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Up in smoke


Legal fights have yet to succeed in the effort to legalize and regulate pot use, but that doesn’t mean the end is nigh.

Tim Farley January 15th, 2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part three of a three-part series about marijuana and its impact on the state.

Without a doubt, the prospect of legalizing marijuana in Oklahoma will draw opponents when a new measure is introduced during the next legislative session in February.

Obvious critics will be law enforcement officials and conservative legislators, but they won’t be alone. Some predict the alcohol and tobacco industries also will join the fight. For decades, they have provided vices of their own to the American consumer.

The prospect that legalized marijuana would cut into tobacco and alcohol profits is a primary reason for these billion-dollar industries to join the battle, said Norma Sapp, president of the Oklahoma chapter for the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML).

“With what we’re seeing in Colorado now, it’s become a competition,” she said.

The fight in Oklahoma will resume when Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Forest Park, pictured) introduces a new measure that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in much the same fashion as Colorado did last year. State estimates project Colorado will bring in $67 million from marijuana taxes and fees during 2014.

In addition, two of Johnson’s marijuana-related bills from the 2013 session still are alive, including SB 710, which would legalize medical marijuana.

SB 914 would decriminalize possession of less than an ounce in any situation.

A hard fight ahead
Johnson acknowledges she is fighting an uphill battle but also confided that she might have an unusual alliance with e-cigarette advocates supporting her upcoming legislative measures.

“Politics makes strange bedfellows, but they indicated they were open to being supportive of medical marijuana. I saw an offer of collaboration, but we’ll have to wait and see if they come through,” the senator said.

“It’s part of the harm-reduction movement where you find something like e-cigarettes to replace a more harmful product like tobacco.”

Johnson is hopeful that an upcoming public hearing on medical marijuana and its benefits for patients will open the hearts and minds of fellow solons.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana.

Last year, a SoonerPoll revealed 71 percent of Oklahomans support medical marijuana and 57 percent favor decriminalization.

Currently, marijuana in any form is illegal in Oklahoma.

The hearing is set for 3:30 p.m.

Feb. 12 in Room 419C at the State Capitol. Contact information for each lawmaker is at oklegislature.gov.

Fight looms
The evolving battle between pro-marijuana advocates and the alcohol and tobacco industries is one that will likely center on safety, death rates and addiction.

“If I were given a choice between the three, I would choose pot,” Sapp said. “It’s safer and less injurious to the body.”

Medical reports and studies support Sapp’s claims.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported alcohol-induced deaths totaled 25,692 in 2010, while there were no marijuana-related fatalities that same year.

Attempts to reach a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States were unsuccessful.

According to CDC statistics, alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., behind poor diet and lack of exercise and tobacco.

Which is less harmful?
Those aren’t the only issues facing the alcohol industry.

According to a report in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, marijuana and alcohol are substitutes rather than complementary substances.

As a result, the report suggested, legalization of recreational marijuana will lead to increased marijuana consumption coupled with decreased alcohol consumption.

That scenario will produce a number of public health benefits, including reduced traffic fatalities, according to report co-author D. Mark Anderson during a November 2013 interview with AlterNet.

Also, a 1999 research paper by the Institute of Medicine, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, concluded, “Indeed, epidemiological data indicate that in the general population marijuana is not associated with increased mortality.”

That knowledge isn’t new. Back in 1988, a U.S. Department of Justice document showed it’s nearly impossible for a person to overdose from smoking pot.

“A smoker would theoretically have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within 15 minutes to induce a lethal response. In practical terms, marijuana cannot induce a lethal response as a result of drug-related toxicity,” the report showed.

Not interested — yet
Based on public statements, the tobacco industry doesn’t consider the fight to legalize marijuana a threat to the industry’s economic survival.

Bill Phelps, spokesman for Altria Group, confirmed the company doesn’t have plans to enter legal marijuana markets.

Altria is the parent company of Philip Morris, the manufacturer of Marlboro, Players, Benson & Hedges and many other popular cigarette brands.

“I can’t speak for the industry or speculate about the future, but right now, we have no plans to sell marijuana-related products,” he said.

 
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