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Marijuanamerica: Why America Loves Weed

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Against all odds, more than seventy-five years after the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, and after millions of marijuana arrests during the combined drug wars of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and even Obama, weed somehow seems to be winning. More than a third of the U.S. population has admitted they've tried it, and a third of the states have legalized it for medical purposes. Our current president admits he not only smoked pot but inhaled it, and megamoguls like Ted Turner, Mike Bloomberg, and Steve Jobs (R.I.P.) have all enthusiastically hit the hookah.

The media now treats marijuana as commonplace. Smash-hit movies show characters smoking pot as if they were taking a sip of Cabernet [1], and Showtime has based an entire TV series, Weeds, on the premise that marijuana is an integral part of American suburban life. Polls consistently show that over 70 percent of Americans support legalized medical marijuana, and a 2012 Rasmussen Reports poll found that 56 percent of Americans would support legalizing and regulating marijuana in a similar manner to alcohol and tobacco. If that doesn't qualify as a tipping point, how about the fact that weed is the country's top cash crop. According to a 2006 study, cannabis is valued at $35.8 billion per year, effectively bitch-slapping the combined value of two traditional American crops -- corn ($23.3 billion) and wheat ($7.5 billion).

American politicians, who have been relatively mute on the subject since the Carter administration, are finally starting to have some balls regarding the red-eyed elephant in the room. In November of 2011, the governors of Washington and Rhode Island, Christine Gregoire and Lincoln Chafee, petitioned the DEA to allow doctors nationwide to legally prescribe medical marijuana. "Poll after poll shows an overwhelming majority of Americans now see medical marijuana as legitimate," said Gregoire, of Washington, where dispensaries had been distributing medical marijuana for thirteen years. Even ultra-right-wing evangelical leader and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson has (inexplicably) come out in favor of legalizing marijuana. In March of 2012, Robertson said, "I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol. I've never used marijuana and I don't intend to, but it's just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn't succeeded."

Despite all this apparent progress, the legalization movement continues to lurch forward in fits and starts. After having legalized medical marijuana in January of 2010, New Jersey officials are nearing their third year of delaying access to patients there. In August of 2011, a Michigan appeals court banned patient-to-patient marijuana sales, jeopardizing nearly five hundred dispensaries that had opened since 63 percent of voters had approved medicinal cannabis three years earlier. Some of the most vocal pro-marijuana politicians have either left office or been marginalized. While in office former California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was filmed smoking a joint in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, was an outspoken proponent of taxing marijuana for recreational use. But he got caught schtupping the maid, so we won't hear from him for a while. Congressman Barney Frank has been a longtime supporter, co-sponsoring a 2008 bill attempting to curb federal penalties for marijuana possession. But he retired in January of 2013. Other than that you've got former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and quadrennial presidential candidate Ron Paul, both of whom admirably won't shut up about the subject, but who also aren't moving the ball much closer to the end zone.

Despite being the first American commander-in-chief to openly embrace his past pot use, President Obama doesn't look to be the weed messiah many advocates had hoped. At the 2009 virtual town hall meeting, the most popular questions involved legalization; Obama dismissed them with a flip joke. At a 2011 town hall meeting in Minnesota, the President became uncharacteristically tongue-tied when asked if he could at least legalize medical marijuana. "Well, you know, a lot of states are making decisions about medical marijuana. As a controlled substance, the issue then is, you know, is it being prescribed by a doctor, as opposed to, you know...well...I'll...I'll...I'll...I'll leave it at that." Leave it at...what? We can only hope that, while absconding for one of his clandestine cigarette breaks in the White House Rose Garden, Obama will have an epiphany and remember how much he loved toking up back in his high school and college days.[2]

President Obama is caught up in a decades-old trend for politicians who are perceived to be liberal about marijuana: They take a hard-on-drugs stance to silence accusations of running a loose ship. Bill Clinton took so much flack for not inhaling that he became one of the most ruthless drug-warrior presidents in American history. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has not been shy about having enjoyed marijuana personally, has overseen the arrest of more than four hundred thousand people for simple possession during his three terms in office. After a critical article by the Village Voice and mild public outrage, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly released a memo in September of 2011 scolding his officers for using sneaky stop-and-frisk tactics. (This usually involves asking people to empty their pockets without telling them they can refuse, resulting in the coerced offense of "public display of marijuana.") Still, when the 2011 data was released, New York remained the marijuana arrest capital of the world with more than fifty thousand possession arrests, the second highest in the city's history.

American prisons now hold over six million inmates, more than were stuck in Stalin's gulag prison system at its height. Since 1980, we have gone from having roughly equal percentages of prisoners as that of our European and Asian counterparts, to having seven to ten times more inmates on average today. What has changed in the last 30 years? The war on drugs--period. Drug convictions rose tenfold over 16 years, from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996. Today, over half of America's federal inmates are in prison on drug convictions.

Considering that polls show majority support for cannabis legalization, why isn't American law enforcement adapting to reflect the will of its citizens? We now arrest one American every thirty-eight seconds on marijuana charges. And we do so at a staggering cost in law-enforcement expenses, lost tax revenues, and profits for criminals. In 2007 alone, marijuana laws cost American taxpayers an estimated $42 billion in law enforcement costs and lost tax revenues. We could be using that money and jail real estate to imprison violent offenders. We could pay for more positive approaches to drugs, like substance abuse centers. And we might even be a step closer to resolving America's bottomless pit of debt.

Though the concept seemed like pure fantasy just a decade ago, I now believe the legalization of marijuana in the United States is imminent. It's only a matter of time, of an aging generation--who maintain an outdated stigma toward this plant--to die off, and of a few bold politicians to step up to the plate. I say this not because America is shifting into some leftist Fox-News nightmare of a nationwide commune, or in the other direction, into a radical libertarian Ron Paul-style version of laissez-faire government. America will legalize marijuana for the same reason the Dutch have created its quasi-legalized coffee shop culture: because cannabis is a weed that can be grown anywhere and thus cannot, and never will be, contained. America will legalize marijuana for the same reason it has changed many of its other failed policies after years of hammering away at them: because it's practical. Or more to the point, we will legalize marijuana for the same reason I drove marijuana across the country: because it's profitable.

The idealist in me believes that legalization will be a good thing. On that historic day, I'll smoke a joint to celebrate no longer having to sneak around like a child, and to the fact that marijuana growers will no longer be jailed for what is essentially gardening. Mexican drug cartel profits will shrink, and cash will flow into the coffers of American businesses no less legitimate than liquor stores. Ancillary businesses will develop--from marijuana tourism to the production of cannabis edibles and hemp fabric--which will fill the cracks that our faltering economy has exposed. Millions of nonviolent marijuana prisoners will be released and gain access to jobs that utilize the very expertise for which they were imprisoned. And maybe some of the investment bankers and real estate hustlers who helped torpedo the world into economic recession will get high and become a little less greedy, or quit their jobs to explore the world with childlike wonder, or just generally learn to chill the fuck out.

But the realist in me knows legalization won't solve many of the dilemmas about America's--or my own--relationship to weed. It certainly won't change my access to the drug. I'll still be able to get as much as I can afford, which is almost always more than enough. It won't change the reasons why pot-smokers like myself use the drug, or its effects on us afterward. Hundreds of thousands of my fellow Americans will still be getting high to blunt psychological pain, ease anxiety, or attempt to fill a spiritual void. Potheads will continue to cough and wheeze and lose shit and procrastinate. And though some weed virgins will enjoy the drug for the first time, many more will cling to their fears about the plant and opt for the familiar numbing intoxication of alcohol.

Just as Prohibition did little to stem the flow of alcohol into Americans' gullets, the repeal of Prohibition did little to resolve the problems that alcohol abuse bestows upon our collective psyche. Which is why, when I think about the future of marijuana in this country, and in my own life, it is with a devil on one shoulder, and an angel on the other.

[1] In fact, there's an entire sub-genre of classic pot-smoking characters played by Hollywood A-List actors--Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, Robert DeNiro in Jackie Brown, Brad Pitt in True Romance, and Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

[2] In May of 2012, excerpts emerge from a book called Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss, which detail Obama's weed habits as a youth. In high school he was a member of the "Choom Gang," with choom being a verb meaning "to smoke pakalolo," and with pakalolo meaning weed in Hawaiian. One of the Choom Gang's rituals, popularized by Barry, were "roof hits," where the gang would choom in a car with the windows rolled up. When the joint was gone, they tilted their heads back and sucked the last remnants of pakalolo smoke from the ceiling.

This is an excerpt from the author's new book, MARIJUANAMERICA: One Man's Quest to Understand America's Dysfunctional Love Affair with Weed, available today.