The South Goes To Pot

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It seems marijuana — at least for medical use — is sweeping the nation. More than 20 states and the District of Columbia have either legalized medical marijuana or decriminalized its possession, and in two states, Colorado and Washington, voters recently legalized its recreational use. The Denver Post even appointed a Marijuana editor.

The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., found in September that, “For the first time in more than four decades of polling … a majority (52 percent) of Americans favor legalizing the use of marijuana.” In June, they found that nearly half of Americans had smoked marijuana, up from 40 percent three years ago — and 12 percent had done so recently.

Half of baby boomers now favor legalization. And 72 percent of Americans say it isn’t worth the federal government’s time and money to enforce federal laws against marijuana. Agreement on this last point breaches even the partisan divide. Rather, the division is between conservatives in both parties on one side, and moderates and liberals on the other.

But what about the Bible Belt — the Deep South? In 2010, CNBC found that “in most states legalization is not even on the horizon,” while some were “vehemently opposed.” Florida and Louisiana were the two most “cannabis nongratis” states. Florida has the toughest anti-marijuana laws — a $6,000 fine and five years in the slammer for possessing one ounce. CNBC found its marijuana laws were only “getting tougher.”

In Louisiana (my home state), I wasn’t surprised that the editor of LaPolitics, Joe Maginnis, observed that Louisiana “is not a culture of where marijuana is accepted.” True dat. Harsher penalties were being introduced in 2010 there, too.

Except that today, the reverse is true. Last month, the Florida Supreme Court approved the language for a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana three days before citizens gathered enough signatures to place it on the November ballot. And NORML, a group working to reform marijuana laws, reports an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) poll found that 53 percent of Louisianans favor legalizing recreational marijuana. Support for legalizing marijuana “is blooming in the South,” it said.

Indeed it is. In Kentucky (where citizens are so politically conservative that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is considered by some to be too liberal), a recent poll found 52 percent favor medical marijuana, while only 37 percent opposed it. (The remainder, 12 percent, were “not sure.”)

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo told the Lexington Herald-Leader, “There does seem to be in the public a growing awareness that the medical marijuana issue is different from the drug issue.” This week, Kentucky state Sen. Julie Denton, a Republican, filed a bill that would permit the use of cannabidiol, marijuana in controlled oral doses, which reduces seizures in children.

In Alabama, state Rep. Mike Ball, a former hostage negotiator for the state highway patrol, backs a bill to permit cannabis oil. “The political fear is shifting from what will happen if we pass it, to what might happen if we don’t,” Ball told the Associated Press. CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, made a public apology for an article he wrote for Time magazine in 2009, opposing legalizing pot. “I didn’t look hard enough,” he said, “until now.”

Dr. Gupta now finds compelling medical evidence that marijuana does have medical uses. And in some cases, marijuana is the only recourse. Gupta cites the case of Charlotte Figi, a child he met in Colorado. She had seizures at birth; by age 3, was having more than 300 seizures a day and was on seven different medications at once. Today, her “brain is calmed” by cannabis oil, and she is down to about three seizures a month.

“We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that,” Gupta wrote on the CNN Health website. Voters appear to be coming to the same conclusion. More than one-third of the states have initiatives on marijuana on this fall’s ballots. Among those states considering marijuana legislation are Southern states like Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.

In fact, the current push to legalize medical marijuana is a renaissance of legislation that was passed in the 1970s after a presidential commission recommended decriminalizing marijuana. New Mexico was the first state to act, in 1978, and Louisiana, Florida and Illinois followed the same year. Georgia did so in 1981. According to the International Business Times, “Thirty-four states adopted laws recognizing the medical benefits of cannabis between 1978 and 1982.”

However, a get-tough-on-drug-users atmosphere then swept the nation, and most of the laws were not funded, shut down or simply ignored. Now, existing laws may be revived to ease the transition to legalizing medical marijuana.

In 1982, Georgia enacted the Medical Marijuana Necessities Act, (now called the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Program). It cited restrictive federal laws that impeded clinical trials for medical marijuana and “insufficient funding,” to properly explore medical marijuana.

Now, like Dr. Gupta says, the evidence is in. And the South may finally be ready to resume a leading role in the legal use of medical marijuana.