Marijuana Supporters in the South Mobilize Legalization Efforts

marijuana supporters Credit: Kelly Petty[/caption]

As marijuana acceptance and legalization forges ahead in the western part of the country, marijuana supporters weigh the “southern prohibition” that exists in states from Texas to Florida.

A coalition of advocacy organizations, including Peachtree NORML, 420 Nation Radio, and the Alabama Medical Marijuana Association, convened at the first Southern Cannabis Reform Conference on March 15 and 16 in Atlanta, GA to discuss how supporters could mobilize to change marijuana laws in the South.

“We as Americans have got to stop giving up our civil rights.” said Diane Goldstein of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

The South has been heavily affected by drug trafficking due to its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as a rise in meth addiction and the spread of painkillers along the I-75 corridor from Florida up to Virginia.

Organizations like LEAP believe decriminalization and legalization of marijuana are the first steps to reversing these trends in order to move toward effectively treating people ravaged by drug abuse and addiction.

James Bell, executive director of the Georgia Campaign for Access, Reform & Education (Georgia C.A.R.E.), has worked to get Georgia lawmakers to support and develop legislation to reform the state’s marijuana laws.

His grassroots efforts have led to some strange alliances.

“I get calls from people like the Rotary Club who want to know more about marijuana legislation,” Bell said.

Working through the Georgia General Assembly, Bell asserted that he has found at least a dozen lawmakers who quietly support marijuana legislation. The goal is to get a small majority of people at the state level to get on board to take necessary steps to enact real reforms.

Unknown to many Georgia residents, the state historically was one of the first to enact a medical marijuana law. Titled the “Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act,” the bill was passed in 1980 after activist Mona Taft fought for the bill in memory of her cancer-stricken husband who felt relief a few days before his death when he smoked some marijuana for the first time.

The bill specifically permits clinical trials and research of medicinal marijuana for cancer and glaucoma patients through the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research program. The Georgia Composite Medical Board oversees the program and must contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse to receive marijuana.

Despite its passage, the program has sat dormant for the last three decades. In 2010, the law was updated to permit the Medical Board to establish a Patient Qualification Review Board. Supporters are actively fighting to jump start the program once again so Georgia can join the other 18 states who have actively implemented similar legislation.

Ms. Goldstein, a former Lt. Cmdr. of the Redondo Beach Police Department, stated that it was also important for advocates to focus on the fiscal advantages of marijuana legalization to bridge gaps with those who lean more conservative. She said most people are unaware of the fiscal costs of the “War on Drugs,” including misguided criminalization efforts.

“Where do we want our dollars to go and where do we want to get the best bang for our buck. Every dollar spent for mass incarceration takes away from job creation and education,” Goldsetin said.

Bell agreed.

“Let’s get prison guards who are working in jails back on farms,” he remarked

Kentucky has taken note. This past weekend, Gov. Steve Beshear allowed passage, without his signature, of a law that would permit the state to legally cultivate and sell industrial hemp.

Supporters see it as an opportunity to create new jobs and build revenues for cash strapped farmers. The state now waits for federal approval.

Goldstein also explained that the “police state” aspect of penalizing marijuana possession and distribution could be rolled back by restoring the intended purpose of police — being peace officers.

Despite reality shows like Pot Cops, Weed Country, and Weed Wars that have shown police officers destroying tons of grow, Goldstein says that many in the law enforcement community have supported changing laws for quite some time.

Still, education is key. Goldstein recommends softening rhetoric by introducing the “depenalization” concept and speaking about treatment for drug addiction to bridge gaps between opposing groups.

Georgia marijuana advocates could take lessons from the fight to permit Sunday alcohol sales. Georgia is one of many southern states that maintained dry state laws for well over 60 years until last year, when voters approved Sunday alcohol sales in several counties.

For those who look forward to a day where marijuana would be legalized, Bell explained that the more knowledge people have about the controversial bud, the less it becomes such a taboo issue.