I smoked pot for the first time in 1969. The Doors were on the stereo, Jim Morrison singing, "Before you slip into unconsciousness, I'd like to have another kiss..."
1969 was also the first year the Gallup polling organization asked Americans how they felt about the legalization of marijuana. The very idea of legalization was barely within the bounds of polite conversation in those days, a fact reflected by the measly 12 percent of respondents who said they favored the idea.
A lot of smoke has gone up the proverbial chimney since then. This year, when Gallup asked Americans how they felt about legalizing pot, the number of people in favor hit 50 percent — the first time this has happened since Gallup started polling on the issue in 1969. Those opposed to legalization dropped to 46 percent.
This should be good news on a number of fronts.
When 50 percent of Americans are in favor of something, it usually opens the door for public discussion about how these feelings might translate into the development of meaningful policy.
In the case of our outdated marijuana laws, policy changes could start by reclassifying marijuana from its current status as a Schedule I drug, which rejects pot's medicinal applications and erroneously lumps it in with such dangerous and addictive substances as heroin. Rescheduling would enable people with serious illnesses, like various cancers and Parkinson's, to have access to marijuana relief, regardless of where they live in the United States.
The large number of people in favor of legalization should also permit a more intentional exploration of how marijuana might be developed as a legitimate cash crop. In states like Indiana, where there is already a longstanding black market in marijuana cultivation and sales, this would enable the state to regulate this product and benefit from a new, agriculture-based revenue stream.
Finally, the burgeoning majority in favor of legalization should help us to get out from under the social and political hypocrisy that comes from having to maintain a law that is practically unenforceable and socially bankrupt. It benefits no one when the state sets about turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into rebels and transforms criminals into anti-heroes. If the failure of Prohibition in the 1920s teaches us anything, it should be that while the state may choose to create disincentives for a variety of behaviors — like drunken driving — it risks losing whatever legitimate authority it has when it engages in draconian efforts to completely outlaw those behaviors.
The Gallup and other polls showing Americans' support for marijuana legalization represent tremendous opportunities for medical, economic and social progress. The polling data amounts to a permission slip making it safe for politicians to talk about reforming our marijuana laws for the better.
This isn't happening.
In the past month, the Obama administration has been hammering medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Colorado. On October 7, U.S. attorneys in California announced "coordinated enforcement actions targeting the illegal operations of the commercial marijuana industry in California."The U.S. Justice of Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Internal Revenue Service have been mobilized in what appears to be a team effort to drive dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legal out of business.
Making a bad situation worse, the Obama administration is perpetuating the government's long-time practice of discouraging research that could legitimize the use of pot for medicinal purposes. It has blocked federal approval of medical marijuana and, through the DEA, rejected a nine-year-old petition to reschedule marijuana. It has set up a catch-22, demanding that pot must prove its value through large-scale, FDA controlled trials, while blocking these trials by refusing to use marijuana grown at a private production facility.
Apparently, the only place where you can get pot for research is through the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, but guess what? The NIDA recently blocked a request for marijuana to study its effects on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because, said these watchdogs, they don't want to allow studies that might reinforce or encourage the use of medical marijuana.
If you've been wondering what the Occupy Wall Street movement is about, look no further. Here's a situation where half of the American people are ready for, at the very least, an energetic discussion about how to improve our wayward marijuana laws. But the politicians know better. In fact, they don't even want to know what marijuana's benefits might be. They would rather suppress research that could lead to the relief of suffering veterans and cancer patients than have to rethink the ineffectual law enforcement apparatus that's been created over the years to save us from ourselves.
And let's not even start on how our laws have encouraged the growth of bloody drug cartels in Mexico to supply our black market. That's material for another column.
Given Gallup's findings, what are the politicians waiting for? Perhaps their big pharmaceutical campaign contributors will tell us — when they're ready to go to market.