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Looking ahead to U.S. marijuana legalization

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Marijuana
A man touches marijuana leaves at a farm near Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on Oct. 3, 2012.
RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

In Washington and Colorado this month, voters signified that marijuana legalization is no longer a fringe issue. Both states legalized recreational use of marijuana and paved the way towards legalization for non-medical use in other states. 

Beau Kilmer, co-director and senior policy researcher at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, said the votes were revolutionary.

"Up until Nov. 6, no modern jurisdiction in the world had removed the prohibition on commercial production, distribution and possession of marijuana for non-medical purposes," he said on The Daily Circuit Wednesday.

While many people think marijuana is legal in the Netherlands, it's actually more complicated there than what we'll see in the two states.

"A lot of people think that marijuana was legalized in Holland, but it turns out that's not the case," he said. "Yes, if you're over 18 you can walk into one of those coffee shops in Amsterdam and buy up to five grams, which is the equivalent of about 10 joints, because they have a formal policy of not enforcing the law against small transactions."

Kilmer said it's still illegal to grow, produce and sell marijuana to these coffee shops.

Tony Dokoupil, senior writer at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, recently wrote about the topic. He also joined the discussion and said marijuana is considered fairly new in terms of being a mainstream drug and opinions of it have changed dramatically since.

"Marijuana's history is 40 years old as a mainstream drug, a drug that people widely use and publicly discuss," he said. "Alcohol goes back to before the founding of the country."

Since marijuana's 1996 legalization for medicinal use in California, 17 states followed suit. 

As Washington and Colorado move forward with crafting the details of marijuana regulation in their state, Kilmer said it will be important to watch how the federal government agencies handle it. Marijuana is still illegal on a federal level.

The debate usually goes to two extremes: federal agencies cracking down on commercial marijuana businesses or sitting back and watching it unfold. The federal involvement will probably be more nuanced, he said.

"They could potentially use their discretion and create priorities as a way of potentially shaping what the markets actually look like in Colorado and Washington," Kilmer said.

A caller in Austin, Minn. said younger generations are starting to have a different outlook on the use of marijuana compared to alcohol and other drugs.

"I am 32 and have been a recreational on-and-off user of marijuana for the better part of my life now," she said. "My experience is that I am less out of control than I have been with drinking alcohol, which is perfectly legal. My experience about the benefits include sort of a self-medicating for anxiety. I would much rather be using something on an as-needed basis that is more-or-less natural as opposed to a prescription pill for anxiety on a daily basis."

Dokoupil said it's important to note that we don't know much about the effects of the marijuana sold today.

"It's hard to get marijuana to do research on," he said. "What research does exist tends to be fairly limited because it's based on marijuana from the 70s or 80s, less potent forms, and the studies aren't as well structured as scientists would like them to be."

Scientists have to have permission from the federal government to obtain marijuana for research, Kilmer said, and there is a lot of research to be done to fully understand the benefits and risks of consuming the drug.

There are more than 60 different cannabinoids found in marijuana and most research focuses on THC, which gets a person high and increases anxiety, he said.

We're just beginning to learn more about the other cannabinoids, including CBD, which some people believe offsets the anxiety and intoxication from THC, Kilmer said.

POLL: Should Minnesota legalize marijuana use?

MPR News' Meggan Ellingboe contributed to this report.