I’m not a pot smoker, but growing up in Berkeley in the 70’s and 80’s, the smell of weed is far from foreign to me. Walking by People’s Park near Telegraph Avenue, or “the Steps” at Berkeley High, or at most parties, weed was ubiquitous. For a time when we were teens, my entrepreneurial brother even grew pot on the roof of our house. To access his garden, he had to scramble out of an upper story window and shimmy around a precarious sill. Things went well with his cottage industry. Too well. The plants grew so tall that one day my parents were driving home and looked at our house in the distance and saw something odd. Dad, perplexed, asked Mom, “What’s that growing out of our roof?!”
End of the roof garden.
I’d had a more serious introduction to weed before that. In middle school, one of my best friends had a life-threatening malignant tumor. She was treated at the renowned UCSF Medical Center where I and some other of her friends used to go into the city to visit it her during chemo. We would sit on her bed and order pizza, which we ate and she didn’t. At some point, I remember she was given pot pills. Big white things that looked like horse pills, to help her appetite. Between that experience and my misbehaving brother, I don’t have great early associations with pot. And now, being a singer, I don’t like to smoke anything. But many of my friends smoke. Many. Some of them smoke every day. These are people with children, by the way. Good people. Good parents. Grown up people who are kind and imperfect and human. None of them has ever, to my knowledge, been arrested or jailed for possession.
Because they’re white.
I also have a few friends who use marijuana specifically as a spiritual invitation, feeling that an altered state of consciousness helps them to go deeper, to answer some of life’s big questions. These friends also sometimes use other drugs for that purpose. Ayahuasca. Ecstasy. I don’t partake with them, but I sincerely respect their intentions. Like peyote, ayahuasca is a sacred plant in some cultures, an “entheogen” which means, “the divine within.” These friends are accessing a part of themselves that, for whatever reason, they don’t otherwise have access to. They have also never seen the inside of a cell. Because they too are white.
The inequitable enforcement of marijuana laws is not the only reason for legalization. The illegal pot growers are wreaking havoc with parts of the state, especially in the north. As U.S.A. Today reports, “Pot grown by illegal operations – often on public land – is leaving deep marks on California’s already stressed landscape.” It’s true. Illegal operations have no responsibility to obey environmental regulations imposed on legal farms, and often operate with impunity. But this alone shouldn’t justify legalization. In fact, real estate prices are skyrocketing in some areas in anticipation of legalization. And in Colorado, where pot, including edibles such as brownies, was legalized in 2014, emergency room visits of children who had accidentally ingested pot have gone up. There are troubling issues on all sides. But it comes down to the fact that illegality should be reserved for things that are inherently dangerous and harmful. So, aside from falling into the wrong hands in the wrong quantity, is pot itself inherently dangerous and harmful?
Most of us have heard that pot is “a gateway drug”. In one sense the facts bear that out because marijuana use heightens the effects of alcohol or other drugs, so those susceptible to addiction would be made more susceptible if using marijuana. However this heightened sensitivity is not unique to marijuana. “Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs,” reports the National Institute for Health’s Institute on Drug Abuse. That is why a highly successful recovery program here in Berkeley works hard to get its clients to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes, because studies show that addicts and alcoholics who quit smoking have a much better chance at staying off their drug of choice if they also stay off cigarettes. Apparently, addiction breeds addiction.
But the worn-out analogy that we shouldn’t make alcohol illegal because some people are alcoholics holds true. We shouldn’t make pot illegal because some people will abuse it, or will use it as part of an unhealthy addictive lifestyle.
I won’t diverge into a gi-normous rant about our prisons being full of young black men, or how there’s a thriving industry reaping the benefits of that, or how marijuana offenses are a big part of that. But that’s the truth. Despite legalization of medical marijuana and downgrading of possession of less than an ounce from a misdemeanor to an infraction, half a million people have been arrested for marijuana offenses in California in the past decade, and African Americans are four times as likely to be charged as white Americans. (Reports the Washington Post.) You can argue that marijuana arrests are a tool of law enforcement to get people in jail who should be in jail, and some further argue that we don’t want to take that tool away from the police. But actually we do. We should. Prohibition came about largely for the protection of women. Because men got drunk and beat their wives, which they had every legal right to do. Eventually, after the failure of prohibition, we realized that if we didn’t want men to go around beating their wives, we should…uh, make it illegal for men to beat their wives.
So if we want to make it illegal for people to be out of control in public, as we do with alcohol, or to give children drugs, or do other bad acts while intoxicated, then let’s make those bad things illegal. But smoking pot is not a deciding factor in making you do bad things. I recently traveled in Lithuania, where they sell beer with marijuana in it, and I’m told every grandmother’s garden includes cannabis. The country was not, by my observation, overrun with destructive stoners.
People should be able to choose if they want to smoke pot. Whether they like the feeling themselves, or whether or not they like being around people when they’re smoking. I don’t particularly like either. But that’s a social issue. It’s not a criminal issue.
I have to take a moment here to argue against my own case, or at least to say something that is painful to realize. Lives have been ruined by marijuana. For some, it is a debilitating addiction. It is part of toolkit of self-abuse that leaves them in a haze of non-reality and chronic, repetitive suffering. That is true. Sadly, that is going to be true, whether pot is legal or illegal.
People are doing the best they can. We all have our own coping mechanisms. I watch too much TV, and drink way too much coffee. I also have a smattering of other foibles that keep me from living up to my full potential, which is a shame, but it’s not a crime. Pot should be legal. Selling pot to children, giving it to children, of course that should be illegal just like it is to sell alcohol or cigarettes to children. (The proposition on the ballot in CA makes it legal if you are over 21.) But we don’t need a loophole in our common sense that allows us a means by which to incarcerate the least privileged among us, and historically the most discriminated against.
All criminal justice issues aside, we have to look at pot itself. At what it is and what it isn’t. It is a vice for some, a savior for others. We should decriminalize this plant. For everybody’s sake, but also,
For the person of color who is punished disproportionally to his white counterparts.
For the person whose punishment is vastly out of proportion to his or her offense.
For the person with serious health issues who would benefit from greater autonomy and ease in procuring it.
And lastly, we should make pot legal for the adult person who feels that their life is simply better with, than without.
I cannot make the case for legalization any better than one of my favorite actors, James Garner, who wrote:
“I started smoking marijuana in my late teens. I drank to get drunk but ultimately didn’t like the effect. Not so with grass. It had the opposite effect from alcohol: it made me more tolerant and forgiving. I did a little bit of cocaine in the Eighties, courtesy of John Belushi, but fortunately I didn’t like it. But I smoked marijuana for 50 years and I don’t know where I’d be without it. It opened my mind and now it eases my arthritis. After decades of research I’ve concluded that marijuana should be legal and alcohol illegal. But good luck with that.”