Long before it was presidential to say marijuana is safer than alcohol, comedian, best-selling author, MLB Mets co-owner and progressive talk-show host Bill Maher (HBO's Real Time) was one of the brightest torches in favor of sensible marijuana policy.
With legal recreational sales in Colorado this year and a White House now talking about rescheduling marijuana to allow for research and treatment, it's as if Maher was setting the stage for what has become a fast-moving revolution in the U.S.A.
The 58-year-old advisory board member at NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project is quick to spread the credit. He recently called Willie Nelson "one of our nation's beloved founding stoners."
More than anything else, though, Maher credits time itself for America's rapid evolution on cannabis. Maher said in a lengthy conversation with The 420 Times that generations of tokers in red states and blue states have really changed our national conversation on legalization.
"Well, I mean, part of it is just generational," he said. "More and more people over time are pot smokers. I've been fond of saying that it's the one thing that unites the two parts of the country. We're such a divided country, between the red and blue and the conservative and liberal, but everybody smokes dope. Willie Nelson smokes it and Snoop Dogg smokes it. Hillbillies smoke it plenty and so do hippies. So it's sort of the ultimate purple issue."
Another reason things have advanced so fast -- in recreational states Colorado and Washington, and in the dozen or so states considering medical legalization today -- is that dire consequences in places that have legitimized cannabis never came to fruition.
"Like some of the issues where the conservatives cry wolf, once people see that there is no great downside, they realize that the wolf crying was all a bunch of bullshit," Maher says. "I mean, we saw that with gay marriage, same thing -- the world didn't end. When gay people got married, it didn't really affect your marriage. ... Medical marijuana has been around now for, oh, it's coming up on 20 years in some states. It was first passed here in '96. And the world hasn't fallen down."
Shouldn't Maher, who admitted in March that a club in Las Vegas had stopped him from sparking up, tell America I told you so?
"I would never accuse America of being quick on coming up to issues. But, over time, I think even that [marijuana decriminalization] got into their heads," Maher said. "That and also the major selling points that we've been trying to pound into people's minds for the longest time, that even the president has said -- it is less harmful than alcohol. I think Americans are finally coming around."
Maher's latest high horse is how marijuana will be the next civil rights issue, following the liberation of same-sex marriage in California and some other states. He's not saying that getting high is a God-given right (though many of our founding fathers were hardcore beer aficionados). It's more about justice.
African Americans in the nation's capital are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, although both races use the drug at the same rate. Statistics like that have already inspired the Obama administration to relax mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug suspects, who are overwhelmingly minorities. Often people of color are behind bars for a drug that is widely believed to be safer than booze.
"The one thing that I always compare it to is gay marriage," Maher says. "We did an editorial on this show a couple of years ago called 'Pot Is The New Gay Marriage,' and the point of it was gay marriage was, back 20 years ago, only polling at about 10 percent approval in America. Barely anybody who wasn't gay wasn't for it. Back in the '90s ... the closest thing we had to gay marriage was when Liza Minnelli married David Gest. But, the gay people and their lobbying arms were very efficient at just insisting and pounding away at the issue and not taking no for an answer. And, slowly, America did come around."
In 2010 California had its chance to come around and become the first state in the union to legalize recreational marijuana. Proposition 19 came close, but it ultimately lost 54 percent in favor to 46 percent opposed. Efforts to get a legalization initiative on the ballot this year look like a long shot, but 2016, which will see a presidential election, could be a key year. Maher, who lives in L.A., has his theory about why California, the first state to give medicinal cannabis a chance, hasn't been able to get it together for full legalization so far.
"We had it on the ballot in 2010 and it was going to pass, but not one Democrat in the state, not the Dianne Feinsteins, not the Barbara Boxers, nobody got behind it. And, of course ,that left it vulnerable and sort of just swinging in the wind. Halloween falls right before November and the evil people on the other side of the issue put out a rumor that there was marijuana in the Halloween candy. And that's all that we needed. That's how these evil politicians work. It scared people and, at the last minute, it was going to win -- and then it lost."
The comedian thinks legalization could provide a chance for Democrats, who always seem to be running toward more conservative, crime-and-punishment issues at the center, to redeem themselves and embrace a civil rights matter that Republicans might not be able to touch.
"Democrats do have to get behind it the way they -- quote, unquote -- evolved on gay marriage," Maher says. "As soon as legalization hit 51 percent approval, there was suddenly a lot of evolving. Now as far as the Republicans go, that's a much more interesting question because Republicans have an opening here with marijuana that I don't think enough of them are taking advantage of. This could be an issue that they could steal. They could own weed and greed and they could do it with a straight face. I mean, there's a lot about that issue that is in line with traditional, conservative principles, like individual liberty and, of course, taking jobs from Mexicans."
Some Republicans, including presidential hopeful Rand Paul and Orange County Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, are already on board. Rohrabacher introduced legislation this year that would require Obama's Drug Enforcement Administration agents to back off on collective crackdowns in medical states like California. On the right side of the political spectrum, this could be a states' rights issue. "I think there is that wing of the Republican Party, that Libertarian wing," Maher says.
With recreational legalization in California likely to come up again in 2016, and with a wide-open presidential race that could draw many younger voters to the polls, cannabis policy could be a huge issue in 2016.
"Rand Paul could steal the millennials away from the Democrats very easily," Maher said. "Hillary [Clinton] does not look like somebody who is very in-tune with people who are 25 years old, but Rand Paul is a generation younger. If he ran a campaign based around not getting entangled in foreign affairs and [being for] personal liberties here at home, it could go a long way to getting that kind of voting bloc."
Don't, however, start to think that Maher has switched sides. He put $1 million behind Obama in 2012, and he's quite happy with the investment, despite the slow pace of sensible marijuana policy at the White House.
"I do think it was money well spent because people may forget that, as of 2010, after the Supreme Court ruled on the Citizens United case and said money and politics was unlimited now, the playing field moved up to the million dollar level," Maher says. "I mean, in 2008, I gave to Obama the most I could give to him, $2,300. By 2012 that had moved up from basically $2,300 to infinity, which is kind of a big jump.
"I did it early in the year to make the point to my fellow liberals who do have money that if we're going to win this thing, we're going to have to get in the game on the million-dollar level. Because most of the billionaires are of course, rich Republicans. They were gonna have to get in the game. And a lot of them did, and they told me, at the Super PAC, that a number of them did it because they had been inspired by what I was trying to say. I'm glad I did it."
We had to point out to Mr. Maher that it was expensive being a political pimp. "That's right," he said.
In fact, Maher says it's time for supporters of legalization and decriminalization to get out their checkbooks and play the game. We all know the rules now. There's no ambiguity about them. Cash is going to win the day at the ballot box.
"We on the left should not unilaterally disarm," Maher says. "We should play that game. But that doesn't mean there's still not a place for the small contributor because those people can contribute directly to the candidate and, of course, there's no replacement for the ground game in politics. If you really want your candidate to win, volunteer. Get out there on election day, or before, and make calls, get people to the polls. That's how you win elections."
Maher is a true player who puts his money where his mouth is, and that includes Major League Baseball. In 2012 he invested in a piece of Mets ownership. And not just to be able to toke in the owners' box.
"I'm hopeful for the Mets this year," he says. "I think they've got a couple of key players. I think [Curtis] Granderson's going to have a big year. And Bartolo Colon, I think is a good steady influence on the pitching staff and they have very powerful pitching. I mean, when you have a pitching staff like they could have ... when they get back ... Matt Harvey, I think he can be in every game. If they get a little luck with the offense, they could just surprise some people."
We asked him about the high life of a major league owner.
"You have your own box when you're an owner," Maher said. "I mean, when I go to the games, so far I've stayed in my box. But, you can also sit right down on field level and I'm probably going to do that. I'm going to go back to an owner's meeting in June and I think they're playing the Braves that night, and I want to sit, like, really, really close to the field."
Ballclub co-owner, writer, intelligent talker, Maher is a true renaissance man for this marijuana millennium. But, unlike some decriminalization intellectuals, this guy practices what he preaches. He smokes weed. And he breaks down boundaries doing it. Important boundaries.
"I mean, I used to smoke weed in nightclubs in the '90s, and when people would come over from the club and tell me to put it out, I would say, 'I want the rapper treatment.' And they'd be like, 'Well sir ... ' And I'd be like, 'You know exactly what I'm talking about: You don't make the rappers put it out because you look at them and you go, 'Oh, well that's their culture.' And I would always say, 'Well this is my culture. Now let me smoke my weed here, just like the rappers.'
If Maher is not a founding stoner, he's certainly a contemporary cannabis statesman.
Bill Maher is performing at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on April 18th