By Dan Bernath

We all know we have a long way to go before we end the government's war on marijuana users, but it's just possible we'll look back on 2008 as one of the major turning points in that difficult, inevitable journey.

 

We're constantly inundated with nonsense, hysteria and outright lies when marijuana is discussed in the public, so it's easy to miss the progress. But if you squint just right, you can see signs that policy, public opinion and the political landscape may slowly be edging toward sanity.

 

Medical marijuana probably gives us the clearest view of changing attitudes. Legislatures in just about every part of the country are taking up bills to protect many of the most vulnerable victims of marijuana prohibition: the sick and dying who use medical marijuana to relieve their suffering.

 

Medical marijuana bills in New York, Minnesota and Illinois all still have varying chances of passing into law this year. Michigan voters, with a medical marijuana initiative on their November ballot, will have a chance to protect their seriously ill citizens from arrest before the year is done as well.

 

Meanwhile, bills to reduce penalties for minor marijuana violations – admittedly humble proposals – made unprecedented headway in Vermont and New Hampshire. In fact, New Hampshire's House defied conventional wisdom and passed the bill 193-141 with bipartisan support in March.

 

Although the bill died in the Senate at the end of April, it took the governor's vocal opposition and a slew of ugly accusations from bill critics that representatives who voted for the legislation were somehow endangering children. And those accusations generated quite a bit of blowback and encouraging moments of sanity as the debate progressed.

 

But a ballot initiative to similarly reduce minor marijuana penalties and protect violators from the threat of a criminal conviction has a much better chance of success in Massachusetts, where voters will decide on the issue themselves in November rather than rely on often-timid politicians.

 

Speaking of politicians, perhaps we'll look back on 2008 as the year when it started to actually be risky for them to avoid the medical marijuana question by simply mumbling some nonsense about lack of adequate research or the impact such laws would have on illicit drug use and crime.

 

In Minnesota in particular, where the governor has threatened to veto the state's medical marijuana bill as long as the law enforcement community opposes it, activists have boldly challenged opponents who rely on misinformation and demonstrably false assertions to make their case on the facts.

 

Those who follow the issue at all know that modern marijuana prohibition history is steeped in lies and hysterical propaganda, but here's what could be new in Minnesota: The press and the public may be starting to notice – and care.

 

Thanks goes in part to medical marijuana opponents in the state, those who claim to represent law enforcement in particular, who have given activists a treasure trove of nonsense to pick apart and publicize.

 

In fact, the Marijuana Policy Project recently released 15 specific false and misleading statements made by Minnesota law enforcement representatives to the Legislature or to the press, with documented refutations, available here: http://www.minnesotacares.org/media/law_enforcement.pdf.

 

Minnesota law enforcement officials themselves, apparently unaccustomed to being challenged to back up the dubious assertions they make, have helped fuel the public debate with their own bluster.

 

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, one of the state's most vocal opponents of the bill, recently complained in an e-mail to Minnesota House members that MPP's accusations were "inflammatory, slanderous and extremely offensive."

 

But rather than address the specific arguments, he instead lashed out at MPP's "true goal" – reforming marijuana policy – saying the organization is "cynically using the suffering and illness of vulnerable persons to further their own agenda of legalizing a dangerous and addictive drug."

 

Backstrom might be offended, but in fact he and his ilk are cynically trying to deny patients access to proven, safe medicine just to win a perceived tactical victory over marijuana policy reformers.

 

Moreover, Minnesota's medical marijuana patients, many of whom have worked tirelessly to pass this bill (and who have called and written MPP on their own, asking how to help and imploring us to get the bill passed ASAP) might be offended that the county attorney believes they're naïve enough to be manipulated by sinister legalizers.

 

Not sure what the relevance is, but Backstorm also mentioned MPP's upcoming fundraising party at the Playboy Mansion. Must have something to do with that culture war thing.

 

But what's encouraging about the debate in Minnesota – and the rest of the country, even places where marijuana policy reform efforts have fallen short recently – is that voters appear less willing to accept the unsubstantiated fear-mongering that marijuana prohibitionists and assorted culture warriors have gotten away with for so long.

 

The movement to reform marijuana laws and end prohibition can only benefit from reasoned debate that values facts over fear. The time may be approaching when politicians who cast their lot with the fear mongers not only find themselves on the wrong side of the debate morally and ethically, but also on the losing side politically.

 

(By the way, shameless plug: Backstrom's at least right about the party at the Playboy Mansion. MPP is holding it June 12, and it should be fun. Click here to buy tickets: http://www.mpp.org/campaigns/events/playboy/)

 

Dan Bernath is the Marijuana Policy Project’s assistant director of communications, www.mpp.org. Email him at dbernath@mpp.org.