Catching Reality

In the 21st century, change in America happens from the bottom up. That’s a sad commentary on our national leaders. Barack Obama, who has moved the federal government more in the past four months than the previous 30 years, is still playing catch-up to where most Americans have long since been.

A few weeks ago, I noted that four states had legalized same-sex marriage. Since then, Maine has become the fifth state, New Hampshire and New York may join the trend within days or weeks.

There’s another moving trend that’s catching up to American’s reality: in the last two weeks, Minnesota and New Hampshire have become the 14th and 15th states to approve the medicinal use of marijuana.

We have a medical marijuana law here in Vermont. Just as was the case with same-sex civil unions, passing a law letting sick people smoke pot did not cause the walls to fall in. After getting a doctor’s prescription, people whose conditions would be improved by smoking (or eating) marijuana can register with the state and then possess two mature and seven immature plants. Still imperfect, the law does not describe a legal pathway to obtaining those plants, but still… progress.

(Yes, I hear the critics’ voices. “Sure, everyone runs down to a doctor feel-good and soon they’re all toking up.” There may be abuses of the system – any system of anything is susceptible to abuse – but after five years, there are fewer than 200 people enrolled in Vermont’s medical marijuana registry, suggesting that both patients and doctors take this seriously.)

Last week, California’s Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – while stopping short of advocating the legalization of marijuana – said it’s worth debating what legalization would mean in terms of saving money on law enforcement and prisons and enhanced revenues for state coffers (via a tax on legal marijuana). California’s Board of Equalization estimates that marijuana taxes could bring in $1.3 billion a year to the cash-strapped state.

Better still, if pot were legalized, maybe Americans could get some civil liberties back. Maybe police departments wouldn’t have the expense of flying helicopters over state forests, looking for plants and officers wouldn’t have to cruise through neighborhoods with heat-sensing devices, trying to find indoor growers. (And if those indoor growers could bring their plants out into the sunlight, think of all the electricity we’d save.)

Like same-sex marriage, the debate on marijuana use has to come out of the closet in America. I live in a college town and when I speak to college administrators privately – away from fear of sanction – they all say they would rather not have students use any mood or mind altering substances. They acknowledge, however, that mood alteration will occur and they would far rather see them smoke pot and sit around listening to music than have them drinking beer (the default option). The beer leads to fighting and medical and legal intervention and destroyed property. Many college-town cops will tell you the same thing.

“Just say no” doesn’t work and just because Nancy Reagan needed a “cause” 25 years ago is a poor reason to keep trying to enforce an asinine prohibition. President Obama, as I wrote, will not lead us into the future on this, but he may at least help bring us out of the past. A youthful toker himself, he’s said that he thinks marijuana should be decriminalized, although he leaves that decision to the states. Although federal laws regarding marijuana are still on the books, Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered the Justice Department to not prosecute marijuana use if it conforms to medical marijuana laws in states that have such statutes.

© Mark Floegel, 2009

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