- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2014

DENVER — If you’re an advocate of legalized marijuana, this is not the kind of celebrity endorsement you’re looking for.

Pop star Justin Bieber’s latest arrest while high on pot came at an awkward time for those pushing for further liberalization of the nation’s pot laws, and Mr. Bieber wasn’t the only one generating negative ink.

A series of high-profile news stories, starting with Mr. Bieber’s admission that he smoked pot all day before he was arrested for drag racing in Miami, have put a big-time damper on the legalization movement’s otherwise sky-high vibe, which had a number of unprecedented political and cultural triumphs in recent months.

Police reported this week that Maryland mall gunman Darion Aguilar mentioned in his journal that he used marijuana. In Colorado, a driver high on pot made national headlines after crashing into two state trooper vehicles, and a 2-year-old was rushed to an emergency room after finding and eating a cookie laced with marijuana.

The spate of weed-related incidents has given ammunition to marijuana opponents, who say such episodes are likely to increase as pot becomes more widely accepted in the wake of successful legalization measures in Colorado and Washington.

“This is exactly what many of us have feared,” said Kevin Sabet, former White House drug policy adviser and director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “It’s why most major medical associations are against [legalization] because we know with more acceptance comes more use, and with more use comes more problems.”

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. got an earful when he testified before a Senate oversight hearing this week. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and former state attorney general, sharply criticized comments by President Obama in a recent New Yorker profile about pot use, which Mr. Obama has admitted he did frequently in his youth.

Mr. Obama left the anti-pot resistance dismayed when he told the magazine that he considered marijuana to be no more harmful than alcohol. He called marijuana smoking a “bad habit and a vice,” and “not very different from cigarettes.”

“I invested a huge amount of my time to break the use of drug use in our country — to make clear drug use isn’t socially acceptable and children shouldn’t be using it and it’s wrong,” Mr. Sessions said. “I’m heartbroken at what the president said. It’s shocking to me.”

But Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he doubts the bad publicity from a few incidents will slow the legalization movement’s momentum.

“I don’t think any of those things are going to be blamed by most Americans on marijuana,” said Mr. Tvert. “I don’t think Americans are going to base their decisions on an individual doing something stupid.”

Although the Bieber arrest has drawn huge media attention, Mr. Tvert said, people have become accustomed to the specter of celebrities acting out.

“We hear of celebrities doing absurd things all the time when they’re drunk, and people don’t want to go back to alcohol prohibition,” Mr. Tvert said.

The legalization movement scored another big win this month when the New Hampshire House became the first legislative body in U.S. history to vote to allow recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older.

Advocates are moving to place a retail marijuana measure on the Alaska ballot in August, and Oregon voters could consider the issue in November.

Mr. Obama’s remarks about pot use contradict the message from the president’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, who told USA Today this month that teenagers “are getting the wrong message from the medical marijuana and legalization campaigns.”

“If it’s continued to be talked about as a benign substance that has no ill effects, we’re doing a great disservice to young people by giving them that message,” Mr. Kerlikowske said.

Although polls show support for legalization has never been higher, Mr. Sabet said Colorado’s opening of retail pot shops Jan. 1 has increased opposition among opinion leaders for putting the brakes on recreational use of marijuana.

“It’s one thing to say you’re against prohibition, but it’s a very different thing when that pot shop opens up in your neighborhood,” said Mr. Sabet. “Our organization has never seen more letters of support since Colorado began legalization on Jan. 1.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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