Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Mile High High

Last week, when nobody was looking, Colorado legalized marijuana. There’s some paper-pushing to be done, but at some point marijuana will be sold to those over 21 under much the same sort of regulatory mechanism as alcohol. The referendum got surprisingly little press, even here at home, and doubly even here in Colorado Springs, where Certain People just can’t shake the suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is having too much of a good time. I’ve been getting email from a few of my friends who have been (or maybe still are) users, asking me how we pulled it off.

It’s called democracy. People in Colorado got sick of a certain kind of intrusive government, and they kicked government’s ass. This is what initiative systems are for. As best I can tell it wasn’t that hard, for reasons I’ll relate shortly.

There was a Kliban cartoon in the January 1972 Playboy (this link is the best I could find) that simply nails the absurd position that marijuana has held in the national neurosis since the 1920s. In case you can’t see it well, the cartoon depicts a cop hauling a guy into the police station wearing a costume that looks remarkably like a certain illegal plant. The caption, spoken by the police chief: “I admire your initiative, Flynn, but we can’t arrest them for impersonating marijuana.”

For most of a century, we have allowed ourselves to be so terrified of a weed that even the idea of looking like marijuana gets our cortisol coursing. Carol bought a houseplant decades ago called a false aralia. The first time I saw it, a chill ran down my spine. (I had never seen the real thing except in books.) If it weren’t for the boggling amount of money wasted and the number of young lives ruined, the whole business would be sitcom fodder. It’s all now coming apart.

Here’s my analysis of why it happened:

  • Colorado has an excellent initiative system, which has largely been used to limit the power of government. Lots of silly initiatives get on the ballot. Almost none of them pass. The ones that do are generally worthwhile.
  • Colorado has had a legal medical marijuana system since 2000. The world didn’t end. Wild-eyed stoners weren’t enacting Reefer Madness in the streets. Nothing happened.
  • Although the chemical machinery of marijuana is poorly understood, it does seem to work in certain cases, especially for suppressing nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Politicians who campaigned against MMJ back in 1999 were positioned as championing the suffering of dying people. Instant third rail.
  • The cumulative effect of our war on drugs is making even very conservative people question whether the benefits gained are worth the collateral damage. I know a number of Republicans who were very much for the initiative, though they denied being users. The issue did not fold along the usual dotted lines.
  • I was told by a psychiatrist I know that the hazards of marijuana are hugely overstated. I’ve read in several places that most of the pathology that we see in marijuana users has other unrelated causes. I know people who have been regular users since the early 1970s, and they’re all articulate, successful individuals. This used to be a contrarian point of view. No more.
  • That same psychiatrist told me that Obama instructed the DEA to back off individual users after he took office in 2008. I’m sure there are conservative marijuana users somewhere. I’m just as sure I’ve never met one. The Democratic base is full of them. Obama wanted to carry Colorado, and he did.

That’s “how we pulled it off.” Here, at the risk of getting screamed at by my conservative readership, is why I think it’s a good thing:

  • Legal marijuana means better, cleaner, and more predictable marijuana. One of my user friends out east says he envies the quality of the weed sold here and in California. What he gets in the alley is often dirty, contaminated with mold, and sometimes adulterated with other plant material.
  • Legal marijuana means that research into the uses of THC and the host of other active compounds in marijuana is more likely to happen. Research is now almost impossible, so what we know falls pretty much in the category of folk medicine. Knowledge is Good. Always.
  • Prohibition drives up prices, and money powers criminal activity. Cheaper marijuana probably means less money going to drug gangs here and in Latin America.
  • Local cultivation also means less involvement of foreign drug gangs.
  • Money and manpower spent suppressing marijuana is money and manpower not spent suppressing other, far more dangerous drugs. Meth is deadly, and it is not on my friends list.
  • There is a nontrivial amount of money to be had in taxes on legal marijuana. Yes, it’s a tax I myself won’t have to pay. I like that kind of tax.
  • There is a nontrivial amount of labor required to cultivate marijuana and create “downstream” products like edibles and tinctures. I’d rather those jobs be here than somewhere else.

None of this is original with me, but it’s the position I’ve come to after much thought and a fair bit of research. (Most recent piece of which: Super Charged by Jim Rendon. Decent, but not worth hardcover prices. Wait for the paperback or watch for it used.)

So. Given that even possessing marijuana remains a federal crime, will anything come of it? Invading Colorado with hundreds of door-kicking DEA thugs could turn Colorado red next election. Don’t wait up for it. The Feds will make a great deal of noise, but the same thing will happen as happened in 2000, when Colorado approved medical marijuana: nothing.

I think we’re approaching a sort of tipping point: The more states that legalize marijuana without dogs and cats living together, the sillier that all the sound and fury over marijuana becomes. Sooner or later the Feds will quietly fold, and even the Republicans will vote to repeal marijuana prohibition. As goes the US goes the rest of the Western world. It won’t be next year or the year after, but I still hold that it’s science fiction, not fantasy. Moreover, it’s dull science fiction. (Rather like Bowl of Heaven…but I get ahead of myself.)


  1. Jonathan O'Neal says:

    I couldn’t see the cartoon on the Playboy page you linked, but here’s another copy (hopefully it isn’t referer-locked).

  2. Erbo says:

    Well, I voted for Amendment 64, even though I have no intention whatsoever of using marijuana, and I can defend that vote on several conservative/libertarian grounds. Among them:

    The Argument from History: We tried Prohibition once already. It didn’t work then. There’s ample evidence to suggest that the modern-day Prohibition we call the War on (Some) Drugs isn’t working now, either. (I could cite a headline in The Onion: “Drugs Win Drug War.” 🙂 )

    The Argument from Constitutionalism: No part of the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, gives the Federal Government the authority to regulate substances like marijuana. (When they tried to prohibit alcohol, they had to add the 18th Amendment to do it…and then, of course, repeal it with the 21st.) By the 10th Amendment, therefore, any such regulation is to be reserved to the states. A state-level initiative is a proper place to consider this question.

    The Argument from Limited Government: The War on (Some) Drugs has resulted in unconscionable expansion of government power, through asset-forfeiture laws, the growing militarization of police, and the like. Anything that reverses this trend is a Good Thing.

    These aren’t the only arguments in favor of the measure, but to libertarian conservatives, they are compelling.

  3. Larry Nelson says:

    We people of the great state of Washington joined in the same result a week ago. Many of the facts are similar to the Colorado story.

    It was completely under my radar, not much advertising or conversation on the street. The 55% favorable vote was also a surprise.

    My libertarian leanings say legalize all drugs. My moralist leanings say that drugs of any kind are choice to live in a false reality, and living truthfully is always better.

    I learned a couple days ago that prohibition was ended after several states legalized alcohol first. The feds we left in an untenable position. Kind of like the present situation.

    1. Rich Rostrom says:

      No. The Volstead Act was Federal law, directly enforceable by the Federal government anywhere, regardless of state law.

      The Prohibition amendment and the Volstead Act was the only time the U.S. has ever enacted substantive, locally applicable law. That is normally left to the states. Federal law has either been about interstate activities, Federal government activities (such as excise taxes), or procedural matters (such as voting rights).

  4. Erbo says:

    And so, it begins:

    A Colorado congresswoman is introducing new federal legislation that would allow states to pass their own laws on controlled substances.

    “My constituents have spoken and I don’t want the federal government denying money to Colorado or taking other punitive steps that would undermine the will of our citizens,” said Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colorado).

    This bill will probably go nowhere, despite the fact that it is firmly in keeping with my Constitutional argument above; it seems to me that it’s rather firmly in the “Too Soon” camp. After a couple of years in which Coloradans and Washingtonians toke up freely without the world ending, though, it might have legs.

  5. R-Laurraine Tutihasi says:

    Bill Maher had as a guest the person who reputedly orchestrated the legalization in Colorado. He promised Bill that he could do the same in California. And you didn’t mention that Washington also passed a similar law. Medical marijuana is apparently now legal in 18 states.

  6. Tom Hanlin says:

    Hoot. Well, I may move to Colorado. You have no idea how that mellow cleans up my brain. It’s… nice. Like aspirin, but a little more so. It relaxes places in me that I didn’t even realize were tense.

    I never really thought I’d live to see the day… go, progress, go go go.

  7. Rich Rostrom says:

    It’s arguable that the health hazards of marijuana have been exaggerated by those who want it prohibited/

    It’s also arguable that health hazards of marijuana have been minimized by those who want it legalized.
    This blogpost summarizes and links to nine different scholarly papers which found connections between marijuana use and mental illness (schizophrenia and psychosis). The papers were from the British Medical Journal, British Journal of Psychiatry, Schizophrenia Bulletin, International Review of Psychiatry, American Journal of Psychiatry, and Archives of General Psychiatry.

    The general conclusion is that while marijuna use is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause mental illness, it is often a contributing factor. One metastudy concluded that without marijuana there would be 8% less schizophrenia.

    The mechanisms are not clearly understood, but heavy marijuana use produces changes in brain tissue that are very similar to changes seen in cases of advanced schizophrenia. Early marijuana use also correlates with risk of schizophrenic breakdown.

    None of this is acknowledged by marijuana advocates. They insist that since it has not been proven that marijuana can directly cause mental illness, there is no risk whatever.

    Legalization will certainly lead to substantially increased usage – and that will lead to increased mental illness – just what we need right now.

    1. Almost everybody has an agenda these days, in this and all other topics of any consequence. This is why I research everything and think it through myself. I’ve seen the research you’ve cited and I am suspicious of much of it. As with any field these days, a lot depends on who funds the studies.

      The key point I see here is that a lot of things damage the body with heavy use. My legendary Uncle Louie basically drank himself to death when he was elderly and alone. Heavy use of alcohol causes cirrhosis, which can be fatal if severe enough. In his case it was. Fructose can cause nonalcoholic fatty liver syndrome, which can also lead to cirrhosis and (eventually) death. Other sugars cause insulin fatigue and then diabetes, above and beyond obesity. I’d wager that cheap sugar (and ignorant government-funded campaigns against eating fat) have caused a lot more suffering and death than marijuana ever will.

      So it isn’t harmless. A lot of things aren’t. (Tobacco, sheesh. It destroyed my father a piece at a time.) Do we ruin lives over them? No. Your point is well-taken, but I don’t think it changes much.

      We need a lot more research here. It won’t happen until the hysteria goes away. For that to happen we have to legalize the substance. I don’t see any other way forward.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *