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US drug policy fuels push for legal pot worldwide

Sunday - 2/16/2014, 10:26am  ET

FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2013 photo, a Rastafarian named Bongho Jatusy smokes a pipe of marijuana outside a museum dedicated to the memory of late reggae icon Bob Marley in Kingston, Jamaica. While marijuana is still illegal in Jamaica, where it is known popularly as “ganja,” increasingly vocal advocates say that Jamaica could give its struggling economy a boost by taking advantage of the fact the island is nearly as famous for its marijuana as it is for beaches, reggae music and world-beating sprinters. Anxiety over U.S. reprisals has always doused reform efforts in Jamaica, including a broadly supported 2001 attempt to approve private use of marijuana by adults. (AP Photo/David McFadden, File)

GENE JOHNSON
The Associated Press

In a former colonial mansion in Jamaica, politicians huddle to discuss trying to ease marijuana laws in the land of the late reggae musician and cannabis evangelist Bob Marley. In Morocco, one of the world's top producers of the concentrated pot known as hashish, two leading political parties want to legalize its cultivation, at least for medical and industrial use.

And in Mexico City, the vast metropolis of a country ravaged by horrific cartel bloodshed, lawmakers have proposed a brand new plan to let stores sell the drug.

From the Americas to Europe to North Africa and beyond, the marijuana legalization movement is gaining unprecedented traction -- a nod to successful efforts in Colorado, Washington state and the small South American nation of Uruguay, which in December became the first country to approve nationwide pot legalization.

Leaders long weary of the drug war's violence and futility have been emboldened by changes in U.S. policy, even in the face of opposition from their own conservative populations. Some are eager to try an approach that focuses on public health instead of prohibition, and some see a potentially lucrative industry in cannabis regulation.

"A number of countries are saying, 'We've been curious about this, but we didn't think we could go this route,'" said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who helped write Colorado's marijuana regulations. "It's harder for the U.S. to look at other countries and say, 'You can't legalize, you can't decriminalize,' because it's going on here."

That's due largely to a White House that's more open to drug war alternatives.

U.S. President Barack Obama recently told The New Yorker magazine that he considers marijuana less dangerous to consumers than alcohol, and said it's important that the legalization experiments in Washington and Colorado go forward, especially because blacks are arrested for the drug at a greater rate than whites, despite similar levels of use.

His administration also has criticized drug war-driven incarceration rates in the U.S. and announced that it will let banks do business with licensed marijuana operations, which have largely been cash-only because federal law forbids financial institutions from processing pot-related transactions.

Such actions underscore how the official U.S. position has changed in recent years. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it wouldn't target medical marijuana patients. In August, the agency said it wouldn't interfere with the laws in Colorado and Washington, which regulate the growth and sale of taxed pot for recreational use.

Government officials and activists worldwide have taken note of the more open stance. Also not lost on them was the Obama administration's public silence before votes in both states and in Uruguay.

It all creates a "sense that the U.S. is no longer quite the drug war-obsessed government it was" and that other nations have some political space to explore reform, said Ethan Nadelmann, head of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-legalization group based in New York.

Anxiety over U.S. reprisals has previously doused reform efforts in Jamaica, including a 2001 attempt to approve private use of marijuana by adults. Given America's evolution, "the discussion has changed," said Delano Seiveright, director of Ganja Law Reform Coalition-Jamaica.

Last summer eight lawmakers, evenly split between the ruling People's National Party and the opposition Jamaica Labor Party, met with Nadelmann and local cannabis crusaders at a luxury hotel in Kingston's financial district and discussed next steps, including a near-term effort to decriminalize pot possession.

Officials are concerned about the roughly 300 young men each week who get criminal records for possessing small amounts of "ganja." Others in the debt-shackled nation worry about losing out on tourism dollars: For many, weed is synonymous with Marley's home country, where it has long been used as a medicinal herb by families, including as a cold remedy, and as a spiritual sacrament by Rastafarians.

Influential politicians are increasingly taking up the idea of loosening pot restrictions. Jamaica's health minister recently said he was "fully on board" with medical marijuana.

"The cooperation on this issue far outweighs what I've seen before," Seiveright said. "Both sides are in agreement with the need to move forward."

In Morocco, lawmakers have been inspired by the experiments in Washington, Colorado and Uruguay to push forward their longstanding desire to allow cannabis to be grown for medical and industrial uses. They say such a law would help small farmers who survive on the crop but live at the mercy of drug lords and police attempts to eradicate it.

"Security policies aren't solving the problem because it's an economic and social issue," said Mehdi Bensaid, a legislator with the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, a political party closely allied with the country's king. "We think this crop can become an important economic resource for Morocco and the citizens of this region."

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