ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR NEWS, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today is April 20th, 4-20, the nation's underground Marijuana Observance Day. Around the country, people are gathering in groups large and small, mostly in private, but some in public to extol the virtues of marijuana, or perhaps just to smoke a little bit of pot. We're hearing more talk about legalizing marijuana and not just from those who are lighting up.

SIEGEL: In Mexico, the Congress debated legalizing cannabis as a way to undermine drug cartel income. In this country, some states have bills proposing decriminalization or at least de-prioritizing enforcement. There are occasional newspaper columns along those lines as well. And when President Obama held his online town hall last month, interested parties swamped the event with the question: Why not legalize pot as a way to help the economy?

Well, today, we're going to consider what the United States might be like if cannabis were fully legal, not just decriminalized, not just approved for medical use, but treated in the eyes of the law like alcohol.

NPR's John Burnett joins us now.

And, John, I want you to explain what we're going to hear, because it's quite unusual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN BURNETT: Robert, we're creating a hypothetical world in which marijuana has been legal for two years. Just imagine that an ounce of cannabis is treated in the eyes of law like a bottle of Scotch.

SIEGEL: Again, this is entirely make-believe. Yes?

BURNETT: Right. It's a scenario. It's an exercise. But everyone that you're going to hear in the piece is real and most are experts on this topic. Our simulation is simply an attempt to get people to think a bit more deeply and perhaps more skeptically about this idea.

SIEGEL: Well, with the obligatory warning against any "War of the Worlds" hysteria, the following is imaginary. Here goes.

BURNETT: Many people remember where they were two years ago when they heard the news.

CARL KASELL: After 70 years of prohibition, marijuana becomes legal today for personal consumption throughout the United States for persons 21 and older.

BURNETT: Cannabis finally came out of the closet. It was fully legal to possess, sell and cultivate. The government would tax it and regulate it just like alcohol.

KASELL: The news was met with concern by public health authorities, but jubilation by college students in Austin, Texas.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm going to go smoke in front of my parents at my first possible opportunity.

KASELL: Under the new law, cannabis advertising is banned and the drug cannot be sold...

BURNETT: So I'm interviewing Willie Nelson, one of the country's best-known cannabis connoisseurs. How has marijuana legalization changed your life?

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Musician): In various ways, I guess, we don't worry about going to jail anymore for smoking it. A lot of our old friends who dealt it are out of work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NELSON: So you got your pros and your cons.

Unidentified Man #2: That'll be $79.31. Can I see your ID, please?

BURNETT: Austin's oldest head shop, Oat Willie's, has seen a boom in sales of high-end smoking apparatuses, says general manager Doug Brown.

Mr. DOUG BROWN (Owner, Oat Willie's): There's the most popular one. That one's called the Volcano. It's very expensive, but it seems to do the job excellently, and they're hard to get hold of.

BURNETT: Down the street, at the University of Texas, one of the nation's biggest party schools, substance abuse counselor Kevin Prince says he's seen a spike in pot smoking since it became legal, which is troubling to him because national studies show that sustained marijuana use directly affects academic achievement.

Dr. KEVIN PRINCE (Substance Abuse Counselor, University of Texas): One of the main issues is that there's still a mystique when it comes to marijuana use. A lot of people still don't know that marijuana use is addictive. If you're spending more time smoking weed than going to class or going to work, that's a problem.

BURNETT: Not everyone uses it recreationally. The end of cannabis prohibition has been a godsend for another type of user.

MARSHA(ph): My name is Marsha. I'm a medical marijuana user. I have multiple sclerosis.

BURNETT: Sitting in a wheelchair in a friend's backyard, Marsha says she smokes weed to escape from her body.

(Soundbite of bong)

MARSHA: Oh, what a relief it is not to be home alone wondering if this minor league marijuana user, if the cops were gonna come bust me down. It's nice to feel free.

BURNETT: Free at last to smoke marijuana.

Remember, NPR is only pretending pot is legal, but let's explore this alternate reality. With the spiraling drug mayhem in Mexico, some Latin American leaders looked at legalizing marijuana as a way to deny the murderous cartels a portion of their profits. When it was banned, marijuana was the greatest source of income for Mexican traffickers. Now that it's cultivated domestically and sold legally, surely that's crippled the cartels.

Mr. ROBERT ALMONTE (Former Deputy Chief, El Paso Police Department): These are crooks. You're not going to take them out of the criminal activity business. Because drugs are legalized, they're not going to say, well, let's go back to school and get an honest job.

BURNETT: Robert Almonte worked narcotics for 25 years with the El Paso Police Department, just across the river from the ruthless Juarez Cartel.

Mr. ALMONTE: It caused them to improvise. As far as marijuana is concerned, they have been selling it less expensive than what it can sell here for in the United States. But more importantly is we're seeing a more potent marijuana. And with that, we're seeing the result of a more potent marijuana and that's an increase in the emergency room admissions.

BURNETT: A similar observation comes from William Martin, senior fellow for drug policy at Rice University in Houston.

Mr. WILLIAM MARTIN (Senior Fellow, Rice University): Just as after the repeal of prohibition, organized crime got into many other kinds of activities: protection money, control of the laundry business, just a number of things that they did, so the drug cartels are quite flexible. They've diversified into kidnapping, human trafficking, protection, other crimes. And they're still selling cocaine, heroin and meth, which are highly profitable. So unfortunately, it has not hurt them as much as we had hoped.

BURNETT: Supporters of legalization say one of the undeniable benefits has been the reduction in criminal cases that have clogged courts.

Mr. GERRY GOLDSTEIN (Attorney; Former President, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers): I'm Gerry Goldstein. I'm a criminal defense lawyer in San Antonio, Texas, and I used to represent a lot of marijuana smokers and dope dealers.

BURNETT: Goldstein, a nationally prominent dope lawyer, is not collecting as many hourly fees these days, but he believes that's a good thing for the criminal justice system.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Back in the old days, 2006 to 2008, 45 percent of all drug arrests in this country, for the most part, were marijuana offenses. That's a staggering waste of resources of our law enforcement.

BURNETT: Since marijuana became legal, growers around the country, licit and formerly illicit, have scrambled to put cannabis sativa seeds into the ground.

Mr. LARRY BUTLER (Owner, Boggy Creek Farm): My name is Larry Butler, and I run Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre certified organic urban farm in the middle of Austin, Texas. Marijuana crop's been going really good. It's a real easy crop to grow. We've been growing it for two years now.

BURNETT: His wife, Carol, has been somewhat disappointed at their newest cash crop.

Ms. CAROL BUTLER: The retailer takes a big hit off the bong, so to speak, and then the government comes in with their taxes. So what's left for the farmers? Stems and seeds is about all that's left.

BURNETT: A lot of people think this taxation of marijuana will create a windfall for government croppers.

Mr. JEFFREY MIRON (Economist, Harvard University): There's probably been some disappointments. I hope that people have focused on all the other aspects besides the revenue aspects.

BURNETT: Jeffrey Miron is a Harvard economist who has studied and written about the economics of the marijuana market. Miron figures state and federal taxes on cannabis sales adds up to $6.7 billion annually. And he calculates the savings from not having to enforce state and federal marijuana laws, in arrests, prosecution and incarceration, at $12.9 billion a year. Excluding additional expenses, such as the public health cost of marijuana, or the cost of administering the new law, Miron figures that legal pot creates almost a $20 billion bonus.

Mr. MIRON: But compared to the size of most federal government agencies, compared to the tax revenue from things like alcohol and tobacco, and certainly compared to the size of deficits that we have, this is just not a major issue, it is not a panacea, it is not curing any of our significant ills. There may be good reasons to do it, but the budgetary part is not a crucial reason to do it.

BURNETT: As NPR imagines a fictitious world in which marijuana is lawful to use, would the United States become a nation of potheads?

The Dutch experiment offers an interesting case study. After marijuana was decriminalized in 1976, pot smoking did not jump in Holland and it remained well below U.S. levels. But it rose sharply after coffee shops opened in the 1980s and began openly selling cannabis. Americans already have a huge appetite for drugs. We're the largest illegal narcotics market in the world. Half of all American high school seniors have used pot.

Drug policy analysts interviewed for this report believe now that marijuana is legal and socially acceptable in United States, there are more people smoking it, and some of them are kids.

Ms. ROSALIE PACULA (Co-director, Drug Policy Research Center, RAND Corporation): They'll start using it sooner now because it looks like it's more okay. It seems less harmful because they see their parents doing it.

BURNETT: Rosalie Pacula is co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corporation.

Ms. PACULA: Do we know how to keep kids from drinking alcohol? No, we don't. So why would we expect that we would be any better at it with marijuana?

BURNETT: And the reason we should care is because of the effect that marijuana can have on the development of adolescent brains, says Dr. Vicki Nejtek, a psychiatrist who works with drug abuse at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

Dr. VICKI NEJTEK (Psychiatrist, Psychology Associate Professor, University of North Texas Health Science Center): We know that marijuana use and chronic use, as it is now, in an adolescent population can cause extreme developmental delay. It can cause memory loss. It reduces our ability to concentrate and a reduction in brain cell activity.

BURNETT: In 2007, about 14.5 million Americans ages 12 or older admitted to survey takers that they used pot in the past month. Rice University's Bill Martin, who studies drug use, believes now that it's legal, about a third more people are using marijuana, maybe 19 million Americans. Martin believes that legal pot, which is an intoxicant, has been good for society but bad for young people.

Mr. MARTIN: I have nine grandchildren. I would prefer that none of them use marijuana to any significant extent. I have seen students, I've seen friends become less interesting.

BURNETT: Our scenario has been a fantasy. Most states are still fighting over medical marijuana much less seriously considering legalization. President Obama is on the record opposing legalizing pot as a way to grow the economy.

Whether legal cannabis would cause an outbreak of reefer madness or make people just mellow out makes for an interesting parlor game, but it's only a pipe dream.

SIEGEL: Thanks. That's NPR's John Burnett. Thank you, John, for that imaginary report. And you've imagined that pot would be as legal as a bottle of scotch. You did leave out the equivalent of the big distillers, say the big tobacco company that might get in on the action.

BURNETT: That's right, Robert. We tried to touch on a few of the main issues that legalization would raise. There really isn't time to look into them all, and the question you raise is an interesting one.

If it were commercialized, would big tobacco jump into the market? Further, what happens to the black market? Does it persist or go away? This is a huge issue, and there are lots and lots of questions.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks again, John.

And once again, to all of our listeners, that report by John Burnett was about the imaginary news that pot has been legalized in the United States, and I expect we'll hear from our listeners quite a bit on that.

As always, you can go to npr.org and click on Contact Us. In this case, put marijuana in the subject line, and we'll read some of your comments on the program.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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