No easy way to stub out hypocrisy over cannabis
Column: No politician ever lost his seat because he was too hard on drugs
A man stands in front of a medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, California. Voters there have strongly supported a measure to sharply curtail the number of medical such dispensaries in Los Angeles. Photograph: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
While we were busy eliminating smoking by making the packets look like cool posters from the golden era of Italian horror, something considerably more interesting was happening in Colorado. The magnificently named John Hickenlooper, governor of that state, signed a clutch of laws outlining how the sale, taxation and growth of recreational marijuana might be overseen.
Enthusiasts for the music of the Grateful Dead and the graphic adventures of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (or for some hemp-friendly cultural phenomena that people under 40 will recognise) should think twice before making their eager way to the Centennial State. Weed is not yet quite legal in that place.
Here’s the situation. Last year, voters in Colorado joined those of Washington state in approving a constitutional amendment that legalised recreational marijuana. Adults over 21 are (in theory) permitted to possess up to an ounce of the drug. Those grown-ups can (again, theoretically) own plants and buy gear in stores. The problem is that the new legislation looks to be in violation of federal law. In the likely event that Washington and Colorado – home to an accidental coalition of bearded liberals and gun-toting libertarians – choose not to form a new Confederacy, the states’ citizens will almost certainly fail in their efforts to make an Amsterdam of the American west.
Still, it looks as if some small progress is finally being made on a cause that has, to this point, barely registered with the political mainstream.
Twenty or 30 years ago, the average frontline politician would see no need to make a meaningful distinction between the lethality of cannabis, heroin, machine guns, leprosy and meteorite strikes. Each will kill you stone dead as soon as look at you.
A recent uncomfortable joke by Barack Obama at the White House correspondents’ dinner demonstrated how much that situation has altered. “The problem is that the media landscape is changing so rapidly,” he said. “You can’t keep up with it. I mean, I remember when Buzzfeed was just something I did in college around 2am.”
It is probably safe to assume that readers of The Irish Times will be more puzzled by the meaning of Buzzfeed (a website that filters viral content) than by Obama’s, like, way-awesome punchline (a reference to the dope-smoker’s penchant for late-night ingestion). In the time of Richard Nixon, a politician may as well have admitted to a history of bestiality as own up to youthful enthusiasm for the Camberwell Carrot. Even Bill Clinton felt the need to claim he “didn’t inhale”. Now we snigger and wink.
In 2000, the Conservative Party in the UK was suddenly caught up in a wave of semi-confessions to undergraduate drug use. A standard formula was rapidly established: “I tried it in college a few times. But I didn’t like it very much.” Bizarrely, Norman Lamont owned up to eating space cake. Nothing better demonstrated the uncertain attitude to cannabis in the British establishment than the minor kerfuffle that attached itself to the colourful Tim Yeo, a former environment secretary, when he broke the code and admitted that he “enjoyed it”.
Toxins and hypocrisy
Nonetheless we were, surely, moving towards an era in which the state’s hypocritical proscription of one drug, while it drew vast tax revenue from the sale of two arguably more dangerous ones, would finally be subject to rigorous deconstruction. If cannabis is so wretchedly dangerous then we should also be banning alcohol (which is more toxic) and tobacco (which is more addictive). The old argument about cannabis being a “gateway drug” to more deadly narcotics never made much sense. Move sales away from the black market – the same demi monde that deals in heroin – and you are sure to make the supposed gateway a great deal less accessible. So, is weed about to have its gay marriage moment?
Almost certainly not. More than a few commentators found Obama’s joke in questionable taste. While Barack implicitly admits the increasing acceptance of cannabis use, his administration continues a senseless “war on drugs” that, as David Simon, creator of The Wire, commentated recently, is waged “not against dangerous substances but against the poor, the excess Americans”. More than 750,000 Americans are jailed yearly for marijuana offences. How many of those are laughing at the “Buzzfeed” gag?
The truth is that no politician ever lost his seat because he was too hard on drugs. Just remember all that hysterical back-slapping after the recent blanket prohibition of “legal highs”.
Elections are won by reaching out to the safe, suburban middle ground, not by taking risks with potentially controversial legislative innovations.
Let’s grow up. Let’s not mince words by proposing “a full and frank debate on the potential legalisation of cannabis”. Let’s just legalise cannabis. Alternatively, let’s ban the gin and tonic. They tried it once in America. How did that work out again?