Steve Chapman

In 1996, as California voters considered whether to make theirs the first state to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, they were warned that they were on the verge of creating a grim wasteland from which they might never escape.

Brad Gates, sheriff of Orange County and head of a group opposing the ballot measure, called it an "irresponsible" change that would unleash uncontrollable drug use and produce a "nightmare for law enforcement." President Bill Clinton opposed it, and his drug czar called it a "cruel hoax." But the measure won anyway.

That was 17 years ago, and today, it's clear that the critics were under the influence of some hallucinogenic substance. As a way of destroying the California way of life, Proposition 215 has been a bust.

In one respect, the opponents were right: The program is so lenient that getting medical marijuana is easy for anyone claiming a medical need, from chronic pain to insomnia to anxiety. A CNN reporter said it took him 20 minutes to get the required card and recommendation from a doctor, with no physical exam. Some physicians advertise their willingness to certify patients for cannabis.

So the effect is pretty close to legalizing pot for all adults who want it. But the apparent consequences of this outwardly drastic change amount to a non-event.

As The New York Times reported Sunday, "Warnings voiced against partial legalization -- of civic disorder, increased lawlessness and a drastic rise in other drug use -- have proved unfounded." By now, there's a stack of research indicating that allowing therapeutic use of cannabis has had no notable ill effects.

One fear was that the law would encourage kids to smoke weed by suggesting it's not dangerous. But a study of California and other states by D. Mark Anderson of Montana State University, Benjamin Hansen of the University of Oregon and Daniel Rees of the University of Colorado Denver reached the conclusion that "the legalization of medical marijuana was not accompanied by increases in the use of marijuana or other substances such as alcohol and cocaine among high school students. Interestingly, several of our estimates suggest that marijuana use actually declined."

Another risk was that the state would be overrun with stoned motorists weaving randomly down the highways, wreaking death and destruction. But the same scholars, in a separate investigation of medical marijuana states, detected just the opposite effect: a reduction in overall traffic fatalities of at least 8 percent in the first year.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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