In this Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 file photo, medical marijuana is packaged for sale in 1-gram packages at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary, in Seattle.

The patient and persistent drug culture in this country must be filled with fans of Alexander Pope. In his "An Essay on Man," Pope famously referred to vice as a "monster of so frightful mien" that, "as, to be hated, needs but to be seen."

He then provided a formula the illicit drug culture has used as a blueprint for success. "Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, we first endure, then pity, then embrace."

Way back in 1996, voters in California and Arizona first approved the idea of making it legal to smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes only. Critics tried to argue that the real aim was to pave the way for a full legalization of the drug for any purpose at all.

They were drowned out by calls to help AIDS victims who, it was said, needed the drug to alleviate pain that could be treated no other way.

The New York Times quoted the president of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, James E. Copple, saying that was "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

"They're using the AIDS victims and terminally ill as props to promote the use of marijuana," he said, "It's a brilliant diversionary tactic."

Well, the disguise is now off, but, according to plan, too many Americans now see the wolf as a sheep.

A majority of voters in Colorado and Washington state decided Tuesday to legalize marijuana for recreational use. If medicinal marijuana established a beachhead, this was a major incursion by the invasion force.

Supporters called it a first step toward ending what they call "prohibition" nationwide.

That's important and strategic rhetoric. Linking the effort to a period of history generally thought to have been a huge failure — the brief constitutional prohibition of alcohol sales — is another tactic to gain hearts and minds.

Despite the victory in two states, legal marijuana still has many Americans divided. A similar measure failed in Oregon. Voters in Arkansas defeated a measure to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes, while Massachusetts approved such a law. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia already allow consumption under limited circumstances.

This comes at a time when legislatures nationwide are looking for ways to outlaw new creative forays into the hallucinogenic arts, from the use of Spice, which contains a synthetic form of the chemical that makes marijuana potent, to Ivory Wave, mephedrone tablets and, believe it or not, the smoking or excess consumption of nutmeg.

The tugs and pulls in different directions send strange, mixed messages to the nation's youth.

Since the beginning of time, people have sought ways to alter their minds through stimulants. Generally, governments have recognized a need to control and discourage this for the protection and well being of society at large. People who aren't in their right minds tend to do things that, quite simply, aren't right.

Although regulated, alcohol has gotten a pass because of its historical acceptance in society and because it can be consumed in responsible ways. But there can be no denying it is the source of a host of societal ills. Expanding the list of legal mind-altering substances makes no sense.

As Charles Stimson wrote recently for the Heritage Foundation, the oft-cited claim that legalizing marijuana would stop drug-related crime and sap the strength of cartels and gangs has no basis in fact. Legalization will increase demand, which likely will be met in part by cartels and underground markets offering versions more potent than the government allows.

Meanwhile, the stories of those whose lives are ruined by marijuana, like the facts about its harmful effects on respiratory health, the heart and cognitive abilities, tend to be downplayed or ignored.

Voters in Washington and Colorado haven't had the last word on this issue. Marijuana use still violates federal law, and a states' rights showdown is looming.

But it's instructive to see how attitudes have shifted toward this frightful monster in less than 20 years. As with gambling as some other ills that obviously harm the general welfare, Utah may one day find itself a lonely outpost in the drug war, as well — the only state willing to see the drug for what it is.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at [email protected]. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.