Will Pot Ever Be Legal in This Schizoid Country?
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Marijuana occupies a bizarrely paradoxical place in American culture. Its use is widespread, commonplace among the young and ubiquitous in popular culture. Yet it remains highly illegal, and talk of legalization is usually deemed political suicide.
Here are five signs that pot should be legal soon -- and five reasons why it probably won't.
1. Pot is indelibly a part of the cultural mainstream. The stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay grossed $14.6 million in its first weekend, making it the second most popular movie in the country. Most pro basketball players blaze, according to sources as diverse as the ganjaphile Mavericks player Josh Howard and the anti-drug ex-Knick Charles Oakley. And on April 20, thousands of revelers turned out at the University of Colorado and the University of California at Santa Cruz to celebrate the 4/20 herb holiday.
As of 2002, notes Keith Stroup, legal counsel with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, 47 percent of American adults had smoked marijuana at some time in their lives, according to a CNN/ Time poll. By today, he adds, "it is likely there are more living Americans who have smoked marijuana than who have not. Approximately 26 million Americans smoked marijuana just in the last year. All of these people know it did not cause them any real harm and that it did not keep them from having a successful life and career."
2. Increased medical acceptance. In February, the American College of Physicians, the second-largest medical organization in the country, urged the federal government to move cannabis out of Schedule I, the category for drugs with no legal medical use, "given marijuana's proven efficacy at treating certain symptoms and its relatively low toxicity." The group also strongly urged legal protections for doctors who prescribe cannabis and patients who use it.
Last year, more than 3,000 articles on cannabinoids were published in scientific journals. These have explored their possible uses for a host of ailments, from easing the pain of arthritis to inhibiting the growth of brain tumors.
The development of vaporization technology -- pricey devices that heat cannabis to a point where the THC can be inhaled, but don't incinerate the plant matter -- has eliminated one of the main reasons for doctors to be uncomfortable about the medical use of cannabis: that smoke contains toxic compounds. "Vaporization of THC offers the rapid onset of symptom relief without the negative effects from smoking," the ACP noted.
3. A federal decriminalization bill was introduced last month. HR 5843, sponsored by Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Ron Paul, R-Tex., would eliminate federal penalties for possession of less than 100 grams or for the nonprofit transfer of less than one ounce between adults. The bill is the first decriminalization measure introduced in Congress since the early 1980s.
4. The state budget crunch. With the recession battering their treasuries, many states are taking a second look at the price of incarcerating thousands of drug prisoners. Legal cannabis would eliminate the costs of arresting, prosecuting and jailing cannabis users, growers and dealers, and could be a major new source of tax revenue -- especially in states like California, where it is estimated to be the most valuable cash crop. And cannabis farming could revive rural economies, whether by hemp production in the Great Plains or marijuana cultivation in Appalachia.
5. There are no rational arguments against legalizing cannabis under regulations similar to those for alcohol. I've been covering drug issues for almost 20 years (and smoking the green since? Well, I went to Woodstock when I was 14, you do the math), and I haven't heard any. The most common, the "gateway theory" and the idea that today's pot is so much stronger than Woodstock-era weed that it's essentially a different drug, are based on distortion and misinformation. They aren't even valid rebuttable presumptions like "abortion is murder," "the government should not interfere with the free market by regulating rents," or "the U.S. government had to depose Saddam Hussein by any means necessary." And the "send a message to the children" argument is akin to espousing the resurrection of Prohibition because legal alcohol encourages underage drinking.
On the other hand, I strongly doubt that cannabis will become legal in the near future, for the following reasons.
1. Pot smokers aren't well organized. According to government surveys, there are about 4 million to 5 million regular marijuana users -- roughly speaking, people who get high at least once a week. The three leading drug-law-reform groups would have a combined mailing list of 35,000 to 55,000 people, estimates NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre. NORML has about 15,000 dues-paying members, 55,000 email subscribers, and 420,000 friends on its Facebook page. The Marijuana Policy Project claims 24,000 members and 180,000 email subscribers. The Drug Policy Alliance has 26,000 members and more than 100,000 email subscribers.
Those numbers are dramatically higher than they were five years ago, but they're still relatively small. MoveOn.org has 3.2 million people on its email list. The National Rifle Association has more than 4 million members.
2. Very few politicians support legalization. About the only nationally known elected officials who advocate full legalization of cannabis are Ron Paul and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the two candidates most often derided as fringe lunatics in this year's presidential race. If you stretch the list to include big-city mayors, you'd get Gavin Newsom of San Francisco and the recently retired Rocky Anderson of Salt Lake City. The Frank-Paul decriminalization bill's co-sponsors include both anti-war liberals and far-right semilibertarians, but St. Pierre believes it is unlikely to make it out of committee this year and wouldn't get more than 85 votes if it did. Almost all its supporters represent culturally liberal areas in the far West and Northeast.
"If those of us who currently smoke would take the pledge that we will never again vote for any candidate for public office who supports treating us like criminals, we could end prohibition within a couple of election cycles," says Stroup. But if they did take that pledge, "initially they would frequently only have fringe candidates whom they could support and would have to sit out many major races. So we can't count on most smokers to vote based only on the candidate's position towards treating marijuana smokers like criminals."
3. Marijuana arrests continue at record levels. In 2006, there were 830,000 arrests for marijuana offenses -- almost triple the number of people nabbed in 1991. It was the fourth consecutive year that the number of pot busts set a new record. Of those popped, 89 percent were charged with simple possession.
4. Baby-boomer politicians sold us out. In the 1970s, baby-boomer stoners believed that the laws would inevitably change when the prohibitionist dinosaurs faded out and their generation took over.
Well, among the potheads-turned-politicians of the last 15 years, Bill Clinton signed the law cutting off federal student aid to drug offenders. Clarence Thomas wrote the Supreme Court decision against medical marijuana. Barack Obama now says he is "not interested in legalizing drugs." Al Gore, declaring that he had "put away childish things," came out against legalizing medical marijuana. Newt Gingrich sponsored a bill to execute pot smugglers. George W. Bush (yeah, you expect me to believe that a raging alcoholic with a never-denied taste for cocaine made it through the '70s without a single toke?) has overseen federal crackdowns on headshops, bong-makers, and medical marijuana clinics.
5. We don't live in a rational society. In many ways, American politics haven't changed much from 1928, when people believed that if Al Smith, a Catholic, were elected president, he'd dig a tunnel from the White House to the Vatican, except that now we have the Internet to spread similar rumors. (We didn't have Photoshop in 1927, when Smith dedicated the Holland Tunnel connecting Manhattan and Jersey City.)
We live in a society where politics are dominated by moronic symbolism, where the media ignore government's actual effect on working-class people in favor of pontificating endlessly about the importance of Hillary Clinton knocking back a shot of blended whiskey vs. Obama's abysmal bowling score, where they cast a spoiled senator's son as a "man of the people" because he clears brush and isn't too bright.
We live in a society ruled by fear, where people are willing to accept having the Bill of Rights shredded in the name of fighting drugs or "terrorism."
So it's not surprising that politicians quaver and quail at the idea of supporting a perfectly rational change that would end the legal harassment of millions of Americans. If they did, they'd be damned as "trying to let drug dealers out of jail" and barraged with attack ads accusing them of wanting to sell methamphetamine to 8-year-olds.
There is a very powerful stereotype afoot in much of the population, the belief that anyone "on drugs" is a brutish beast from whom all reason hath fled, a conglomeration of the snapping-at-phantoms temper of a rageball drunk, the stolen-goods appetite of a $500-a-day dope fiend, the self-abasement of a crack addict performing oral sex for a $5 rock, and the casual and calculated sadism of an '80s cocaine kingpin ordaining, "Manolo, choot this piece of chit."
Anyone who knows a pothead knows that this belief is absolutely ludicrous, but it's what sets the tone of American political discourse on drug issues -- or more accurately, almost no one in the political mainstream has the guts to defend drug users by pointing out that it's propaganda.
Steven Wishnia is the author of Exit 25 Utopia , The Cannabis Companion and Invincible Coney Island . He lives in New York.