PHOENIX -- Opponents of medicinal marijuana often have said legalizing its medical use will only lead to decriminalizing its recreational use, and this year they say they have proof.
While voters in Arizona and South Dakota will consider initiatives on Election Day that would legalize medicinal marijuana, California voters -- where medical marijuana already is legal -- will decide whether to legalize the recreational use of pot when they vote on Proposition 19.
And that may just be the beginning. In 2012, several states, including Colorado, Nevada and Washington state, may have initiatives on the ballot to legalize marijuana's recreational use. The three states are among the 14 where its medicinal use is legalized. It also is legal in the District of Columbia.
"States that pass medical marijuana laws need to understand that they have chosen a path that will lead relentlessly to the complete decriminalization of marijuana," Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press. "The medical marijuana issue is simply the wedge that cracks open the door. Once the public has accepted the idea of the legal use of marijuana, the groups favoring decriminalization know that it is just a matter of time before they achieve their objective."
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Whatever happens in California on Election Day, the taboo over marijuana possession already has lessened. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill reducing possession of small amounts of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction, putting it on par with a speeding ticket with a $100 fine. Schwarzenegger defended signing the bill by saying marijuana possession already was an "infraction in everything but name," but critics said the new law sends the wrong message about pot and will prevent judges from having the opportunity to send users to rehab.
The debate in Arizona is on Prop 203, which would allow individuals -- with a doctor's permission -- to acquire marijuana from dispensaries. They must first register with the Arizona Department of Health Services, which is on record as opposing the initiative.
In South Dakota, voters will consider a similar proposal, Initiated Measure 13, which would require individuals to have a doctor's permission and to register with the South Dakota Department of Health. The individual would be able to grow the marijuana or designate someone else to grow it. That designated person, too, must register with the department of health.
It's not the first time either state has considered medicinal marijuana.
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Arizona voters approved an initiative in 1996 but saw it blocked by the state legislature, and then passed another one in 1998 but saw it halted by the federal government because the proposal required doctors to write a prescription for marijuana; the federal Drug Enforcement Administration threatened to revoke prescription-writing privileges of doctors who did so. States with medicinal marijuana laws avoid federal intervention by having doctors write a "recommendation," which doesn't carry the same weight as a prescription.
South Dakota voters in 2006 became the first and still only state to defeat a medicinal marijuana initiative. The vote was close.
In addition to the argument that it will lead to the legalization of pot's recreational use, opponents of the initiatives in Arizona and South Dakota have made several other arguments about medicinal marijuana:
-- Its legalization is unnecessary because an FDA-approved drug, dronabinol (sold as Marinol), contains THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana.
-- It remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
-- It will lead to an increase in marijuana usage, even among teens.
-- Researchers in New Zealand found in 2009 that smoking just one marijuana joint is as harmful to the body as smoking 20 cigarettes.
Opponents also say the law will be abused, and they point to other states where medicinal marijuana is legal. California's law -- the first of its kind when it passed in 1996 -- lists a series of specific ailments that can be aided by medicinal marijuana and then adds a giant loophole allowing medicinal marijuana usage for "any other illness for which marijuana provides relief." Marijuana is easily accessible in California, even for those who are not experiencing severe pain, experts in the state say.
Montana has seen significant abuse of its law that went into effect in 2004. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of citizens registered to use medicinal marijuana jumped from 842 to nearly 20,000, the Associated Press reported. Montana had a total population of 974,989 in 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated.
Just as troubling: 25 percent of medicinal marijuana users in Montana are between the ages of 21 and 30, and Missoula and Bozeman -- both home to universities -- have the highest percentage of users, AP reported. More than 13,000 people list "severe chronic pain" as the reason they use it. The Census Bureau estimated Bozeman and Missoula had a combined population less than 100,000 in 2006.
"We heard a lot from Montana [where medical marijuana is legal] that involve a lot of issues where crimes have gone up," Art Mabry, president of the South Dakota Police Chiefs Association, told AP. "Just the way the whole process is run indicates it's not being used just for medical marijuana. It's a scam to legally get marijuana."
In Arizona, the state Association of Chiefs of Police has gone on record as opposing Prop 203, saying "drug abuse and crime go hand in hand."
"Marijuana is currently the leading cause of substance dependence other than alcohol in the U.S. and legalization will increase the numbers of both users and abusers," the statement read. "The incidence of drug-impaired driving will also increase if marijuana is legalized for so-called medical purposes, making an already significant problem worse."
Duke, the Southern Baptist policy expert, warned that the combination of "legality and familiarity" with medicinal marijuana "will lead to its greater acceptance by the public."
"The result is that more people, especially youth, will be emboldened to use the drug," Duke said. "Many of these people will pay a terrible price as their drug habits consume their lives and their futures. My heart aches for the millions of parents who will suffer countless years being brokenhearted over the drug abuse problems of a child who believed society's lax attitude toward the drug suggested that it was safe."
Duke added, "I recognize that there appear to be some legitimate uses for marijuana, like with appetite enhancement and glaucoma treatment. But the proponents of medical marijuana want it available for a much wider range of uses, many of which the drug is only minimally useful at treating. This does not deter them, however. Without qualified medical data or any rigorous studies about the negative effects of marijuana on users, they are determined to play on the sympathies of voters to gain their prize.
"Those who see the bleak future that will follow on the heels of medical marijuana must redouble their efforts to prevent this misguided attempt to bring marijuana into the mainstream of American life."
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. For information on the campaign to defeat Arizona Prop 203, visit http://keepazdrugfree.com. For information on the campaign to defeat South Dakota Initiated Measure 13, visit www.vote-no-initiative-13.com.