. Gupta 'doubling down' on pot
Medical marijuana miracle?

"That caught everyone, even advocates, by surprise," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance.

In January, a CNN/ORC International survey found 55% support for legalization, with 44% opposing it. National polls shifted by about 10 percentage points between late 2012 and late 2013, with support for legalization climbing to roughly the same level seen in the CNN poll, Nadelmann said.

"A lot of people just began to relax and see the sky's not going to fall. All we're doing is moving a booming market from the underground to the legal world," he said.

Those trends were seen even in states like Louisiana, where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal told CNN in February that he'd be open to the "tightly regulated" use of medical marijuana.

"If you look at public opinion polls, support for legalizing medical marijuana is over 70% nationally, even in the South," Nadelmann said.

Interactive map: A look at marijuana laws in the U.S.

There's also growing pressure to change the drug's classification as a Schedule I controlled substance, the federal designation for a drug with high risk and no medical use. CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who hosts an upcoming documentary on the issue, argues that "Neither of those statements has ever been factual."

Changing the designation would allow scientists to put the drug's purported benefits and risks under closer scrutiny, advocates argue.

"I have sat in labs and personally analyzed the molecules in marijuana that have such potential but are also a source of intense controversy. I have seen those molecules turned into medicine that has quelled epilepsy in a child and pain in a grown adult. I've seen it help a woman at the peak of her life to overcome the ravages of multiple sclerosis," Gupta writes. "I am more convinced than ever that it is irresponsible to not provide the best care we can, care that often may involve marijuana."

Two drugs based on chemical compounds found in marijuana -- including the active ingredient, THC -- have been approved by federal regulators and are available by prescription. A cannabis-based mouth spray used to relieve chemotherapy side effects has been approved in Canada and parts of Europe and has been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its review.

The American Cancer Society says research indicates that cannabis derivatives can help alleviate the pain and nausea associated with chemotherapy, but it opposes marijuana smoking or legalization. And in November, the American Medical Association reiterated its stance that marijuana is "a dangerous drug" that should remain illegal. But it also called for additional research and the use of "public health based strategies, rather than incarceration" to control it.

Meanwhile, opponents say residents of Colorado and Washington -- which issued its first marijuana licenses Wednesday -- may be feeling some buyers' remorse.

"The white coats are off," said Kevin Sabet, director of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Sabet is a former White House drug policy adviser who co-founded SAM with former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who has publicly battled his addiction to drugs and alcohol. In a letter to federal regulators, the Justice Department and the White House this week, Sabet, Kennedy and representatives of several leading anti-drug organizations argued that removing marijuana from the Schedule I list "would be a mistake."

"We do strongly support efforts to research the components of marijuana. We should break down the barriers of such research by making it easier for researchers to access, store, and administer such components," they wrote. But that can be done without contributing to "the normalization of marijuana," they argued.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: 'I am doubling down' on medical marijuana

In states that have voted in marijuana, Sabet said, residents are uncomfortable with the rise of a new weed industry.

"What they're getting is cookies and candies and ring pops that are targeted at kids. What they thought they were getting was allowing adults to smoke unencumbered in their own basement," he said.

Sabet said federal laws banning pot aren't changing "anytime soon." His organization is raising money and recruiting volunteers to fight the expected votes in Alaska and Oregon. But he said anti-drug forces expect to lose votes in more states before a backlash against legalization can take root.

"We don't need to have voting on medicine," he said. "We need to have medicine in pharmacies that can be prescribed by doctors."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
The Marijuana Debate
updated 5:00 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Adam Markus has bet nearly everything he has on a pot shop.
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Lighting up a freshly packed pipe is just the kind of afternoon delight iReporter robcat20 likes after dealing with a stressful day at work as an insurance agent.
updated 8:40 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
I feel very badly that people have suffered for too long, unable to obtain the legitimate medicine that may have helped them, Sanjay Gupta writes.
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Coming to the Mile High City was the perfect 65th birthday present for Karen Stevenson. She and her husband experienced what it's like to buy and smoke weed legally.
updated 2:02 PM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
Political operatives are pushing pot legalization in several states this year in the hopes of sparking high turnout in this fall's midterm elections, and are looking ahead to 2016 as well.
updated 7:13 AM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
Aimee Curry recalls sitting on her couch one day, her back contorted, as spasms -- remnants of a car accident that almost killed her in 1992 -- rippled up and down her back.
updated 10:03 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
With 20 U.S. states allowing medical marijuana, and others weighing its medicinal or recreational use, advocates of looser laws on weed appear to have the advantage.
updated 7:19 AM EST, Fri January 31, 2014
President Barack Obama talks to CNN's Jake Tapper about marijuana legalization in an exclusive interview.
updated 4:38 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
There appears to be a shift in the United States in favor of relaxing marijuana laws, a topic that has dipped in and out of the national conversation for decades.
updated 10:29 PM EST, Mon January 6, 2014
In an office run from his Massachusetts home, William Downing is part of a burgeoning national pro-pot movement emboldened by the approval of recreational marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington.
updated 5:23 PM EST, Thu January 2, 2014
Customers waited in long lines for their turn to buy recreational marijuana in Colorado, the first state in the nation to allow retail pot shops.
updated 11:19 AM EST, Wed January 22, 2014
Looks like the ongoing debate about marijuana legalization in the United States has reached a new high: President Barack Obama's White House.
updated 9:17 PM EST, Wed January 22, 2014
The White House says Obama's pot policy hasn't changed, despite his assertion the drug is no more dangerous than alcohol.
updated 9:49 AM EST, Wed January 15, 2014
He's only 3 years old, but Landon Riddle is already the focus of a medical marijuana fight in Colorado.
updated 5:53 AM EST, Sat January 4, 2014
In a far corner of downtown Denver, the Andrews family runs an old-fashioned mom and pop (and daughter) shop, selling the biggest novelty of a new era: marijuana.
updated 8:44 PM EDT, Thu August 8, 2013
Over the last year, I have been working on a new documentary called "Weed." The title may sound cavalier, but the content is not.
updated 5:40 PM EST, Fri January 24, 2014
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock shares his view on the state's new legalized marijuana laws.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT