NASHVILLE, TN -- Supporters of marijuana gained traction in New Jersey, California, Washington and Nevada in recent days through legislative victories and petitions to legalize the drug.
Barrett Duke, a public policy expert with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, warned that efforts to legalize marijuana are the next steps in the plan that began with the medical marijuana movement.
Medical marijuana is "the Trojan horse of the marijuana legalization movement," said Duke, the ERLC's vice president for public policy. "It should not come as a surprise that the three states making serious headway toward legalizing the recreational use of marijuana [California, Washington and Nevada] currently permit the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
"Having weakened the resistance of the residents of these states through the acceptance of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the legalization movement is taking them to the next step in their plan," Duke said.
In New Jersey Jan. 18, Gov. Jon Corzine signed a bill making that state the 14th to legalize medical marijuana before turning the governor's office over to a Republican the next day.
New Jersey's state assembly voted 48-14 and the senate voted 25-13 Jan. 11 to approve marijuana for medical use. The law allows doctors to give patients with state-issued identification cards prescriptions to buy marijuana legally from registered alternative treatment centers. Supporters say only patients with debilitating conditions will qualify for the ID cards, which will be issued by the Department of Health and Senior Services.
"Out of the 14 states that have similar bills, New Jersey's will be the strictest," Reed Gusciora, one of the bill's sponsors in the assembly, told CNN. "I believe that this bill will model legislation for states here on out that will look to legalizing marijuana. We looked at the pitfalls of California and made a more restrictive bill."
Under the measure, marijuana use in New Jersey will be restricted to private property, and people smoking the drug in public can be arrested. Patients with prescriptions also can be arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana.
Gusciora said it could take six to nine months to implement the new legislation.
In California Jan. 12, the state assembly's public safety committee passed legislation that would tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, marking the first time in U.S. history a state legislature has even considered a proposal to legalize, tax and regulate the drug.
"This vote marks the formal beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in the United States," Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a marijuana legalization group, told the Los Angeles Times.
Though the bill missed a legislative deadline for reaching the assembly floor, The Sacramento Bee said the "political theater" that won the 4-3 vote "raises the curtain on a near-certain November ballot fight and heated skirmishes in the legislature over the future of marijuana use in California."
California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in 1996, and now the owner of an Oakland medical marijuana dispensary has spent more than $1 million toward qualifying an initiative to allow all residents over age 21 to possess, cultivate or transport marijuana for personal use, The Bee said. Supporters have gathered 670,000 signatures for the initiative and will hand in petitions to the secretary of state Jan. 20, the newspaper added.
Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the committee that passed the legislation, can introduce a new version of the bill after Jan. 23, but The Bee said he is considering waiting to see whether voters approve the ballot measure to legalize marijuana, at which time he would introduce a bill addressing implementation.
In Washington state, five activists filed a ballot initiative Jan. 11 to legalize all adult marijuana possession as well as manufacturing and sales of the drug in what the Associated Press called "one of the most sweeping efforts at marijuana reform playing out around the country this year."
The initiative's sponsors include two Seattle attorneys and the director of the city's annual Hempfest, calling themselves Sensible Washington. In a time of budget stress, they said, the state should stop using money to prosecute marijuana users. Supporters must collect 241,000 signatures by July to place the initiative on the November ballot in Washington.
Meanwhile, two bills have been introduced in the Washington legislature to address marijuana use. One would legalize the drug for those 21 and older and regulate it like alcohol, while the other would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, reclassifying it as a civil infraction with a $100 fine.
In Nevada, a group called Nevadans for Sensible Marijuana Laws filed an initiative with the secretary of state Jan. 7 calling for the establishment of a taxed and regulated marijuana market in Nevada. Adults age 21 and over would be allowed to possess up to one ounce of the drug and would be able to purchase it from approximately 120 retail stores throughout the state.
Supporters say the new system would make it more difficult for minors to purchase marijuana because it would be sold in stores where they would have to present proof of age, and they claim it would generate tax revenue for the state.
"Most importantly, a legal marijuana market would provide adults with a safer recreational alternative to alcohol," said Dave Schwartz, campaign manager for Nevadans for Sensible Marijuana Laws. "It is objectively true that alcohol is more addictive, more toxic and more likely to produce aggressive and violent behavior than marijuana.
"Adults who understand these truths and choose to use marijuana instead of alcohol should not be punished," Schwartz said. "The system we propose would eliminate penalties for adult marijuana users and would provide them with safe access to their recreational substance of choice."
The group must collect 97,000 signatures by November in order for the state legislature to examine the issue in 2011. If lawmakers don't approve the measure first, it would then be presented to voters on the 2012 ballot.
California, Washington and Nevada are among the 14 states that have legalized medical marijuana since 1996, along with Alaska, Oregon, Maine, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Michigan and New Jersey.
Duke, of the ERLC, said states with medical marijuana laws should watch closely what is happening in California, Washington and Nevada and expect to be next.
"This list now includes New Jersey," he said. "Tragically, that state's lawmakers just joined the list of states that have brought the Trojan horse inside their walls. Fortunately, the lawmakers in New Jersey learned something from the free-for-all California created with its lax medical marijuana laws.
"Tightening regulations on marijuana's availability will help the state control some of the problems California created for itself, but ultimately these are just window dressing," Duke told Baptist Press. "The marijuana legalization movement is still getting what it wants -- public acceptance of marijuana use. Regulation of recreational use is next."
Duke hopes the citizens of California, Nevada, Washington and other states where such efforts may surface will see through the smoke screen created by medical marijuana and reject initiatives that will overwhelm their states with the problems associated with rampant drug abuse.
"It can be hoped as well that those states that have not started down this road will understand the lesson of California, Washington and Nevada," Duke said. "Medical marijuana is the gateway to the legalization of recreational marijuana. California, Washington and Nevada are proof."