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Will Public Opinion Force Washington's Hand on Pot?

WASHINGTON – After making what appears to be a historic flip in support of gay marriage, the American public may be poised to change its collective mind on yet another hot-button issue – the legalization of marijuana.

And at least some of the nation’s elected officials, usually reluctant to take a position that makes them look soft on drugs, are prepared to follow suit.

The Pew Research Center for People & the Press has released the results of a poll showing that for the first time a majority of Americans, by a seven-point margin, believe marijuana should be made legal.

The survey, conducted from March 13 through March 17, found that 52 percent of those questioned support legalization – an 11 percent jump since the question was last polled in 2010. In 1969, a Gallup poll determined that only 12 percent favored legalization.

According to Pew, an increasing percentage of Americans – 48 percent -- say they have tried marijuana. About half of those in all age groups, save for those 65 or older, have used it.

The report comes at a time when an increasing number of states are looking to relax marijuana statutes. Residents in two states -- Washington and Colorado -- voted in November to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. In all, 17 states have taken steps to decriminalize possession while 20 states have moved to legalize it for medicinal purposes.

Rhode Island is the latest to join the decriminalization list, limiting minor marijuana possession offenses to fines only, resulting in no jail time. Rhode Island became the fifteenth state to eliminate jail time in cases involving the personal possession of cannabis.

Legislation was introduced in nine other states this year to decriminalize possession. In addition the Kentucky General Assembly this month passed legislation supporting research into the cultivation of industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity. The legislation became law without the signature of Gov. Steve Beshear. Eight states have enacted statutes defining industrial hemp as an agricultural product.

NORML, an organization dedicated to reforming the nation’s marijuana laws, reports that cannabis is the third most popular recreational drug in America behind alcohol and tobacco. It has been used by nearly 100 million Americans. According to government surveys, about 25 million Americans have smoked marijuana in the past year and more than 14 million do so regularly despite laws against its use.

This shift in public attitude toward decriminalization hasn’t been directly addressed by the White House. Attorney General Eric Holder likewise remains mum on how the Department of Justice intends to proceed in implementing anti-drug laws in face of the legalization movements in Washington and Colorado.

Regulations legalizing marijuana possession in those two states have not yet taken effect. Once they do, the DOJ will have to determine whether to ignore the violation of federal law or crack down. The department is not showing its hand.

Obama, along with predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, has acknowledged using marijuana in his younger days. He remains coy about his policy intentions. But in an interview with Barbara Walters, broadcast in December, the president replied that the administration “has “got bigger fish to fry” than strictly enforcing federal marijuana laws.

“It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal,” he said.

Now some members of Congress are looking to get involved. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) have joined forces on a pair of bills. One would shift responsibility for marijuana regulation to the individual states and create a framework for federal taxation in places where it is legalized. The second would remove the Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority over marijuana and allow states to choose whether to allow marijuana for medicinal or recreational use.

“This legislation doesn't force any state to legalize marijuana but Colorado and the 18 other jurisdictions that have chosen to allow marijuana for medical or recreational use deserve the certainty of knowing that federal agents won’t raid state-legal businesses,” Polis said. “Congress should simply allow states to regulate marijuana as they see fit and stop wasting federal tax dollars on the failed drug war.”

Blumenauer noted that there has been a dramatic shift in the marijuana policy landscape.

“Public attitude, state law and established practices are all creating irreconcilable difficulties for public officials at every level of government,” he said. “We want the federal government to be a responsible partner with the rest of the universe of marijuana interests while we address what federal policy should be regarding drug taxation, classification and legality.”

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who sought the Republican nomination for president in 2012 before dropping out and running on the Libertarian Party ticket, has long advocated marijuana legalization, arguing that it is “insane to arrest roughly 800,000 people a year for choosing to use a natural substance that is, by any reasonable objective standard, less harmful than alcohol, a drug that is advertised at every major sporting event.”

“By managing marijuana like alcohol and tobacco – regulating, taxing and enforcing its lawful use – America will be better off,” Johnson said. “The billions saved on marijuana interdiction, along with the billions captured as legal revenue, can be redirected against the individuals committing real crimes against society.”