WASHINGTON, D.C. — As one of the nation’s top marijuana lobbyists, Allen St. Pierre has come to believe in his product, which is why he tries to smoke high-potency, one-toke weed every night if possible.
It’s an experience that St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, commonly known as NORML, hopes more Americans will soon enjoy, with no fear of prosecution.
After working for marijuana legalization for 23 years, St. Pierre said he pinches himself every day as he watches events unfold across the United States.
Since 1996, 18 states have approved marijuana for use as medicine. But lobbyists scored their top achievement in a generation in November, when voters in Washington state and Colorado approved the recreational use by adults. Thirteen states have decriminalized the possession of marijuana, removing the possibility of jail time.
Now, in a flurry of new momentum, pro-marijuana bills have been introduced in 27 statehouses this year. Nine would tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol, while the others would allow more states to lessen penalties or to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
On the recreational front, lobbyists expect to prevail at the ballot box again, possibly first with Alaska voters next year. And they’re eyeing the biggest prize of all: California, along with others, in 2016.
On Thursday, a new poll by the Pew Research Center showed that for the first time a majority of Americans now favor legal pot. On Capitol Hill, a few dozen Democrats send representatives to study-group meetings to figure out how to move pro-legalization bills introduced in February.
And with spring here, the One-Hitters, a team of marijuana reformers, are ready for another season in Washington’s Congressional Softball League, where they’ll play ball against elected leaders.
For St. Pierre, who recalls when he felt like an outcast in Washington, it adds up to one indisputable fact: Marijuana has gone mainstream, and the legalization push has grown so powerful that it will be hard to stop.
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” he said, sitting at his desk next to a plastic pot plant, just two blocks from the White House.
Opponents say the pro-marijuana leaders are deluding themselves.
“There must be something about marijuana that induces false optimism,” said John Lovell, a Sacramento, Calif.-based lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association, which helped defeat a 2010 ballot measure to make pot legal in the Golden State. “They won two ballot measures, and there’s euphoria over that, but there are a whole host of ways this could play out.”
Lovell predicted that a ballot measure would fail again in California in 2016, aided by media coverage of the legalization experiments.
“Between now and 2016, there will be sufficient horror stories coming out of Washington and Colorado in the form of increased highway deaths and increased use among young people,” he said.
Pro-marijuana lobbyists won a big endorsement last month from the top Democrat in Congress, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. Long a backer of allowing marijuana to be used as medicine, Pelosi said the federal government should respect the new state laws and move toward the taxation and regulation of marijuana.
“Everything’s definitely changed. I mean, there’s no doubt about it,” said Steve Fox, the national political director for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington.
When he began his job 10 years ago, Fox said he grew accustomed to laughs whenever he asked to meet with members of Congress. Now, he said, he goes to the Capitol to take part in once-a-month meetings with congressional staffers to figure out how to advance legislation. More telling, he said, is that he has yet to hear a single member of Congress criticize the landmark legalization votes of 2012.
Bills to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use have been introduced by state lawmakers this year in Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. The legislation is dead for the year in Hawaii, Maryland and New Hampshire.
“None will pass, but if you’re looking at tea leaves, seeing something like that is another clear indication of the upward political pressure that’s coming from the states and being put on federal lawmakers,” St. Pierre said.
He called the votes in Washington state and Colorado “huge beyond belief” and said they marked the biggest moment in the push for legalization since California approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes more than 16 years ago.
“These states are at the vanguard of what looks like probably a 15- to 20-state run in the next two to four election cycles,” St. Pierre said.
Pot lobbyists are counting on big success in the next presidential election, when voter turnout is high and the demographics could make it easier to win. Fox predicts California will be among three to seven states that vote on legalization in 2016. Lobbyists are considering trying for a vote in Alaska in August 2014, only because there’s no advantage in waiting since all ballot initiatives there go on the primary-election ballot.
The legalization efforts are worrisome for Joyce Nalepka, president of Drug-Free Kids: America’s Challenge, based in Silver Spring, Md.
The public is awash in misinformation because the media have not done their job in warning the public about carcinogens in marijuana and other health risks, she said.
“Isn’t that what their job is?” Nalepka asked. “I’ve always thought the media gets the facts and spreads it to the public.”
Nalepka said the media should not even be using the term “medical marijuana” because the drug has never been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and it does nothing but confuse kids, who think marijuana has medicinal qualities and are more likely to use it.
Marijuana advocates, though, say it sends the wrong message to kids to have uncompassionate laws that criminalize ill patients who want to relieve suffering.
Both sides can point to competing studies.
Opponents have ammunition in a report released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in December, which said that regular marijuana use by young people can have a long-lasting negative impact on the structure and function of the brain.
More teens now smoke marijuana than tobacco, the report said. And pot use among young people has risen since 2007, corresponding to diminishing perception of the drug’s risks, the institute said.
Marijuana lobbyists cite a 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine that said marijuana could mitigate nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety for severely ill patients.
And they use three University of California studies done since 2007, which found that marijuana relieved neuropathic pain for patients with multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, diabetes and other conditions.
While the debate is sure to rage in coming years, St. Pierre said it has come a long way from when he sought to assure skeptics that smoking marijuana wouldn’t cause males to develop breasts.
This week’s poll, by Pew Research Center, found that 52 percent of Americans now back legalized pot. St. Pierre said he expects support to hit 60 percent by 2020, at which point marijuana becomes “completely politically viable.”
The push for legalization has St. Pierre putting in 12-hour days, but he said he never smokes until his workday is done.
“Assuredly, in my after-hours, I very much appreciate good cannabis, no doubt about it,” he said.
With marijuana much more potent than it was during his youth, St. Pierre said he can inhale less smoke by using marijuana that requires only one hit to get the desired effects. And he said it’s a good way to unwind, much like many people use alcohol — only better.
“Alcohol makes me aggressive, and alcohol makes me make very bad life decisions, such as driving a car, or who to have sex with,” said St. Pierre, 47.
He said he’s comfortable discussing his experience because marijuana users need to learn from activist movements by women, African-Americans and gays who took to the front lines to change history.
“You have to be a first-person advocate for your own liberty,” he said. “You have to be out there. … For us, it’s been really easy just to simply say: We smoke marijuana, and we don’t think we’re criminals.”