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The year 2013 marked the 80th anniversary of the end of alcohol prohibition in the United States, now seen as a failed experiment in social engineering. The year might also go down in history as the beginning of the end of the prohibition on marijuana. For the first time in four decades, polls this year showed a majority in favor of legalizing marijuana and treating it like alcohol and tobacco.

That longtime goal of drug reform advocates will become reality in 2014 in Colorado and Washington, which last year became the first states in the country to approve the recreational — rather than just medical — use of marijuana. After ballot initiatives approving the measure, state government officials were given a year to work out a legal market for marijuana regulated by the state. Licensed dispensaries are scheduled to start selling the drug in Colorado in January and in Washington next spring. 

What is happening in the two states highlights the bizarre nature of American drug policy. Under federal law, growing and selling marijuana is banned. A 1970 law, the Controlled Substances Act, lists marijuana as one of four most dangerous drugs, alongside heroin, that have "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use."

Strictly speaking, the licenses issued in Washington and Colorado are therefore licenses to commit a crime. But the Justice Department announced in September it would allow the state regulations to go into effect as long as they did not violate a newly-issued list of federal priorities. They include distribution of marijuana to minors, diversion of the drug to other states, drugged driving, and allowing revenues to flow to criminal enterprises.

Drug policy reformers see the federal government's decision to let states go ahead as a clear sign that national prohibition is on the way out. In the words of Mark Kleiman, one of the country's leading drug policy analysts, "we are in 1928." This is a reference to the final stage of alcohol prohibition, when a poll showed 74 percent of voters rejected it. Politicians took notice: Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1932 elections on a platform to repeal prohibition. It ended four months after his victory.

Whether the country now is five years away from the end of prohibition, as it was in 1928, remains to be seen. As Colorado and Washington prepare for over-the-counter sales, a number of questions remain unanswered. For the initiatives to work out smoothly, the devil is in the details. Legal marijuana, at least initially, will compete with the existing illegal market. A large group of consumers — those under 21 — will be barred from legal marijuana under the state laws. Does this ensure continued profits for the black market?

The question merits reflection, particularly in view of a new report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that shows the percentage of high school students using marijuana is rising while the use of alcohol and other drugs is falling. Will adults who believe marijuana to be less harmful than alcohol and other drugs — a view backed by a good number of medical studies — pass on the marijuana they can legally buy to their teenagers?

Another question yet to be answered: How do you prevent legal marijuana to be diverted to a neighboring state? With tougher law enforcement?

There are unsolved problems on the business end of legalized marijuana, too, among them federal regulations that have prompted banks to refuse opening accounts for owners of dispensaries, growers and dealers in drug paraphernalia. The words "drug" and "money" in the same sentence triggers alarm bells in the mind of bankers. The National Cannabis Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group formed in 2010, calls this a "banking crisis for state-legal marijuana businesses." Denied access to basic banking services, the association says, many legal businesses are forced to manage sales, payroll, and even tax bills in cash. The risks are obvious and they apply to new recreational marijuana ventures in Colorado and Washington as well as the medical marijuana businesses in 20 states and the District of Columbia. 

Banking difficulties were among the topics discussed in November at a gathering that would have been unthinkable a few years ago — a National Marijuana Business Conference near Seattle with 700 attendants who paid $699 each to hear lectures on best business practices and exchange tips on how to cope with bureaucratic hurdles that stand in the way of good profit margins. The conference was sponsored by the Medical Marijuana Business Daily, a Denver-based publication launched in 2011.

The emergence of a trade group and a business publication speaks volumes about the march towards respectability of a drug once labeled, in government propaganda films, the "devil's weed" that caused "reefer madness."

Bernd Debusmann

Bernd Debusmann has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the U.S.

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