November 13th, 2012

Mile High High

Last week, when nobody was looking, Colorado legalized marijuana. There's some paper-pushing to be done, but at some point marijuana will be sold to those over 21 under much the same sort of regulatory mechanism as alcohol. The referendum got surprisingly little press, even here at home, and doubly even here in Colorado Springs, where Certain People just can't shake the suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is having too much of a good time. I've been getting email from a few of my friends who have been (or maybe still are) users, asking me how we pulled it off.

It's called democracy. People in Colorado got sick of a certain kind of intrusive government, and they kicked government's ass. This is what initiative systems are for. As best I can tell it wasn't that hard, for reasons I'll relate shortly.

There was a Kliban cartoon in the January 1972 Playboy (this link is the best I could find) that simply nails the absurd position that marijuana has held in the national neurosis since the 1920s. In case you can't see it well, the cartoon depicts a cop hauling a guy into the police station wearing a costume that looks remarkably like a certain illegal plant. The caption, spoken by the police chief: "I admire your initiative, Flynn, but we can't arrest them for impersonating marijuana."

For most of a century, we have allowed ourselves to be so terrified of a weed that even the idea of looking like marijuana gets our cortisol coursing. Carol bought a houseplant decades ago called a false aralia. The first time I saw it, a chill ran down my spine. (I had never seen the real thing except in books.) If it weren't for the boggling amount of money wasted and the number of young lives ruined, the whole business would be sitcom fodder. It's all now coming apart.

Here's my analysis of why it happened:

  • Colorado has an excellent initiative system, which has largely been used to limit the power of government. Lots of silly initiatives get on the ballot. Almost none of them pass. The ones that do are generally worthwhile.
  • Colorado has had a legal medical marijuana system since 2000. The world didn't end. Wild-eyed stoners weren't enacting Reefer Madness in the streets. Nothing happened.
  • Although the chemical machinery of marijuana is poorly understood, it does seem to work in certain cases, especially for suppressing nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Politicians who campaigned against MMJ back in 1999 were positioned as championing the suffering of dying people. Instant third rail.
  • The cumulative effect of our war on drugs is making even very conservative people question whether the benefits gained are worth the collateral damage. I know a number of Republicans who were very much for the initiative, though they denied being users. The issue did not fold along the usual dotted lines.
  • I was told by a psychiatrist I know that the hazards of marijuana are hugely overstated. I've read in several places that most of the pathology that we see in marijuana users has other unrelated causes. I know people who have been regular users since the early 1970s, and they're all articulate, successful individuals. This used to be a contrarian point of view. No more.
  • That same psychiatrist told me that Obama instructed the DEA to back off individual users after he took office in 2008. I'm sure there are conservative marijuana users somewhere. I'm just as sure I've never met one. The Democratic base is full of them. Obama wanted to carry Colorado, and he did.

That's "how we pulled it off." Here, at the risk of getting screamed at by my conservative readership, is why I think it's a good thing:

  • Legal marijuana means better, cleaner, and more predictable marijuana. One of my user friends out east says he envies the quality of the weed sold here and in California. What he gets in the alley is often dirty, contaminated with mold, and sometimes adulterated with other plant material.
  • Legal marijuana means that research into the uses of THC and the host of other active compounds in marijuana is more likely to happen. Research is now almost impossible, so what we know falls pretty much in the category of folk medicine. Knowledge is Good. Always.
  • Prohibition drives up prices, and money powers criminal activity. Cheaper marijuana probably means less money going to drug gangs here and in Latin America.
  • Local cultivation also means less involvement of foreign drug gangs.
  • Money and manpower spent suppressing marijuana is money and manpower not spent suppressing other, far more dangerous drugs. Meth is deadly, and it is not on my friends list.
  • There is a nontrivial amount of money to be had in taxes on legal marijuana. Yes, it's a tax I myself won't have to pay. I like that kind of tax.
  • There is a nontrivial amount of labor required to cultivate marijuana and create "downstream" products like edibles and tinctures. I'd rather those jobs be here than somewhere else.

None of this is original with me, but it's the position I've come to after much thought and a fair bit of research. (Most recent piece of which: Super Charged by Jim Rendon. Decent, but not worth hardcover prices. Wait for the paperback or watch for it used.)

So. Given that even possessing marijuana remains a federal crime, will anything come of it? Invading Colorado with hundreds of door-kicking DEA thugs could turn Colorado red next election. Don't wait up for it. The Feds will make a great deal of noise, but the same thing will happen as happened in 2000, when Colorado approved medical marijuana: nothing.

I think we're approaching a sort of tipping point: The more states that legalize marijuana without dogs and cats living together, the sillier that all the sound and fury over marijuana becomes. Sooner or later the Feds will quietly fold, and even the Republicans will vote to repeal marijuana prohibition. As goes the US goes the rest of the Western world. It won't be next year or the year after, but I still hold that it's science fiction, not fantasy. Moreover, it's dull science fiction. (Rather like Bowl of Heaven...but I get ahead of myself.)