Illustration by Ward Sutton
Heeeeewhack and sweet motherogod, it’s the answer to a prayer. Smokable scotch, rollable martinis, sparkable chardonnay, Bud sans weiser, rumless Jamaican shooters, newfangled Old Fashioneds, the one-ounce fifth, that is to say…cough, haaaaack, cough…LEGAL WEED!, or ¡MARIHUANA LÍCITO!, is on its way. Via a public vote—a.k.a. The Cool-Ass Electoral Cannabis Test (™, btw)—on November 3rd. And should the idea of lawful schwag fail to sway voters, no worries. There’s always the next election. Or the one after that. But it’s DEFINITELY COMING, O-high-o. Intoxicatingly and inevitably. Coming soon to a Bambú or brownie near you. Thank you, Jesus! (You too, Jesús, for past import services rendered.)
Although. Except. Whoa-hoa, hit the…SKREEEEEEEEEE…motherhumpin’ brakes. There’s been some kind of shake-my-fist-at-the-sky screw-up. See, the prayer-answer dropped from on high and RIGHT NOW plummeting at terminal velocity through the ionosphere has obviously, OUTRAGEOUSLY, been impeded—lost, perhaps, amidst the desktop clutter and chaos of God’s Prayermaster General or—spitballing here—sucked down some twisting, time-eating celestial wormhole between Heaven and Earth. Which is to say: It’s late. Waaaay late. Insultingly, emptily, regrettably, why-bother-Father late. I.e., I no longer smoke weed. At all. Ever. Can’t. Gave it up long ago. Had to. Liked it, used it, to excess. A plot point that repeats in my life like amnesia in a soap opera.
So, for me, really, the upcoming vote to legalize is moot. No matter how it plays out, my life changes exactly 0.0 percent. Thumbs up and I won’t be salivating over ads for The State’s Lowest Prices on The State’s Locoest Weed; thumbs down and I don’t furiously write my 420 Theses and nail them in defiance to John Kasich’s forehead.
On the other hand, as a guy who once embraced the substance in question as a daily sacrament, included it as a line item in the household budget, was in so deep he frequently used the word stash as a noun and cop as a verb without making air quotes, yet who is now psychoconstitutionally self-forbidden from re-entering Reefer Heights, my interest in the issue is strong, my position and my perspective, at worst, informed, with the outside possibility of it rising to the level of uniquely informative. (Note to the currently stoned: Yes, all those commas in the preceding sentence are really there.)
Mind prepped and ready for blowing? Here we go.
OK. That was misleading. Or at least premature. This next chunk of the story contains no drug war veteran’s reflections or projections, no singular perspective. Doesn’t need to. Its scope is limited, removed from pot usage and focused solely on the framework the current ballot measure—Issue 3—proposes for legalization. For that kind of wonky topic, cold, hard facts are needed. Though, in the interest of serving my point of view, not too cold, too hard, or too facty. But before detailing where we are, let’s contextualize, and see where we’ve been.
The hippies, as well as the potheads and stoners they gave rise to, got it all wrong. Their approach to legalization was grass rootsy, one of presumed parity and fair play. Meaning most users saw toking up as no worse—and in some ways better, safer—than knocking back a couple cocktails: an alternative way for alternative persons to unwind and relax, to muffle their intracranial racket with a little inhalable white noise, a mellow and hangoverless friend to turn one’s troubles over to. Equivalent indulgences with equivalent effects deserve equal treatment, they reasoned. And since they were often baked, reasoned only. They took no action, opting instead to recline on their floor pillows and parse the injustice between cuts of Dark Side of the Moon, hoping and waiting for the straight world to come around and do right. The same strategy that failed them with spelling Amerika with a K.
Flash forward to today’s keep-yer-eye-on-the-ROI United States of Citizens United, where everyone knows it’s Money!, Capitalism!, The 1-Percent’s Hunger To Be 1-Percentier! that gets things done and wills whims into outcomes. Here, market forces are the irrevocably irresistible force. And it’s why legalization’s being voted on now instead of back when fringe was an acceptable fashion choice.
What I’m getting at is this: The initiative Ohioans are about to vote on is a money deal. The brainstorm, the concoction, of a political consultant whose firm is being paid at least $20 million dollars by a small group of wealthy investors to collect signatures, get the issue on the ballot, and sell the idea to voters. Since he gets paid win or lose, he can only win.
And the investors? Well, spliff fans, should it pass, those boys’ve bought themselves one whoop-de-doo of a constitutional amendment. One that would “endow exclusive rights for commercial marijuana growth, cultivation, and extraction to self-designated landowners who own ten predetermined parcels of land” around the state. Twenty glorious words that will forever empower said cabal to control, or more accurately, monopolize the production and supply of all cannabis sold through commercial and medical channels in Ohio. Aaaand BOOM! The multimillionaires have legislated their own transformation into multibillionaires. Are you paying attention, El Chapo?
Best (read: worst) of all, however, is this Orwellian element: In a referendum to sanction the widespread use of a brain-altering controlled substance, the Official Dietary Fiber of Woodstock Nation, nobody’s talking about getting high. To hear ResponsibleOhio (the pro-pot outfit made up of the consultants, the investors, and others) tell it, weed isn’t about getting stoned, it’s about job creation. About extracting tax revenue from a hitherto underground economy. About replacing dirty, immoral drug pushers who sell pot to children with clean, principled dispensaries adhering to strict rules about sales to minors, thus eradicating teen drug use just as liquor laws have rid us of teen alcohol use. About a glorious therapeutic panacea for the ill and infirm. But decidedly not about tokingupgettingrippedsnarfingDoritosinfrontoftheTV.
Weird as that is, it may not be about that for me either.
Early on, in my teens, prior to my first nickel bag or swallowed roach, what drew me to pot was its taboo, its rebellion, its statement. Scoring it, possessing it, smoking it, being stoned, everything about it was illegal, defiant, subversive, an antithetical slap in the face to “The Establishment.” And for a knee-jerk antiauthoritarian like myself, life was good.
Today, my positions have “evolved”: I’m way past getting high. No interest in, no intent to. At the same time “The Establishment,” i.e., the fat cats, special interests, and politically connected, have embraced the drug, want to own and market (formerly: push) it, and are encouraging and counting on all liberty-minded citizens and free-market champions to rally ’round the(ir) reefer. And for this diehard antiauthoritarian, that not only violates the spirit of the product, it’s the single best reason to suspect and reject Issue 3, and wait for a better, more populist deal. Case closed.
Not that we’re done here. Not by a long shot. That closed case is sitting inside another, bigger case that remains wide open.
Namely: Even if legalization’s voted down this go-round, defeated as the cynical, greedy oligopoly it seeks to be, the issue’s not going away. The potential cannabonanza just has too many digits betwixt dollar sign and decimal point; it’s a sexy pot o’ pot money too voluptuously seductive to resist. And living in a democradundancy as we do, the moneyed interests will have us voting on this thing as many times as it takes to get it passed. (See: Four tries to get gambling approved in Ohio, primarily financed by gaming companies.)
So what happens down the line if, say, a less objectionable plan is proposed, a law that more or less brings weed production, distribution, and sales into alignment with alcohol. How could I, a former fatty-head, not be cool with that, huh? I mean, just because I can’t safely frolic in the grass, I can at least be happy for my brothers (and sisters) of the doobie who will at last be free to enjoy their buzz of preference without fear of prosecution, right?
I gotta say I’m having trouble giving this prospect a big, unconditional hug of welcome. Partly, I realize, this is due to my past dependence, and to a lesser extent, a strong aversion to hugs, even metaphorical ones. Yet a death-before-hypocrisy mind-set, along with an admittedly fond nostalgia for the physically lazy, mentally hazy days of youth and rebellion, won’t let me slam the door in said prospect’s face, either. Leaving me tentative, muddled, staring across the threshold into the slack face of legal weed, tumbling into the abyss of its dilated pupils, struggling to untangle personal history from actual fact from public consequence.
All right, then, let’s strip this baby down, peel away the distractions and prevarications. To the preponderance of voters, legal ganja isn’t and never will be about jobs or tax revenue or unemploying drug dealers or even, because we’re talking blanket legalization, compassionate medicine. Unh-unh. Those may be nice rationales but they’re not the passion behind the preference. The Nays want to stop drugs and/or protect society and/or enforce “morality.” (All futile hopes, but thanks for playing.) The Yeas want, for themselves and/or loved ones, readily available, good quality product at a reasonable price and without legal consequences. Ergo, in a word and as the hippies foretold, parity. To equalize and legitimize in the eyes of the law and squares the two most highly consumed highs—alcohol and marijuana. Begging the question: Are they equal?
In the opinion of a man who’s spent far too much of life “researching” both abusables (full disclosure: I am that man), I can tell you unequivocally: Absolutely/Absolutely not.
Take the high itself. Pot offers more of a peaks and valleys experience: Do a few hits, get ripped, stop smoking a spell, level out a bit, take a few more hits to re-elevate, stop again, and so on through the evening. (Pro Tip: Stop talking, people. Stoned profundity is a myth.)
Drinking is more of a unidirectional incline. For the prudent, it can be a long slow grade with many exits available—One To Be Sociable, Twofer After A Tough Day, Tipsy, Over The Legal Limit, Slurry, Sloppy, et cetera. For others, it’s a motocross sprint up the pitted face of Blackout Peak.
But there’s another distinction: the only reason to smoke pot is to get high. And it works. Every time. (THC content willing.) Casual drinkers, though, don’t set out to get drunk and often don’t. The complication being, the most serious pot smokers never pass out or black out, whereas determined motocrossers can speed to their deaths in a single binge. Prompting the anti-pot faction to invoke their own specter of death, albeit death deferred: Marijuana Is A Gateway Drug, the first step on the road to becoming a heroin OD! Coke freak! Pill popper! Acidhead! Well, maybe. But even if pot does, as it did in my case, lead to snorting and dropping and tripping, no harm or dependency resulted. Aside from, ya know:
BOOZE! That was my drug of graduation, of greater sway, the dark path that lay beyond the herbal gateway. Or, to paraphrase Glinda: Everything I was looking for was right at the liquor store all along. And since we’re talking parity? Notice that concerns over where one’s first taste of alcohol may lead are nonexistent. Reason: in a drug category that ranges from 30-racks and alcopops to fortified wine and moonshine, it’s only a gateway to…………ITSELF. “WARNING! If product fails to cause numbness, increase dosage.” And since it’s also addictive, chances are the patient will.
I know, I know, pot’s addictive, too. About 4 to 5 percent of users—around half the rate for alcohol drinkers—are, according to the experts, dependent. But so what? Is sucking a bong to get loaded every day worse than draining a bottle to do the same? OK, maybe boozers are more dangerous to others (overall: less passive, more unpredictable mood swings, drunk driving). But from what I’ve witnessed, devoted potheads are less likely to hit bottom and quit. Reefer addicts are already out there and if some single digit slice of citizens want to waste their lives in a stupor, who are we to stop them? I mean, if marijuana’s simply Alcohol 2.0 and we know prohibition doesn’t work, is pot some sort of libertarian birthright? (Damn. The questions are getting harder.)
Answer: I love freedom. In theory. Problem is, non-theoretical freedom has to be delineated, codified, and that’s when things go to shit. Because even if we can all agree that my freedom stops where yours begins, is someone who, say, only smokes cigarettes in the privacy of her own home but by contracting lung cancer drives up my health insurance cost stepping over my liberty line? And if so, what do we do about it? Ban cigarettes? Deny smokers health insurance? Invest more in cancer research?
It comes down to this: Are we willing to legalize any substance or activity in the name of liberty or parity or fairness, so long as it’s no worse for an individual or society than an existing legal substance? If the answer’s yes, alcohol opens the door to more than weed, inviting in mushrooms, peyote, LSD, perhaps even Ecstasy. If the answer’s no, explain why, given the proven dangers involved, an alcoholic should be granted some special right to intoxication.
The faded backdrop to all this push and pull thinking is Amsterdam, a city I’ve visited exactly twice. On my first trip, in the early ’70s, it was one of the few Western cities where cannabis, though not technically legal, had been decriminalized. Making it a huge draw for disaffected American and European youth, longhairs and dopers. Hundreds gathered each day, all day, lounging, lazing, glazing on Dam Square, the central plaza. The collective lethargy had substance, mass, the watchful wait to score drugs indistinguishable from the idle daze of having done drugs. I kept my distance. Stoned in bulk was not attractive.
My second trip was in the early aughts. Now pot was all but legal. The city still teemed with a disproportionate number of the youngish (late-teens to mid-30s), only instead of dirty hippies, these were, I’d learned from the Times, narcotourists. They had euros to spend in the “brown cafés,” sampling the cornucopia of weed and hash varieties available there, lounging, lazing, glazing out of view. At some point in my stay, as I wandered the crosshatch of narrow straats and canals, I couldn’t help but notice that brown cafés were nearly as ubiquitous as Amsterdam’s famed profusion of pubs and bars. The drinkers and the smokers, each in their respective retreats, were equal.
In that moment, though, I didn’t see a justly balanced scale. I saw a scale with double the weight on a single side.
I doubt I’ll ever vote Yes on legalization. Or vote on it at all. Death before hypocrisy, remember? And when it finally passes? No tears here. It’s time the weed crowd be allowed their fun. I just want nothing to do with making that happen.