Dan Savage


After a teenager in Covington, Washington, turned his father in for growing marijuana, local TV news reporters and daily newspapers fell all over themselves calling him a hero. Was I the only pot-smoking parent who was horrified?

KIRO 7 Eyewitness News reporter Karen O'Leary does sanctimonious piety better than anyone else in local television news--and that's saying something. As a group, TV news reporters excel at sanctimonious piety, especially when a story involves drugs. Last week O'Leary, a.k.a. Our Lady of the Pursed Lips, reported on "a drug bust turned into a family affair." Aaron Palmer of Covington, Washington, was turned in to the police by his 17-year-old son for growing pot in his garage.

"Neighbors say the kid is responsible and hardworking, a member of the ROTC program," the scowling O'Leary intoned at the beginning of KIRO's coverage. Palmer was arrested late Tuesday night, and O'Leary was on the air Thursday with an exclusive interview with Trevor, "[who] told me about his gut-wrenching decision and the fallout from it."

Cut to Trevor, the busted dad's clean-cut 17-year-old son. Trevor showed O'Leary and her camera crew around his father's garage, the spot where his father was allegedly growing pot.

"It's messed-up," Trevor said, complaining about the King County cops who busted his father, tearing his house apart in the process. "They trashed it too thrashed."

Apparently no one warned Trevor that cops called out on a drug bust don't tiptoe through the grow room, or any other room in a suspect's house. Like all kids his age in Covington, Trevor is likely to be a "graduate" of Drug Awareness Resistance Education (DARE), a class taught by smiling uniformed police officers. In DARE classes, cops tell kids that marijuana destroys lives, people who smoke marijuana need help, and cops are the good guys who can provide that help. DARE doesn't warn kids that calling the police on their own parents--as DARE graduates all over the country have done--can result in their homes being torn apart.

Trevor shook his head and looked grim.

"It was affecting his behavior. It was starting to take over his life," Trevor said, sounding like a DARE pamphlet.

"One of Trevor's biggest concerns now," O'Leary broke in, "is that he knows his dad will find out that he was the one who turned him in. That's because the sheriff's department reported it in a press release."

"He's going to blame me," said Trevor, who does a pretty good version of sanctimonious piety himself. "It's one of those fatherhood things. You want your kids to look up to you, not turn you in."

"A very strong young man," O'Leary said at the end of her report.

There's so much wrong with the story of the Covington teenager who turned in his dad for growing pot that I hardly know where to begin. O'Leary's performance on KIRO seems as good a place as any to start: People who work in mainstream media like to brag about their objectivity, their fair and balanced reporting. Over here in the alternative press, we get both sides of a story but we're allowed to take positions (repeal the Teen Dance Ordinance) and we're not afraid to grind our favored axes (build the monorail), unlike the men and women at daily papers and on television news broadcasts who pride themselves on being objective and balanced.

Except when it comes to drugs.

O'Leary's reporting on KIRO was a lot of things--hysterical, melodramatic, sensationalistic--but balanced wasn't one of them. The police said Aaron Palmer had "at least 40 plants," "bags of dried and ready-to-sell marijuana," and "scales to measure the crop."

But Aaron Palmer's lawyer disputes the police account. "Forty plants is a gross exaggeration of the actual number of plants recovered or seized," said Lisa Podell, the criminal defense attorney representing Aaron Palmer. Also missing from O'Leary's report was the reason why Aaron Palmer was growing pot. "Mr. Palmer uses marijuana for medicinal purposes," Podell told me. "He's got bad arthritis, knee problems, and back problems." Palmer's doctors were aware that he was using marijuana to treat his pain, according to Podell. Also missing from O'Leary's report was the fact that Washington state voters approved a medical marijuana initiative in 1998.

Confronted with a chilling account of a kid turning in his own father to the police, KIRO, KING 5, KOMO, Q13, and both daily papers stuck to the drug war script: People who use pot, very bad; people who grow pot, even worse. Aaron Palmer, Drug Lord. His son Trevor, Brave Young Man. If the cops say it was a commercial operation, it was a commercial operation. If the police praise a teenager for turning in his parent, then turning in your parents for having pot in the house is praiseworthy. The mainstream media is terrified of deviating from the drug war script, but is it too much to ask the mainstream media to get its facts straight? For instance, The Seattle Times reported that Aaron Palmer had been previously convicted of a drug felony, which isn't true, according to Palmer's lawyer. Guns were found in Palmer's home, as was widely reported, but they were locked in a safe and may yet prove to have been legally registered.

So where's the other side of the story the mainstream media is always promising us? Not just Aaron Palmer's denials that he was selling marijuana, but the other side of the pot story?

Comments from people who don't think marijuana is a dangerous drug were missing from every local news report I saw about Aaron Palmer's arrest. News "consumers" in Seattle and Washington state who rely solely on the mainstream media for information may not even be aware that there is another side to the pot story. So I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked when Keith Stroup, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told me I was the first reporter to call from Washington state seeking a comment about Trevor and Aaron Palmer.

"Whenever the public hears about someone who has kids having pot in the house, they get their backs up," said Stroup from NORML's Washington, D.C. offices. "But just because you smoke a joint doesn't mean you're not a good, loving, concerned parent."

Had the daily papers or TV "journalists" bothered to call someone like Stroup, they would've been able to offer their viewers and readers some balance and a little context: "Seventy-six million Americans, one out of three adults, have smoked marijuana," Stroup told me. "The vast majority of these people are good citizens, people who work hard and take care of their families. The problem is our laws, not good, responsible people who like to smoke marijuana."

Stroup told me of other cases in which children turned in their parents for growing or smoking pot.

"These thing are always sad," said Stroup. "When I hear of one of these cases where a child turns in his parent, I'm distressed by the damage done to the family." Fifty-seven years old, Stroup went to grade school during some of the darkest moments of the Cold War. "We were constantly told how bad it was in the Soviet Union," said Stroup, "and one of the things that was so awful about the Soviet Union was that Soviet kids were encouraged to report their parents to the police. A police officer was quoted in regards to the Covington story saying that the kid 'did the right thing.' Similar things were no doubt said about children in the Soviet Union who got their parents arrested. The result is, you've got a single father locked up, and a family fractured forever. It's hard to imagine why this should be the case. Who's been helped by this?"

Like me, Stroup suspects that Aaron Palmer's son was exposed to DARE propaganda at an impressionable age. Seven years ago, when Trevor was in fifth grade, the schools in Covington had DARE programs.

"A law-enforcement officer comes into a fifth-grade classroom and tells children how bad marijuana is," said Stroup. "DARE tends to place a special emphasis on marijuana, since that is the drug school-age children are most likely to experiment with."

Instead of telling kids the truth about the drug--the truth is far too positive, and we'll get to it in a moment--DARE officers are free to say what they like, and many, if not most, fill kids' heads with lies and horror stories: Marijuana is addictive; smoke marijuana on Monday and you'll be addicted to heroin by Thursday; all marijuana users wind up in jail; pot will ruin your life.

"Then they ask kids to be on the lookout for things in their own homes," said Stroup. "Every year in this country, a handful of kids, many meaning well, find rolling papers or a roach clip in their parents' rooms, and they become frightened to death that their parents are drug addicts, and they turn their parents in to the 'friendly' officer who lectured them about the dangers of drugs."

The DARE kids who turn their parents into the police--some have been as young as 10--expect their parents to get a lecture from a friendly DARE officer about the dangers of marijuana, just like they did at school.

"What the parents get, however, is arrested," said Stroup. "People who are good parents--good parents who happen to smoke marijuana--have lost custody of their children. Families have been torn apart."

Kitty Tucker's family was torn apart in 1999 when her 16-year-old daughter turned her in to the police for growing marijuana in her home. Tucker and her family lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and one morning she had a confrontation with her daughter. The girl had stayed out all night, so her mother grounded her. Furious, Tucker's daughter called the police to retaliate. "My daughter was scolded for misbehavior," Tucker told me on the phone from her home, "so she called the cops, thinking they would scold us."

"Our home was invaded by policemen without a warrant," said Tucker, "and they took away my plants." Tucker suffers from debilitating migraines and a painful neurological disorder called fibromyalgia, and smoked marijuana to treat her pain. Tucker's husband, who didn't smoke marijuana, was fired from his job with the Department of Energy. Both were prosecuted for growing marijuana. Tucker and her husband eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and were placed on probation.

Four years ago, when I was about to adopt my son, I worried that he would wind up in DARE classes when he reached the fifth grade. What if he found out I occasionally smoked pot and turned me in? What if he found pot growing in the basement of some friend's house and turned the friend in? Thankfully, in the last four years DARE programs have fallen from favor. Research into DARE's programs found them to be ineffective at best. A University of Kentucky study found that DARE had no measurable impact on later drug use; a six-year study at the University of Illinois found that children who had been subjected to DARE's scare tactics were more likely to use drugs in high school than kids who hadn't. The Seattle Police Department got out of the DARE program in 1998; Covington Elementary School (part of the Kent School District) dropped out of DARE two years ago. Of course, DARE might not be to blame. Trevor is a 17-year-old high-school senior after all, not a 10-year-old fifth grader. It could be that Aaron Palmer's son, like Kitty Tucker's daughter, was simply pissed at his dad for something and called the cops out of spite. The mainstream reporters in Seattle were too busy falling all over themselves praising Trevor to pause and consider his motives. Couldn't he be a vengeful adolescent lashing out at his full-time parent?

Many of us who don't fit the pot-smoking stereotype are reluctant to be open about our pot use. Considering pot's illegality and the stigma associated with its use, it's understandable that the average user might not want to go public. Unfortunately, the silence of casual pot smokers when other marijuana users or dealers get busted is helping to keep the War on Drugs roaring along. So I'm going to risk telling the truth: I am a pot smoker--and I don't fit the stereotype. I don't wear hemp; I don't have dreads; I don't think deodorant is a plot; I don't smoke pot on a daily basis; I don't have glaucoma; and I didn't vote for Ralph Nader. And unlike most people who've "experimented" with pot, I didn't start in my teens. I didn't smoke pot for the first time until I was in my 30s. (Note to The Seattle Times: One of the very first times I smoked pot was with one of your reporters.)

Here's what my pot use looks like: Every once in a great while, when my son is spending the night with his grandparents or sleeping over at a friend's house, my boyfriend and I rent some videos, lay in some ice cream and potato chips, and obtain one--one!--measly joint from a close friend. We put in a video, crawl into bed, get baked, and eat Doritos. We do this once or twice a year. We don't grow pot, we don't keep it in the house. Did I say I don't smoke pot daily? It would be more accurate to say that I sometimes don't even get around to smoking pot biannually.

According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, I'm one of the 20 million Americans who use marijuana at least once a year; 6 million use it at least once a week, and 3 million Americans smoke marijuana daily. The NHSDA puts current national consumption of marijuana at 7 to 10 million joints per day, or 1,200 to 1,800 metric tons per year. These figures may be low, since most researchers believe the NHSDA underestimated actual drug use. ("Hello, I'm from the federal government. Maybe you've heard of our War on Drugs? Hey, we were just wondering how much dope you guys have been smoking lately?")

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Americans spent more than $11 billion on pot in 1998. Marijuana is the fourth largest cash crop in the United States, behind corn, soybeans, and hay. It's the biggest cash crop in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia--and apparently Covington, Washington. "Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in America today, and is readily available throughout all metropolitan, suburban, and rural areas of the continental United States," according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The federal government and state governments will spend $40 billion this year in the war on drugs, with billions spent on the fight against marijuana, which the government insists is a dangerous drug.

The only trouble with the United States' war on pot is that pot is neither addictive nor dangerous--especially when compared with other, legal drugs. The government's anti-pot message is undermined by the life experiences of millions of Americans who have used pot and suffered no negative consequences. Meanwhile, 50,000 Americans die every year from alcohol poisoning; 16,653 people were killed by drunk drivers in 2000, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving; 25,000 Americans die every year of cirrhosis of the liver. Cigarette-related illnesses kill 400,000 Americans every year. Despite what the Partnership for a Drug-Free America would have us believe, it's simply impossible to overdose on marijuana. According to the Lancet, a European medical journal, "the smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health.... It would be reasonable to judge cannabis as less of a threat than alcohol or cigarettes."

While the mainstream media in the United States is inclined to praise a kid like Trevor ("hardworking," "a very strong young man," "brave"), mainstream media outlets in Canada are actively encouraging their government's moves toward marijuana decriminalization. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommended that "all cannabis preparations" be essentially decriminalized, the report was greeted with enthusiasm by the media. "The high use of cannabis is not associated with major health problems for the individual or society," says the British government, "[and] the occasional use of cannabis is only rarely associated with significant problems in otherwise healthy individuals." According to London's Evening Standard, "[the ACMD] makes it clear that alcohol is far more damaging than cannabis to health and society at large because it encourages risk-taking and leads to aggressive and violent behavior."

The Brits haven't discovered something we don't already know. In 1972, Richard Nixon's National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended that marijuana use and possession be decriminalized; in 1982, the National Academy of Sciences not only recommended that marijuana use and possession be decriminalized, but that lawmakers "give serious consideration to creating a system of regulated distribution." In 2000, a long-term study conducted by Kaiser Permanente found that not only was there no link between regular marijuana use and death, but that "marijuana prohibition presented the only significant health risk to the user." (Don't believe Kaiser? Ask anyone who was raped in a holding cell after being picked up for marijuana possession.) Kaiser recommended that "medical guidelines regarding prudent use... be established, akin to the common-sense guidelines that apply to alcohol use."

So here's the story that KIRO, KING, KOMO, Q13, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer all missed: Pot isn't a threat to our health. The pot plants growing in Aaron Palmer's garage were less of a threat to his son Trevor than the case of beer in his fridge or the cigarettes for sale down the street.

Here's the story the mainstream media wanted to sell us about Aaron Palmer: He's a drug dealer. Never mind that Palmer denies dealing pot, never mind that he may have been growing pot for a legitimate and voter-approved medicinal use, and never mind that the recreational use of pot is harmless.

But suppose for a moment that Aaron Palmer was selling pot for profit--is that so awful? If using pot is harmless, why is dealing pot so awful? If there's no harm in consumption, how can there be harm in production and distribution?

"There's this absurd distinction," said Keith Stroup of NORML. "If you have an ounce or less, that's okay. But, my goodness, if you buy two ounces and sell one to a friend, you're an evil dealer.... But the reality is, if someone didn't take the risk of selling, none of us could buy."

That drug warriors are eager to lock up pot dealers comes as no surprise; what is surprising is the passivity of marijuana smokers when our dealers get busted. For pot smokers, the dealer is a Very Important Person, someone who vastly improves a pot smoker's quality of life. So how come there isn't more anger from everyday users when dealers get busted?

"Selling is different from buying," a daily pot smoker told me. Although he works in a field in which drug use can be assumed, the daily pot smoker would only speak to me if I promised not to use his name. We'll call him Henry. "Dealers run a much bigger risk, and they know it." And there's always another pot dealer out there, Henry points out. When one dealer gets busted, you move on to a new source. "I might get attached to a coffee shop in my neighborhood, but when it goes out of business, I move on to some other coffee shop. I don't mourn the shop."

Valid point, as far as it goes--which isn't far. When a coffee shop goes under, its owners aren't sent to prison for 10 or 20 years for meeting your cravings for caffeine.

To the hundreds of thousands of people in Seattle and across Washington state who smoke dope, I'd like to say this: Pot doesn't appear under our pillows in the middle of the night, left there for us by the Pot Fairy. Someone has to grow it and someone has to sell it, or no one can smoke it. In an ideal world, there would be a safe, legal, regulated marijuana market, and we could buy pot in cafés or state-run stores. But unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world--we live in the United States of America. While a legal, safe, regulated marijuana supply would be nice, no one I know who smokes pot is willing to wait on decriminalization. We want our pot, and we want it now, and we're quick to anger when people get busted for smoking pot or possessing small quantities for "personal use." (704,812 Americans were arrested for pot offenses in 1999, the most recent year that figures are available.)

But none of us makes a peep when someone gets arrested for selling pot.

This is, in a word, crap. When pot dealers get busted, pot smokers shrug and move on to the next dealer, and sanctimonious TV newscasters cluck their tongues, purse their lips, and shake their heads. (Does anyone for a moment doubt that someone in the KIRO newsroom is a pothead? Or that there isn't at least one small pipe hidden in someone's desk at The Seattle Times?) If I may borrow a catchphrase from the 1996 Dole for President campaign: Where's the outrage? Every day in the United States people who sell a harmless "drug" (and a plant that grows wild all over North America), a drug that's much less destructive than alcohol, are arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison for 10 or 20 years, or even longer. If American pot smokers had any integrity--if we were willing to put some of our money where our mouths are--we would create legal defense funds for busted pot dealers.

"No kid should have to grow up that fast," Trevor told KIRO's Karen O'Leary.

Watching Trevor on the news, I wanted to reach through the television set and choke him. Trevor was the picture of the preening, tormented adolescent, equal parts self-righteousness and self-pity.

"This sucks," Trevor told Q13 news. "Everyone I'm related to thinks I'm the bad guy. But everyone else... thinks I'm a hero."

Not everyone outside your family thinks you're a hero, Trevor. Sure, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an editorial on Monday praising your bravery and suggesting that "a local civic or service organization" offer you a scholarship (and once again mentioned your dad's guns without mentioning the safe they were in), but there are a lot of us out here who think you're a complete asshole. Oh, there may be situations in which a father or a son or a brother is morally obligated to turn in a family member: The father of Luke Helder, the Midwestern smiley-face pipe bomber, did the right thing; David Kaczynski did the right thing when he helped lead the police to his brother Ted, the Unabomber. But in both those instances lives were at stake.

Despite what you were told in your DARE classes, Trevor, your dad wasn't hurting anyone--not even himself. All your dad was doing, Trevor, was growing some pot--harmless, non-addictive pot. He wasn't forcing it on you, your siblings, or anyone else. Although what your dad was doing was against the law, the law in this case is unjust and idiotic. We have a moral right to resist and break unjust laws, something they may not have covered in your ROTC classes.

"He's going to blame me, I know it," Trevor whined.

Yeah, well, I suppose so. You are the one who called the cops on your father, after all. Who's he supposed to blame? Osama? You could've called your mother, you could've moved out. If you felt your dad was smoking too much dope, you could've called some of his friends over to stage an intervention. There were other options. But you called the cops, turned in your dad, and then watched as cops burst into your home, tore the place apart, and hauled your father--and your 15-year-old sister's father, and your seven-year-old brother's father--away. Your dad was a single parent; while you're old enough to be on your own, your seven-year-old brother isn't. So you not only forever fucked your relationship with your father, but you may have fucked your siblings out of a father. Nice work, Trev.

Maybe the DARE people will send you a T-shirt.

Dan Savage is the editor of The Stranger, Seattle's weekly newspaper.
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