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For everyone who lived through the era of Reefer Madness and the Marlboro Man, these are strange days indeed.

Cigarettes used to be cool. Now, they prompt unfiltered scorn. But the devil's weed? It's high times for that, man.

Who could have predicted that CVS, the nation's largest drug-store chain, will stop selling tobacco products at its stores, including three in Santa Rosa, later this year?

Or that thousands would gather at the Sonoma County Fairgounds in December to smoke weed in full view of the cops for the Emerald Cup cannabis competition?

"Tobacco is on the way out and cannabis is on the way in," said Asa Shaeffer, chief executive officer of the Sonoma County Collective, a home-delivery-only dispensary headquartered in Santa Rosa.

Cigarettes are becoming harder to find and more expensive, while ever-expanding rules restrict where they can be smoked, a trend that began decades ago with bans on planes and widened, in California at least, to take in restaurants, parks and apartment complexes.

In Sonoma County, smoking is outlawed in multi-unit housing in unincorporated areas, as well as on all county-owned property and certain outdoor areas. Several cities have similar restrictions.

But while marijuana remains illegal to most Californians who don't have a prescription for its medical use, Colorado and Washington this year toppled that makeshift legal barrier, allowing the sale of marijuana for recreational use. In California, legalization proponents are gathering signatures for no fewer than five ballot measures in November.

National surveys show the opposing trends clearly: Cigarette smoking has been on one prolonged slide over the past 50 years, while marijuana use is on the rise.

Debate about the shift still is charged in medical circles, with health officials especially concerned over the assumptions made by youth about the supposedly more benign impacts of marijuana.

In other venues, however, the question appears to be settled.

In Sebastopol, the city's newly appointed mayor is the first in the nation with a pot dispensary connection.

Mayor Robert Jacob, executive director of the marijuana dispensary Peace in Medicine, declined an interview this week. But his assistant issued a statement in which Jacob extolled the virtues of marijuana, saying it has not caused a single death in 5,000 years, dating back to the "Chinese medical compendium."

"Not all smoke is created equal," the mayor said.

But critics warn that by dropping a smoke for a toke, the nation is simply switching from one bad habit to another.

"It's a surreal atmosphere," said Michael McCracken, who counsels Sebastopol teenagers about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

It's been apparent for some time, particularly on the North Coast, that tobacco and pot have been staging a role reversal.

Sitting outside an IHOP restaurant on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Greg Pressley, who described himself as homeless, said people view his cigarette habit as "disgusting." But if he lights up a joint?

"That's OK," he said.

His friend, a man who gave his name as Irish, said when he walks in downtown Santa Rosa, he's more apt these days to get a whiff of marijuana smoke than of tobacco.

Hollywood has taken notice of the trend. The cigarette smoking on "Mad Men" is as retro as Don Draper pounding cocktails in between ad meetings.<NO1><NO> A show like "Weeds," on the other hand, may reflect the growing tolerance for marijuana in many parts of the country.

Darcy Fracolli, a journalism student at Santa Rosa Junior College, said her generation has a "very lax attitude toward pot that they don't necessarily share toward (cigarette) smoking because the health effects of smoking are so incredibly worse than smoking weed."

Even President Barack Obama came down on the side of cannabis, confiding last month in a New Yorker article that he smoked pot as a kid and that he views it as being no more dangerous than alcohol.

In 1965, 42 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes. In 2012, that number had fallen to 18 percent, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

Similar trends are seen in American youth. In 1996, 49 percent of eighth-graders said they had tried cigarettes, but by 2013, only 15 percent said they had done so, according to an annual survey of teenagers conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA.

By contrast, nearly 23 percent of high school seniors in 2012 reported having smoked marijuana in the month prior to the survey, with 6.5 percent saying they used it on a daily basis.

"We're failing our students in obscuring the real truth and facts about underage drug use in general, and marijuana use specifically," said McCracken, the Project Success coordinator at Analy High School and student club adviser for the One-4-One program.

He said kids can easily obtain marijuana, often through a friend or family member who has a prescription for it. That's supported by the NIDA study, which found that 34 percent of marijuana-using high school seniors reported getting pot in that manner.

McCracken cited events such as the Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa as confusing kids, some of whom, he said, could become dependent on pot or suffer serious health consequences from using it.

"You have marijuana being billed universally as a healing agent. We are uninformed about that," he said.

But Tim Blake, who co-produced the cannabis competition, which drew an estimated 9,000 people to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds over two days, said the event doesn't promote marijuana smoking in children, except for those who are ill and doing so under their parents' or a doctor's recommendation.

"I have children and grandchildren. I don't want them smoking cannabis or drinking alcohol at an early age," he said.

He said kids always have experimented with drugs and alcohol, and that when it comes to cannabis, the best way of dealing with that reality would be to legalize its use and bring it out in the open.

But how to talk about marijuana is a hotly debated issue, whereas the overwhelming consensus with tobacco is that consuming it can cause serious illness and lead to premature death. The latest surgeon general's report on the health effects of smoking — released last month to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1964 report — stated that smoking causes more diseases than previously reported, including liver and colorectal cancers, and that it is responsible for killing 480,000 Americans annually.

Health officials say marijuana use carries its own risks. The American Lung Association claims there are 33 cancer-causing chemicals contained in marijuana, and that pot smoke deposits tar into the lungs. It also reportedly elevates a person's heart rate and can be detrimental to people who are prone to psychological problems.

The marijuana "lobby" has effectively promoted pot as a healthy product in an effort to legalize its use, said Brian Vaughn, director of the Health Policy, Planning and Evaluation division of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. But he said the health risks associated with cannabis are only now becoming better understood.

Vaughn said marijuana smoking is where tobacco was 30 to 40 years ago, "in terms of society viewing it as having negative health consequences."

All of this overlooks the exploding popularity of e-cigarettes, which are opening up a whole new chapter in the evolution of smoking.

Where does it all end?

McCracken, the youth health counselor, predicted that Big Tobacco, spotting the trends, will begin moving into the cannabis market.

"You think they're going to leave that on the table?" he said.

Shaeffer fears that big producers will outsource marijuana cultivation to other countries. "But I think there will be room for the connoisseur," he said.

In California, cannabis advocates are gathering signatures for one November ballot measure that would legalize recreational pot use for adults 21 and over. It would also strengthen existing medical marijuana laws and legalize hemp production.

Blake said plans are being finalized to bring the Emerald Cup back to Santa Rosa in December. He said the event "teaches people how to grow organic, outdoor, sustainable medicine."

Santa Rosa cardiologist Sanjay Dhar's preference is that people not smoke anything at all.

He supports the limited use of marijuana for medical reasons. But he said more long-term studies need to be done before he's convinced cannabis is the panacea its most ardent advocates make it out to be.

"It's not like chewing on a carrot," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer DerekMoore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)

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