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Pot Is More Mainstream Than Ever, So Why Is Legalization Still Taboo?

Obama's drug czar has said "legalization" isn't in his vocabulary. Here's why it should be.
 
 
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More members of Congress have publicly questioned whether President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii than have endorsed legalizing marijuana.

This comes despite the birth announcements printed in the Honolulu Advertiser in August 1961 and marijuana's deep inroads into the cultural mainstream.

Almost every voter under 65 in this country has either smoked cannabis or grew up with people who did. Among its erstwhile users are the last three presidents, one Supreme Court justice and the mayor of the nation's largest city. The pot leaf's image pervades popular culture, from Bob Marley T-shirts to billboards for Showtime's Weeds.

So why is actually legalizing it still considered a fringe issue? Why haven't more politicians -- especially the ones who inhaled -- come out and said, "Prohibition is absurd and criminal. Let's treat cannabis like alcohol"?

Allen St. Pierre, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, blames the hypocrisy of the "baby boomer elite." There are many people in Washington's political and media circles "who know the right end of a joint to light, but are too embarrassed to admit their knowledge," he says. There are members of Congress, he adds, who will greet him at a party with "Allen, got any weed?" but are afraid to go out on a limb for legalization.

Only two current members of Congress have openly advocated ending cannabis prohibition: Reps. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Ron Paul, R-Texas.

Even in a Congress inhabited by Republicans Tom "Lesbians Are Terrorizing Our High Schools" Coburn of Oklahoma and Michelle "Carbon Dioxide Is Natural, It Is Not Harmful" Bachmann of Minnesota, the left-liberal Kucinich and the libertarian-conservative Paul might be the two most widely derided as kooks.

A handful of others, such as Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., have given some indications that they would support legalization. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has sponsored a bill to end federal penalties for possession of less than 100 grams, but has not explicitly endorsed making marijuana as legal as alcohol.

In contrast, Salon in July identified 17 members of Congress as "birther" sympathizers who had either openly questioned Obama's birth, co-sponsored a bill on the issue or refused to answer yes when asked if they believed he was a natural-born citizen. The 17 included Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

St. Pierre particularly resents the way the media treat the issue as a joke, in which almost any headline has to include a bad pun on "doobie," "high" or "mellow."

It's deadly serious when more than 800,000 people a year are arrested for it, he argues. Obama's "chuckle," he says, was emblematic. When legalizing marijuana was the top issue cited by visitors to Obama's transition Web site, the president dismissed it with a joke implying that there must be a lot of stoned people on the Internet.

"It's still an issue people are giggling about, not taking seriously," says Noelle Davis, former head of Texans for Medical Marijuana.

State legislators who have sponsored marijuana-related bills say that the two biggest obstacles are fear and cultural stereotypes.

"Elected officials are largely very concerned about being labeled 'soft on drugs,'" says New York State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who sponsored the state's 1977 decriminalization law, has introduced several bills to legalize medical marijuana.

Polls have shown medical marijuana to have the support of 70 to 80 percent of New Yorkers, he says, but "many legislators are afraid to touch it."

Washington State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles says that many legislators, particularly in the state's more conservative rural areas, "buy into the cultural stereotypes about marijuana," such as the idea that it's a gateway to harder drugs.

The Seattle Democrat, who is sponsoring a bill to reduce the penalty for less than 40 grams of pot from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction, says that the state's prosecutors' support for legalizing medical marijuana gave conservatives political cover to vote for it but that law enforcement has largely opposed her decriminalization bill.

One reason for the lack of urgent political pressure, says Deborah Small of Break the Chains, is that the people most likely to get busted for pot are the ones who "don't have a political voice" -- young people of color from poor neighborhoods. In Atlanta, Baltimore and New York, which have among the highest marijuana-arrest rates in the nation, three-fourths of those popped are black or Latino and under 25, she points out. Adults and more affluent youths are largely safe from arrest, she adds.

Frontlines of the Debate

California is the one state where legalization is legitimately on the agenda. "Obama might have dismissed it, but we're having the most serious conversation in 35 years," says Quintin Mecke, spokesman for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would legalize marijuana in California. It would let people grow up to 10 plants for their own use and license commercial cultivation and sales, with a smoking age of 21 and a $50-an-ounce tax.

Hearings on the bill are scheduled for January. It would obviously conflict with federal law, but Mecke says, "the intent is to provoke a states' rights conversation A lot of folks are looking to California to push that issue."

Several factors make legalization politically possible in California, Mecke explains. First, it has had legally regulated medical marijuana for 13 years, and people have "seen that the sky did not fall. California may be in a fiscal crisis, but it's certainly not due to marijuana." Taxes and fees on cannabis could raise $1.4 billion in revenue for the cash-strapped state, the state Board of Equalization estimates. In addition, marijuana cultivation is an integral part of the local economy in many areas, especially the rural north.

"We're not expecting this to happen overnight," Mecke says. "But looking at the poll numbers, it will happen."

A Gallup poll conducted in early October backs that prediction. It found 44 percent of the people surveyed supporting legal marijuana, with 54 percent against. In contrast, previous surveys showed Americans rejecting legalization 73 percent to 23 percent in 1985 and 64 percent to 31 percent in 2000.

An overwhelming majority of liberals supported it, as did more than half of Westerners, Democrats and people under 50. Opposition was strongest among Republicans, conservatives and people over 65, but even in those groups, more than a quarter backed legalization.

"Public mores on legalization of marijuana have been changing this decade and are now at their most tolerant in at least 40 years," the Gallup organization stated. "If public support were to continue growing at a rate of 1 to 2 percentage points per year, as it has since 2000, the majority of Americans could favor legalization of the drug in as little as four years."

Disconnect Between the Country and Its Capital

There is a "huge disconnect" between the corridors of power in Washington and the rest of America on marijuana, contends St. Pierre.

Today, even the hardest-line prohibitionists rarely argue that people should go to jail for possession. In Washington, says Kohl-Welles, police and prosecutors claimed that decriminalization would be unnecessary because they don't put a lot of resources into making such minor arrests.

In New York, where Mayor Michael "You Bet I Did -- And I Enjoyed It" Bloomberg has continued Rudolph Giuliani's war on pot smokers, a police department spokesperson tried to convince reporters that there was no such crackdown, because the number of summonses issued for marijuana possession declined over the last decade. (Having less than 25 grams carries only a $100 fine under state law, but possession in public is a misdemeanor. New York City police have been arresting more than 40,000 people a year on that charge, mostly young black and Latino men.)

Liberal politicians who believe that the laws are too harsh but don't want to take the risk of siding with stoners often support decriminalization as a middle ground. Decriminalization has definitely been an improvement -- as Gottfried points out, it's made the difference between spending a night in jail and a year in prison for having a small bag of pot -- but it is actually a harsher regime than alcohol Prohibition was. Under Prohibition, home winemaking and medical use of alcohol were legal, and people could keep liquor acquired before the law went into effect in 1920. (The New York governor's mansion had one such stash of booze, and the Yale Club in Manhattan stockpiled a 14-year supply.)

Obama's Oct. 19 guidelines that federal prosecutors not pursue medical-marijuana cases in states where it's legal are encouraging. On the other hand, like so much in Obama's tenure, they might also be far more symbolic than real. They contain enough wiggle room to permit federal aid to local prosecutors who go after medical marijuana, such as Steve Cooley in Los Angeles.

In general, Obama's positions have evolved in a typically hypocritical manner. He endorsed decriminalization when he was an Illinois state legislator campaigning on a college campus, but he now states flatly that he does not support legalization -- although he wrote in his autobiography that while pot didn't solve your problems, "it could at least help you laugh at the world's ongoing folly and see through all the bullshit and cheap moralism." (There are photos of Obama as a straw-hatted college student, smoking an ambiguous cigarette with his thumb and forefinger and looking blissfully slit-eyed.)

"Legalization is not in the president's vocabulary, and it is not in mine," federal drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has reiterated, although he is relatively liberal on other drug issues.

According to St. Pierre, the staff of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., specifically warned the pot-legalization movement not to pressure the Obama administration or congressional Democrats because they were preoccupied with the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and health care. The message, he says, was "We are not going to advance this issue, and you need to cut us some slack."

Change You Can Put in Your Pipe

What can be done? What would change the political climate to enable a reasonable discussion of legalizing and regulating marijuana?

Deborah Small says it would take a society that cared about black and Latino youth instead of criminalizing them in the name of "quality of life" policing.

Politicians talk about keeping young people in school and getting them jobs, but then they support "policing tactics guaranteed to bring them into the criminal-justice system for relatively minor offenses." If Obama had been busted for pot when he was a young man, she asks, would he be president today? "Certainly not."

She finds it remarkable that the hip-hop generation that emerged after the crack epidemic of the late '80s eschewed hard drugs in favor of marijuana -- and the system responded by arresting them more, with policies that rewarded large numbers of petty-possession busts.

Kohl-Welles says legalizing cannabis would take a critical mass of legislators, and that budget issues might help create the climate for that. Gottfried says that it will take "very strong public support for it to become part of mainstream debate, let alone pass the Legislature."

To win that support, St. Pierre says, the legalization movement needs to sustain grassroots activism and become more multiracial instead of being almost all-white and mainly male. Advancing legalization would also need the support of charismatic politicians early in their careers, as "it's impossible to flip a 50- or 60-year-old alpha male in Washington."

Another danger, he says, is politicians who modify their positions to suit their ambitions. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, he notes, was an early and "full-throated" supporter of medical marijuana, but is now running for governor of California and opposes legalization.

In Texas, says Noelle Davis, activists face the daunting task of trying to persuade legislators in the Republican majority -- and the primary voters who elect them. This would require educating them about the safety of marijuana versus alcohol and the economic benefits that cannabis cultivation and sales could bring to the state.

One largely overlooked issue in Texas, she says, is drug violence on the border. Infighting among rival smuggling gangs has claimed hundreds of lives in the Mexican cities of Nuevo Laredo, just across the river from Laredo, and Juarez, across from El Paso.

For all the hype about potent domestic homegrown, commercial-grade Mexican dominates the cheaper end of the cannabis market, and "a lot of marijuana comes up IH-35," from Laredo through San Antonio, Austin and Dallas.

"We're still putting our hands over our ears and saying 'la-la-la,' " she says. "If marijuana were legal on a federal level, it would dramatically reduce the deaths associated with the drug trade."

Meanwhile, she says, the "silent majority" of pot smokers has to overcome their fear and get vocal. "When I was circulating a petition for medical marijuana, often people would giggle and say 'I'm not putting my name on a list,' " she recalls. "Don't be afraid of your legislator. Take time and build a relationship."

St. Pierre agrees. "We have not achieved the political legitimacy of the gay and lesbian community," he concludes. "As long as 0.1 percent of cannabis consumers are involved with their own liberation, reform is unlikely." If just 1 percent of the nation's estimated 36 million pot smokers would get involved, he says, that would be a constituency of 360,000 activists.

Legalizing cannabis may not be as life-and-death an issue as health care, global warming or the war in Afghanistan, but it is not a frivolous cause. Not any more than repealing Prohibition was in the depths of the Depression.

When the nation is mired in an economic and environmental crisis, why should we waste lives and money enforcing repressive, racist and crime-creating laws? In May 1932, thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, Detroit and other cities to demand the legalization of beer. They carried signs reading "We Want Beer and We Will Pay the Tax" and "We Want Beer but We Also Want Jobs."

Later that summer, the Democratic party, battered for being "wet" in the previous presidential election, endorsed the repeal of Prohibition. On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment went into effect, and Americans could legally drink again.

Of course, there was a fanatical former Prohibition official named Harry Anslinger, who had recently become head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics -- and was looking for a new way to advance his career.

Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. The author of Exit 25 Utopia and The Cannabis Companion, he has won two New York City Independent Press Association awards for his coverage of housing issues. He is looking for a job.
 
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