Am I talking about Fox News? The Republican Party? Teletubbies? My first apartment? Although, I could be describing any of the above, what I am in the mood for today is a little of the diggidy dank. Colorado has seen a bit of a mini entrepreneurial boom in the midst of this nationwide recession with the decriminalization of marijuana and the opening of dozens of massively profitable herbal dispensaries throughout the state. This economic windfall has stirred up many of the same old questions and fears about pot that have been beaten into the American psyche over the past 70 years. Is it a gateway drug? Will it lead to increased crime? Is it the demon seed of Satan that will morally corrupt our youth? Can it get out grass stains? To be honest and up front I’ve never really bought the party line about Aunt Mary (it should be clear by now that I don’t buy any party lines), and I’ve always been a bit frustrated when I hear people regurgitating fear-based marketing ploys that were created in the 1930’s. Boooriiing… So I thought that I’d dig down deep into the corner of the bag to see if I can smoke out some of the truth about this wacky weed.
Marijuana has been cultivated as a crop for almost 5000 years. It is perhaps the oldest non-food crop known to man. In fact the first woven fabric ever discovered is believed to have been made from hemp. The seeds from the plant are an excellent source of oil and have been consumed as a food source for eons. It was considered one of the five sacred plants in ancient India and was often left as an offering on royal tombs throughout the world. Its use for medicinal purposes dates back thousands of years. When it was brought to the Americas it was deemed so useful that it was required to be grown by early settlers. It was used heavily in the industrial revolution as a source of fiber for textiles and was even turned into plastics and fuel. So why is it that now this seemingly miraculous plant is placed in the same realm of criminality as assault with a deadly weapon? The answer is simple when placed in the context of U.S. history, or, more appropriately, geography.
In the early 1900’s the Southwestern states were still fighting for their identities and were just beginning to emerge from the dusty, trail-riding days of the Wild West. As part of that struggle for identity the indigenous people of the area, namely Mexicans, had to either be assimilated or vilified, much the same as the Indian population throughout the rest of the U.S. was treated. In order to control the public perception of Mexicans stereotypes were created and attacked viciously. They were portrayed and seen as lazy criminals that lay around poisoned by the loco weed which gave them superhuman strength and a voracious appetite for white women. So, as a way of controlling the native population, part of their culture, (smoking marijuana) was first banned and marked with a scarlet letter forever more in the Southwest. California, Texas, and Louisiana all passed fear-based laws in the early 1920’s strictly to control and incarcerate the Mexican population. Soon, state-by-state, similar laws began to spring up. After the Great Depression in the 30’s in order to protect scarce white jobs from brown people shwag was officially criminalized by the federal government. The propaganda war was so well executed that many of the stereotypes surrounding whacky tabacky still linger today, and constantly fall at orthogonal angles to common sense.
Today marijuana laws and the “war” on drugs are truly insane and wholly outrageous. Through the Office of National Drug Control Policy, federal and state governments spend $50 billion per year on this “war”, which is equal to the combined budgets for all of our country's agriculture, energy, and veteran's programs – three times more than is spent on Food Stamps and the Space and Technology budget. Meanwhile, it is estimated that the market for illegal drugs is about $322 billion. Seem a little lopsided to anyone? This war on drugs is more like a war on logic itself. Drug kingpins obviously factor the losses into their costs just like any other business. They could conceivably pay double what the government spends to buy security and develop technology for their illegal operations and still walk away with $222 billion annually. Futile, pointless, and stupid if you ask me.
Current estimates are that over 25% of all of the pot consumed in the U.S. is grown within its borders; the street value of which is anywhere from $10 to $25 billion. How does that relate to the annual harvest of corn, our #1 cash crop? Last year the value of our entire corn harvest was $19 billion. Hmmm… So that makes dope our top cash crop in the U.S. even though only a quarter of our supply is grown here. The DEA estimates that somewhere between 1 and 3 million Americans grow pot…yes, million. Of those around 100,000 to 200,000 are considered “commercial” operations, or around 2000 to 4000 commercial farms per state. All of them illegal and punishable by life in prison without parole.
Seem like our $50 billion is going to good use now? Yeah? How about this then? About 100 million people in the U.S. readily admit that they have used dope more than once. Although statistics for illegal substances tend to vary, there are anywhere from 25 to 60 million current consumers of the chronic. That’s up to one sixth of the total population. Partay! How much money changes hands from this single herb? Let’s say that a joint costs $5. If all of the stoners in the states (40 million) smoke three blunts per week, we’re looking at least $31 billion every year. It could be as much as four times that. Possible tax revenues are nothing to thumb your nose at. I found this excellent article about the economics of legalization written by a Harvard economist that does a much netter job explaining the situation than I can.
If the war on drugs is a complete waste, then the criminal laws surrounding giggle twig offenses border on the diabolical. As I write this there are around 200,000 inmates in federal prisons for marijuana-related offenses, mostly simple possession cases. Add another 30,000 for state pens. Currently ganja is classified as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance along with GHB, heroine and LSD. These substances are considered to have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and no accepted safety for use of the drug even under medical supervision. What the?!? Less-harmful Schedule 2 substances include morphine, cocaine, and PCP. Uhh… I’m sure that makes sense to someone… Since it is a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance crimes involving pot hold hefty fines and punishments, including potential revocation of over 400 federal benefits (student loans, subsidies, business licenses, etc.) that are not denied to convicted murderers, pedophiles and rapists. Possessing the equivalent amount of pot as pack of cigarettes is felony offense in many states, and is definitely a trip to the big house if you take it across state lines because then a local offense becomes federal. Even something as benign as selling bongs in Idaho carries a possible sentence of 9 years without the possibility of parole. Any idea what the average sentence for murder in the United States is? Turn your screen upside down for the answer. It’s about fifteen years. Smell what I’m stepping in yet?
There has never been a recorded instance of someone dying or even overdosing on grass…ever. There is no known lethal dose. 435,000 people per year die from smoking tobacco. 85,000 people die from alcohol related issues, not counting drunk-driving deaths - tack on 17,000 more for those. Want to know something else? 60% of all homicides are attributed to alcohol use. Throw on ~ another 12,000 there. We lose another 32,000 folks to adverse reactions to legal prescription drugs annually. The total number of deaths attributed to illicit drug use comes out to 17,000 per year of which exactly zero are attributed to marijuana use. That’s right, zero. Now, even I find the zero number a little hard to swallow, but I’m not the guy writing toe tags. The DEA itself has concluded: "In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. For example, eating 10 raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within the supervised routine of medical care.” Yet it still remains taboo federally.
Fine. It has hundreds of uses, is a great revenue stream, and you can’t die from using it, but won’t it make kids want to start huffing glue and lay on my couch all day listening to Bob Marley? I don’t want my kids living with me forever, you know. It’s a gateway drug, right? The Institute of Medicine's 1999 report on marijuana explained that marijuana has been mistaken for a gateway drug in the past: "Because it is the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana is predictably the first illicit drug most people encounter. Not surprisingly, most users of other illicit drugs have used marijuana. In fact, most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana, usually before they are of legal age." Alcohol and tobacco, which are legal and thousands of times more lethal, are the true gateway drugs. As far as the psychological and physiological effects of smoking or ingesting pretendica goes, study after study shows that the effects of use, even in heavy users (you know who you are), disappear after one stops using MJ on a daily basis. No long-term health effects, it’s non-addictive, and the body can’t build up a tolerance or a dependence. The one true negative side effect comes from smoking it, since inhaling superheated smoke is never a good idea and tar levels in cannabis are higher than in tobacco. Having said that, even my stoner neighbor with his six-foot bamboo steamroller and four-foot bong can’t smoke two ounces of pot every day, which is the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes.
Medical marijuana advocates estimate that the aggregate annual sales tax revenue that's paid by the approximately 400 legal dope dispensaries in California is $100 million. As of right now, Colorado has around 100 doobie dispensaries in operation or planning operation. The largest is in Colorado Springs and serves 1400 patients to the tune of $30,000 monthly sales tax revenue. Many dispensaries get their weed from private growers, many of which have been growing dope illegally for years. Now the illegal operations must become legit and have to claim their sales on their annual income taxes. This will have two major effects. First, obviously income tax revenues will be reaped from what was previously black-market sale. And second, these growers who by default have been selling to illegal dealers will now cater to the legal enterprises, which will mean a decrease in supply for non-dispensary sellers. Finding weed will be harder and harder for the guys that sell out of their apartments as the farmers begin to offer their high-quality harvest preferentially to boutiques. So, either there will be fewer dudes hawking pot or they will be selling ditch weed, which will drive their customers to herbal shops anyway. Win-win.
The stigma that has followed pot around for the past century has been nothing short of amazing. It is one of those propaganda wars that was waged so effectively at the time we now have great difficulty separating truth from fear-based marketing. The vilification of this plant to control minorities is a shame, and I believe this underlying racism in the U.S. is what keeps it illegal today. Untold numbers of cancer patients, college students, chronic pain sufferers, people with autoimmune disorders, vision problems, depression, paralysis, etc. are made de facto criminals or denied treatment for their maladies and billions of dollars are wasted on prosecution of a futile “war” and lost to the black market because some cowboy lost his girlfriend to a Mexican over 100 years ago. Silly and shameful. Do small towns need 20 dispensaries? No. However, as with any new business, we should let the market decide who and how many survive. Should we sell it to kids? No. Should people drive after they do ten b-rips and slug down eight brownies. No. Simple common sense regulations on marijuana usage will be infinitely better for the country than cramming the prisons full of non-violent people that are only there because of mandatory minimum sentencing and ignorance. So I say pass the Dutchie from the left hand side and lay down your swords. It’s time to end this war.
Here are a couple of useful links for more info: Reefer Madness video, Early Propaganda, War on Drugs, and CO marijuana law.