Marijuana in America: More Mainstream Than Ever, More Arrests Than Ever

Need more evidence that marijuana has gone mainstream in America? This morning on the Today show, Matt Lauer chatted up a piece on so-called stiletto stoners -- educated, professional women with killer careers and enviable social lives who favor marijuana as their intoxicant of choice and are increasingly comfortable admitting it.

The TV piece draws its inspiration from an article titled "Stiletto Stoners" in the current issue of Marie Claire magazine. The story raises the question: Why are so many smart, successful women lighting up in their off hours?

The sympathetic article and TV piece feature interviews with a wide range of successful women who wind down at the end of the day with a joint instead of a martini. The women see no need to apologize for their drug of choice and offer various reasons for choosing pot over booze: Some don't like alcohol, others say they enjoy more rewarding conversations with friends when they are indulging in marijuana.

The coming-out party is happening in more and more places.

The entertainment newspaper Variety  recently ran a feature story on the depiction of marijuana as an everyday, normal occurrence on TV shows and in movies. The story references NBC's Parks and Recreation, the CBS pilot, Accidentally on Purpose and AMC's Mad Men -- all portraying marijuana use matter-of-factly, without the "reefer madness" storyline.

There's more: Emblazoned on the cover of the September issue of Fortune magazine is a photo of actress Mary Louise Parker, star of the popular Showtime hit series Weeds, teasing the lead story: "How Marijuana Became Legal: Medical Marijuana Is Giving Activists a Chance to Show How a Legitimized Pot Business Can Work. Is the End of Prohibition Upon Us?"

And let's not forget what President Barack Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger all have in common: They are all elected officials who have admitted to smoking marijuana, and it didn't hurt their political careers.

In fact, their candor may have even helped boost their appeal in some way by making them seem more approachable and hip, whether by writing about it in memoirs (Obama), being featured in marijuana-reform-organization advertisements (Bloomberg) or being shown enjoying marijuana in documentary films (Schwarzenegger).

While these examples of public figures owning up to past drug use without suffering adverse consequences are a sign of progress toward overcoming the "couch potato" stereotypes of marijuana users, we sadly still have a ways to go when it comes to public policy.

You might be surprised to learn that in the United States more than 750,000 people are arrested every year on marijuana possession. In New York, under "moderate" Bloomberg, there were 40,000 pot arrests last year, and the city now has the unfortunate distinction of being the marijuana-arrest capital of the world.

While marijuana use doesn't discriminate, our marijuana policies do. Nationally and in New York City, marijuana arrests show stark racial disparities. In 2008, 87 percent of those charged with pot possession in New York were black or Latino. These groups represent only about half of the city's population, and U.S. government surveys consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than blacks and Latinos.

Yet blacks and Latinos are arrested for pot at much higher rates, in part because officers make stop-and-frisks disproportionately in black, Latino and low-income neighborhoods.

I applaud the stiletto stoners who are admitting to their families and friends that they smoke marijuana. It is brave to "come out" and cast aside shame and shatter stereotypes about who is a "pothead." But we need to remember that the war on people who use marijuana is all too real and has not ended.

In November, more than 1,000 people from across the country and around the world -- including drug-policy experts, health care and drug-treatment professionals, elected officials and people who were formerly incarcerated -- will meet in New Mexico to organize, strategize and promote alternatives to the failed war on drugs.

The Today show said 8 million women tried marijuana in the last year. We need them to join the movement to end marijuana prohibition.

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