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Joe Schrank Headshot

Legalize It! But First Mainstream It

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On May 4, the pro-marijuana legalization movement held a rally in New York's Union Square. It was a peaceful assembly of citizens, all acting well within their rights as Americans attempting to have their voices heard. The participants looked like a cartoonish caricature of what America thinks of drug policy reformers. They seemed a band of misfits begging for acceptance of their fringe lifestyle, the kind of scene that the anti-legalization crowd finds easy to dismiss. The entire thing looked like the aftermath of a jam band festival. It smelled like one too: Unkempt hygiene, mixed with the pungent smell of marijuana, dirty laundry, incense, and patchouli. Combined with a palpable sense of complacency and entitlement, it all came together to form a distinct overall odor that I could have done without having to inhale.

The sparse crowd nevertheless had the full range of the usual suspects -- everyone from the "needs parenting and a bath" cohort to those with genuine psychoses. Ineffective circus though it was, the NYPD was in full force protecting the public from what basically looked like a gathering of down-on-their-luck Berkeley dropouts dancing around like idiots. Thanks boys, for the service and "protection" from these "criminals." I'll ask the question, even though you already know my answer: Does a rally like that actually help the cause of shifting a drug policy that doesn't work to something sensible? No, it does not.

Legalizing marijuana would require a massive effort and shift in beliefs -- beliefs rooted in old ideas that don't hold up to science, common sense, individual freedom, or effective public health policy. After generations of attempting to incarcerate our way out of the intoxication problem, we have overflowing prisons that should be looked at with as much shame and regret as Manzanar. In Mayor Bloomberg's New York, the stop-and-frisk idea prevails. Crime may in fact be down, but is it worth the cost of marginalizing young black and brown men throwing them into the Kafkaesque scene of New York's judicial system simply because a stop and frisk practice yielded a little marijuana? What if they shook people down looking for beer? Young men + alcohol = trouble, after all. Young men + pot, on the other hand? I think that equals video games and pizza. I don't like either option -- I would prefer homework and sports -- but which should we be more concerned about?

Too many people were missing, though. Where was mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn giving her perspective and commitment to end this nonsense and stand up to the distilled spirits lobby? Where were the medical and social work community with their perspective? Where were the parents whose kids are serving time for ridiculous drug charges?

And what about the recovery community? Of all of the groups that should advocate for policy reform, that's the one I'm looking for most. Instead, they remain in the shadows, unorganized and uninvolved in change at the macro level. Shouldn't people who have managed to find a way to live drug-free be the group asking most loudly for policy that can genuinely help those still impaired by intoxication? It would make sense that they would lead the way. Where are these 23 million Americans?

If not them, what about the self-satisfied, play date scheduling, Prius-driving Whole Foods shoppers? Why can't they do something to organize and demand a better policy? Because they simply want to go on buying organic apples and not really caring about people serving time while they discretely puff away. Their argument that it's bad to incarcerate is just posturing.

And if not them, how about the Right? Why can't they see what legalization could mean for them -- pro-family actions, fiscal responsibility, and adherence to the Constitution -- all the things they claim they want?

If drug policy reform stands a chance of becoming a reality, the cause must be mainstreamed to include a wider swath of the population. Until that time, the pro-legalization movement will be little more than a band of millennial brats and middle-aged burnouts having a party in the park and calling it activism.