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Lobbyist For Legal Marijuana In Michigan Doesn'T Use It


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It may seem odd that one of the top national advocates for the legalization of marijuana is a young lawyer who doesn't like the drug.


Karen O'Keefe, 33, said she tried pot a few times as an undergraduate at Michigan State University but that "it just made me feel stupid and want to go to sleep."


Still, O'Keefe -- who grew up in Grosse Pointe Farms and graduated from Grosse Pointe South High School -- is adamant that Michigan and the nation should "treat marijuana like alcohol -- regulate it and tax it."


Some people are "surprised, and don't see why it's an issue I'd work on. But more and more people realize that there are a lot of reasons to change the policies" other than wanting it for personal use, she said.


"I've been involved with a number of social justice issues over the years -- opposing torture, opposing the death penalty, opposing wars that I thought were unjust. And this is another situation like those."


Keeping the drug illegal, she said, is "a bad policy because it causes a huge amount of suffering without actually achieving a positive purpose."


O'Keefe is director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., though she works from an office in West Hollywood, Calif. Her new hometown is "extremely marijuana-friendly and very well-regulated," with seven licensed dispensaries selling pot, she said.


In 2006, the West Hollywood City Council passed a resolution directing police to make marijuana possession their lowest priority, "similar to what passed recently in Kalamazoo," she said about the enforcement ordinance voters approved in November.


She has close at hand data from countless studies, including a recent Harvard study that estimated the combined cost of enforcing marijuana laws in the U.S. and the loss of possible tax revenues to be more than $20 billion.


She also has the University of Michigan's latest data from its long-term "Monitoring the Futures" study of youth drug use. It shows marijuana use among teens is on the rise -- a finding that opponents of legalization say portends ominous results if the drug is legalized.


"At present, 1 in 15 high school seniors is a daily or near daily user of marijuana," said Lloyd Johnston, principal investigator at U-M for the study. Teens' perception of the risk of using pot declined in the past five years, tempting more of them to use it, Johnston said.


The same study showed that 80% of 12th-graders surveyed across the nation said marijuana was "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get. O'Keefe said legalizing it would allow for regulation and more parental oversight, as with alcohol, instead of the current dangers of the illegal marketplace.


"Right now, the situation with marijuana is just like it was in the days of alcohol prohibition," she said. "Back then, you had people getting killed -- sometimes by law enforcement, sometimes killing law enforcement and sometimes killing each other -- over alcohol.


"Now, people don't go robbing each other's houses and shooting them for alcohol. But they used to."



Edited by bobandtorey
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