Big Bong Theory

Welcome to metro Phoenix, or as we like to call it, Amsterzona, the desert dope oasis where vacationers can enjoy super-sized Quad Ganja Lattes at any neighborhood Starbucks Hashhouse.

Visit the Tempe Town Bong, the power center of the Dutch West Tempes district. Enjoy heat stroke, ozone O.D.s, Cardinals football. Hell, you'd enjoy a fatal root canal here in the Valley of the (legally baked Phoenix) Sun. . . .

Whoa, wake up, Pot Tourism Dude! Recreational marijuana use is still illegal in the United States.

Granted, though, thanks to a few Arizonans, that may be true for only a couple more years.

Indeed, America's first legitimate War on the War on Drugs is in full bloom. Seventeen pot initiatives, mostly focused on legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing pot use, have won around the country since 1996.

Polls show Americans now overwhelmingly support the legalization of medical marijuana. And, according to a recent USA Today poll, for the first time ever, more than one-third of Americans believe recreational pot should be legalized.

The unprecedented support for the drug appears to be the product of two phenomena:

First, the well-financed marketing blitz that has accompanied the campaign to soften drug laws has also softened attitudes.

And, more important, with the fading of the World War II generation, the majority of Americans, from baby boomers through Generation Whichever-It-Is-Now, either smoke, have smoked or have friends or family members who smoke or have smoked pot.

According to a 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences, 68.6 million people, or 32 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 12, had tried marijuana by the mid-1990s.

"It defies demographics," says Jim Molesa, a special agent with the DEA. "It's now familiar to people of every race or economic or social strata."

The War on the War on Drugs will escalate during the national election cycle of 2002, when pro-pot initiatives will appear in critical swing states such as Missouri, Michigan and Florida.

"We are going into the national battleground states," says Sam Vagenas, the former Arizona assistant secretary of state who is now a leader in the national drug-reform movement.

This new war began in Phoenix in 1995 with an unlikely alliance of influential Arizona liberals and conservative libertarians led by one extremely rich Arizonan, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling. The medical marijuana and drug-use decriminalization initiative they wrote in 1995, that was passed by voters in 1996, is now the template for most of the initiatives that will appear around the country next year.

This was not an alliance of stoners (most of the original group say they've never touched the stuff). Sperling, Vagenas and others say they pushed for reform because they believe the drug war has failed, wasting billions of dollars on a bloated prison system that has destroyed millions of lives and families. They want treatment instead of incarceration, they want drug forfeiture laws reformed, they want doctors free to legitimately prescribe marijuana for patients who could benefit from it.

The libertarians just want government out of your home, hookah haven or not.

Opponents say the drug war has kept the drug menace at bay. And you don't stop a war against a societal menace just because the bad behavior has continued. ("Should we legalize murder because people are still murdering?" one deputy county attorney quipped.)

There are better ways to administer pot's key ingredient, delta-9 THC, to sick people than by having them smoke unknown quantities, they say.

Pot makes people bad parents and bad students and it gives them cancer, opponents say. It's a gateway drug for some people, especially children. Going soft on pot sends a mixed message to kids. Dopers are lazy.

In the workplace, pot use has been blamed for everything from train wrecks to the absurdly bad products once made by American automakers. And why else would so many Americans have invested billions in dot.coms that produced nothing?

Whether any of this is true is unknown. The best pot research remains inconclusive, the worst research continues to point wherever the funding source wants it to point. Without definitive science, the debate remains mired in emotional politics deduced from harrowing anecdotes.

At least Arizona has some tangible experience with drug reform.

Proponents of the 1996 Arizona initiative say it was a watershed event in the push toward a more sane national drug policy. It has failed only to the extent it has been hog-tied by opponents.

For example, most likely because the initiative remained too restrictive, no Arizonan in the last five years has received a prescription from doctors for the use of marijuana to cope with AIDS, chemotherapy or glaucoma.

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Robert Nelson