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Marijuana Still Divides California

Despite renewed efforts to shut down the nation's most famous medicinal marijuana club, a gold stenciled pot leaf remains boldly emblazoned across its store front faade and traffic is as brisk as ever.

Upstairs, patrons with a physicians' recommendation buy various grades of marijuana cigarettes, or baked goods, and consume them in a setting that's more like a disco than a doctor's office.

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The mood is relaxed and confident, seasoned by months of legal challenge that show no sign of letting up. Last week, a California bid to close the club immediately was denied, but a full hearing is slated for June.

As inconclusive as the cat-and-mouse game has been, many experts say the battle made a definitive point: America remains unable to have an adult conversation about marijuana.

"Marijuana sits on the San Andreas fault of contemporary American culture," says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington. "It represents conflict between parents and children, the establishment versus the anti-establishment, Democrats and Republicans and traditional values as opposed to the values of the 1960s." All of that has prevented development of a coherent policy, he says.

It's been 18 months since California voters nudged the door open to easier marijuana use, a move that has spawned well-financed efforts to do the same in several other states. Yet questions about marijuana's medical role and whether an expansion of such usage would worsen the nation's overall drug problem, particularly among teens, remain more in the realm of partisan polemics than in rational consideration, say some analysts.

Instead, what the public sees is a protracted, costly public fight between pot clubs and government that is more about scoring points than clarifying issues, says Mark Kleiman, a drug-policy expert at the University of California at Los Angeles. He criticizes pot clubs like the one in San Francisco for goading government into action with activity not sanctioned by the California initiative. He's just as harsh on state and federal authorities, who he says have misrepresented marijuana's medical value and discouraged research that might provide some facts.

Public opinion and government policy seem somewhat at odds. While 75 percent of Americans oppose legalization of marijuana for personal use, nearly 70 percent say it should be permissible for medical purposes.

Voter sanction

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In 1996, 56 percent of Californians voted to allow possession and cultivation of marijuana for medical uses. That same year, 65 percent Arizona voters passed an even broader measure, though it was later overturned by the state legislature.

But the Clinton administration and others know that pot is the most commonly used illegal drug in the US, and they are concerned that anything that eases its availability to any segment of the population will encourage broader use.

Not long after those 1996 votes, White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey said the nation's antidrug strategy "could be undone by these imprudent, unscientific, and flawed initiatives."

That anxiety has not abated. The US Justice Department has filed charges against six California marijuana clubs, including the one in San Francisco, for violating federal law. Of the dozen or so pot-club organizations operating around the state, nearly half face some sort of city, state, or federal legal challenge. Citing legal challenges, the director of the pot club in San Jose, Calif., has announced it will close Friday.

Despite the legal hassles, the national movement to expand medicinal marijuana use is stronger and more active than ever. The Los Angeles-based Americans for Medical Rights, which grew out of the California effort, has qualified a marijuana proposition for the November ballot in Alaska and is gathering signatures for ballot initiatives in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and the District of Columbia. A spokesman says the group can finance a $2 million campaign in each state.

Under federal law, marijuana is a strictly controlled substance unavailable even for medical use. Still, a number of states and the US government have found ways to make it available, often under the auspices of research, to patients with certain conditions. But such availability has virtually dried up since 1991, when a key federal program was terminated.

Wrong message to teens?

Government concern about marijuana use heightened in the early 1990s, when statistics showed teen use was rising. That, say many analysts, created a highly charged political atmosphere that has colored all discussions about marijuana.

The National Institutes of Health convened a panel of experts last year, which concluded that "critical questions about the therapeutic usefulness of marijuana remain largely unanswered." Many experts say there is no doubt pot has medicinal value, but agree more study is needed - study they say the federal government has inhibited by making marijuana unavailable to researchers.

Medical value aside, groups like Partnership for a Drug Free America worry California-style liberalization has "the potential to drastically erode social norms that keep children away from drugs."

Many experts say there are no facts to support the notion that medicinal use leaks out to broader social acceptability and use. They note, for instance, that teen marijuana use was declining in the years when pot's use in medical research was most active. As Mr. Kleiman puts it, availability of marijuana is so widespread, "the issue of leakage is irrelevant because there is already a flood."

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