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Medical marijuana is legal in 14 states. Advocates would like to expand that, or just legalize pot entirely. At the same time, judges, lawyers and therapists who work in drug courts say the criminal justice system has helped addicts to turn their lives around.
The National Association of Drug Court Professionals recently finished their annual meeting in Boston. And for our series The New Marijuana, NPR's Ina Jaffe asked some of them how changing attitudes will affect what they do.
INA JAFFE: With all the talk about medical marijuana, it's important to remember that the vast majority of states still don't allow it. But the fact that in a big state like California you can get a doctor's recommendation for marijuana for anything from cancer to a bad mood, that's changed the attitude toward pot everywhere - so says Rose Ewing, a program director of drug courts in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She says it's made it harder to help some of her clients.
Ms. ROSE EWING (Program Director for Drug Courts, Tulsa, Oklahoma): They're like, if we lived in another state, we would be able to use this medically for different conditions, because often they really don't consider it a bad drug or a hard-core drug. They really feel that it's almost in a different class of drugs.
JAFFE: Drug courts like Ewing's work on a carrot-and-stick approach. Defendants get therapy and regular drug testing, and their progress is monitored by a judge. The success rate is high, but the defendants who fail to clean up their acts can go to jail. Yet even with so much at stake, it can be hard to convince marijuana users that they have a problem if few people around them see it that way, says Andrew Cummings, director of the drug court in DeKalb County, Georgia.
Mr. ANDREW CUMMINGS (Drug Court Director, DeKalb County, Georgia): It becomes an issue similar to alcohol, where the community's attitude toward marijuana becomes increasingly permissive, and therefore it's more difficult for the participants to see it as a problem, and to see it as a treatable problem.
JAFFE: These days, it's difficult for a lot of people to see marijuana as a problem, even if they've never touched the stuff, says Judge John Creuzot of Dallas, Texas. He's presided over drug courts and regular felony courts.
Judge JOHN CREUZOT (Dallas, Texas): And when we get into guilt, innocence and punishment, you see a lot of pushback, especially on marijuana, with the citizens who don't think it should be a felony offense, and if so, it's very difficult to get them to commit to the fact of sending someone to the penitentiary for possession of marijuana.
JAFFE: And when you say citizens, you mean the jury?
Judge CREUZOT: Yes, because in Texas, juries can assess punishment in felony cases.
JAFFE: Creuzot thinks that the citizens that don't seem to care much about marijuana might become positively enthusiastic if California voters approve a measure on the November ballot to legalize and tax it.
Judge CREUZOT: When a state like California, a big state, moves in that direction - let's say that becomes the law. I mean, if taxes can be raised and collected, if crime doesn't rise or doesn't change any, if jails are less populated, everybody else is going to look at it and see.
JAFFE: Oh, don't even think about it, says Gil Kerlikowske. He's the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy - aka, the drug czar.
Mr. GIL KERLIKOWSKE (Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy): Legalization is a nonstarter.
JAFFE: Kerlikowske addressed the drug courts meeting, then stuck around for an interview. He doesn't buy any of the arguments in favor of legalizing pot.
Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: That it will reduce violence, the fact that police then can be involved in working on other crimes and that tax dollars can be raised - none of that really holds up under any scrutiny.
JAFFE: In the case of medical marijuana, the Obama administration has told federal prosecutors not to go after dispensaries that are in compliance with local and state laws. But Kerlikowske says that's just a matter of allocating scarce resources. Medical marijuana, he says, is not only still illegal, it may not really be medical, either.
Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Medical marijuana is still one of those questions that science should decide, and not popular vote.
JAFFE: But voters aren't always inclined to wait for science's stamp of approval on something that seems within their grasp, and drug court director Andrew Cummings worries about what might happen if marijuana use continues to become more acceptable.
Mr. CUMMINGS: People often think about marijuana - and understandably so - as, you know, one might think about having a drink at the end of the day and relaxing, but it doesn't stop there for a lot of people. And as the potency increases, the likelihood of dependency increases. And it doesn't become something that we're using at the end of the day. It's something that we're using throughout the day.
JAFFE: And Cummings wonders how those people would be able to find help if abusing marijuana no longer forced them to come to court.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.