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Double Standard Persists On Marijuana


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At a recent backyard barbecue in Miami's Upper Eastside, a group of middle-age, middle-class folks tamely sipped berry cocktails and beers. Among them: a couple of lawyers, a couple of city administrators and an arts administrator. Somewhere between the skirt steak and the apple pie, somebody lit a joint and passed it around.

Nobody blinked. Even in mainstream, white-collar settings, smoking marijuana can be commonplace and unremarkable, like having a little wine with dinner.

Once a stamp of the arty, the marginal and the counterculture, today marijuana's popularity cuts across social boundaries. Yet several high-profile marijuana arrests have recently made headlines, highlighting the hazy double standard that exists around an illegal, potentially harmful drug that continues to encroach into the mainstream:

- In March, Lawrence Korda, 59, a Broward Circuit Court judge, was charged with openly smoking marijuana in a park in Hollywood. Korda completed a drug and alcohol program to erase the misdemeanor charge, and must take monthly random drug tests for six months and perform 25 hours of community service.

- Last month, Utpal Dighe, 31, a prosecutor in the Miami-Dade state attorney's office, was fired after police charged him with buying marijuana from a street dealer in Coconut Grove.

- Also last month, Ricky Williams, 30, erstwhile superstar running back for the Dolphins, probably ended his Miami career by testing positive for marijuana for the fifth time.

For good or ill, people from all walks smoke weed. In fact, 40.1 percent of all Americans 12 years old and up admit having tried marijuana at least once -- and 6 percent acknowledge having used it in the past month, federal drug surveys show. The FBI says 786,500 people were arrested for it in 2005, the latest figures available.

One group at least modestly turning away from marijuana is middle- and high-schoolers, ages 12 to 17. The percentage who have used pot at least once dropped from more than 20 percent in 2000 to about 17 percent in 2005, federal researchers say.

''I don't know if more people are smoking or more people are admitting it,'' said Betsy Wise, a Miami stand-up comic. Wise recently started to freelance for a New York ad agency. She confided in a co-worker that a friend was delivering pot brownies to the office -- and told him to help himself.

''When I got to the agency, all but a few of the brownies were gone,'' Wise said. ``Pretty much everyone partook, right in the office. They all greeted me with smiles. I thought that was remarkable. I would have expected maybe one or two people would have been simpatico.''

More and more, weed is cropping up in the popular culture. It isn't just the domain of hip-hop records with parental-guidance labels. On cable-TV shows like Six Feet Under,The Sopranos,Entourage and The L Word, characters have sparked up casually, the way they might sip merlot, without their marijuana use being part of any plot development or morality tale.

And it isn't just cable. On ABC's Brothers & Sisters, Sally Field's character gets high. The kids on That '70s Show often emerged from clouds of funny smoke.


''I think there is more of a laissez-faire attitude these days about smoking pot,'' said Jenji Kohan, creator of Showtime's Weeds, about a mother who sells marijuana to make ends meet after her husband dies unexpectedly. 'One of the things that I find interesting is that there are boutique farms that are really into their strains. It reminds me of when wine started to become really popular and people started talking about this vine and that grape. Marijuana has become more upscale. In L.A., dealers have full menus of `unique teas.' ''

Not that marijuana use is a function of wealth.

For $20 on the street, a buyer can score one-eighth ounce of low-grade marijuana from Mexico, Belize or Jamaica -- enough for four or five cigarettes. For $800, the connoisseur can acquire an ounce of exotic, extra-potent marijuana grown from modern hybrids in hydroponic labs or special soil indoors in ''grow-houses'' from Pompano Beach to Coral Gables, said James Hall, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University.

''It's like wine; you can buy an expensive one or you can buy the jug stuff,'' Hall said.

The truth is, for all of the marijuana possession arrests, police often look the other way, or let smokers go with friendly warnings.

At a Snoop Dogg concert at a Fort Lauderdale club a while back, a uniformed officer stood by unflinchingly as Snoop, and dozens in the audience, sent up telltale clouds.

''It's selective enforcement,'' said Miami musician Todd Thompson, who doesn't have a problem admitting that he gets high. ``At Langerado [a Broward outdoor music festival], there was smoking going on everywhere. I wouldn't do it in front of a cop, just in case. But cops don't always do something about a little marijuana smoke.''

Marijuana laws are a mishmash among the 50 states. It isn't entirely legal anywhere, but 12 states have at least partly decriminalized it, to the point that in Alaska there is no penalty for possessing an ounce or less at home.

In Florida, possession of 20 grams or less -- 28 grams would be an ounce -- is a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine; having more than 20 grams is a felony worth five years and/or a $5,000 fine.

Over the decades, debate about whether marijuana should be legalized has remained lively.

Said Howard Finkelstein, Broward County public defender and legal guru of the ''Help Me Howard'' segment on WSVN-Fox 7: 'We're making war on our own people. We take good fathers and lawyers and doctors and wives and make them outlaws. We're playing a stupid and harmful game of `gotcha.' ''

Some support for legalization comes from the belief that it's not dangerous to health, says Dr. J. Bryan Page, professor of anthropology and psychiatry and an expert on substance abuse in the University of Miami Department of Psychiatry.

''A student I knew claimed to be part of a group who all had grade-point averages over 3.6 who were very regular users,'' he said. 'She wanted me to study them to counter all the `Just say no' stuff.''

White House drug czar John Walters, not surprisingly, sees it differently. In April, his office released an analysis from the University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project that said the level of THC -- the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana -- has more than doubled since 1983, from 4 percent to 8.5 percent.


''This new report serves as a wake-up call for parents who may still hold outdated notions about the harms of marijuana,'' his announcement said.

The increased potency is from the exotic new hybrids and sophisticated indoor growing techniques, says Nova Southeastern's Hall.

Marijuana-related emergency-room visits increased from 45,000 in 1995 to 119,000 in 2002, the most recent comparison available, federal drug officials say.

Added Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse: ``Science has shown that marijuana can produce adverse physical, mental, emotional and behavioral changes, and -- contrary to popular belief -- it can be addictive.''

Norman Kent, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and board member of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, scoffed: ``More people died last year from eating spinach than smoking pot.''

Newshawk: CoZmO - 420Magazine.com
Source: The Miami Herald (FL)
Contact: lmartin@MiamiHerald.com
Copyright: 2007 Miami Herald Media Co.
Website: Double standard persists on marijuana - 06/04/2007 - MiamiHerald.com
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