secret_history (2007-04)

Troublesome Contradictions

Tough marijuana laws are a perverse twist on reefer madness

by Jack Neely

On a sunny Saturday afternoon about 30 years ago, I was at UT's Circle Park. I was there mainly because it was the biggest thing going on in Knoxville that weekend, and I was curious about it.

There was a huge gathering organized by a group called NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. There were several hundred people wearing NORML T-shirts, bearing the logo I'd gotten used to seeing on posters all around campus for months.

Among the guests of honor at the outdoor gathering was one guy whose face was familiar to me. Orson Bean, a Broadway and TV actor who was maybe best known as a longtime panelist on the cool game show, To Tell the Truth , the one who never took anything seriously. I'd grown up watching him crack jokes on TV, but I'd never seen him so earnest and animated. He got up on the stage and spoke into a microphone and talked about how pointlessly stupid U.S. marijuana laws were.

It seemed like one of those addled dreams everybody has. I was in old Circle Park, and there was Orson Bean, all serious, talking about smoking marijuana. But it gave an offbeat legitimacy to an obviously popular cause. I wasn't sure I agreed with the cause then, but it seemed manifestly clear to all of us that by the 1980s, marijuana would be legal. Decriminalized, at least. All the trends seemed to be pointing that way, even in the Tennessee Legislature.

I was curious about the whole phenomenon then, and still am, now that marijuana laws are even tougher.

I should confess up front that I don't use marijuana. Like nearly everybody of my generation, including, by some accounts, the last two U.S. presidents, I have tried it. Unlike most of them, I haven't taken a drag since the Reagan administration. I just had enough of it. It always made me feel slow-witted, abstract, and pointlessly hungry, qualities with which I'm already naturally endowed.

Moreover, I'm sometimes disappointed when I'm at a party and somebody lights up. I don't think any less of anybody for smoking dope, but once a joint starts going around, the conversation tends to get dull fast.

But it's hard to avoid the reality that on the subject of marijuana, our society is an unqualified hypocrite . Marijuana is common in Knoxville, and has been for about 40 years now. And not common like littering. Common like aerobics, or auto repair, or grocery shopping.

I rarely make it a whole day without smelling it somewhere, out of a passing car window, down an apartment hall, though a sidewalk grate. We celebrate it in movies and pop music. All a comedian or singer has to do is mention marijuana before an audience at the Coliseum or Thompson-Boling Arena, and he'll get a gratuitous cheer. Singer Jimmy Buffett is now an establishment hero. I would bet that a majority of most of his fans, especially when he plays in Knoxville, are Republicans. He sings songs extolling heroes who have "run my share of grass" or "smuggle tons of ganja." And when he does, his audience cheers. We laugh at comedians who make jokes about it. When a movie star alludes to smoking marijuana on Jay Leno or David Letterman , audiences always clap and go "Woo!" It was that way even back when Johnny Carson made marijuana jokes about Doc Severinson.

Marijuana sales are open at most outdoor music festivals, sometimes with police looking on. Joints show up at parties, even parties attended by Republicans and Baptists, and I have never to this day seen anyone object. No one snatches a joint from another's lips. No one leaves in a huff. And I know from experience that the one who declines a passed joint often finds himself in a minority of one.  

But those involved even peripherally in the business of meeting the enormous demand for that same marijuana that we joke about and overlook still get sent to prison for a period longer than the duration of World War II.

Justice, if that's what it is, comes at great cost to the taxpayer, to law-enforcement time that might be better used investigating violent crimes or more dangerous drugs, and at great cost to wasted life. Last month, a downtown entrepreneur was sentenced to a longer mandatory sentence for his secondary part in a marijuana-distribution network than a central suspect in this month's horrific rape/murder did on a previous conviction for armed carjacking.

Never mind that all this effort doesn't work. We spend billions on enforcement of marijuana laws. If we were to repeal them, would marijuana be even more prevalent than it is today? To be more popular, I'm afraid, even people who don't like marijuana would have to start smoking it.

The condemnation that marijuana laws are important because we have to protect our children strikes me as especially disingenuous. I prefer my kids not get involved with marijuana for the same reason I prefer they not get involved in reality TV: I think they have better things to do with their time. Marijuana can kill a useful afternoon.

I'm much more concerned when I hear about teenagers who drink. I've known too many kids who've gotten injured in fistfights or jumped off cliffs or cracked up in high-speed car wrecks under the influence of nothing but alcohol. Sometimes they die. And over the years, I have known of quite a few teenagers who've been hospitalized for drinking too much, usually liquor purchased legally by an adult.

How often is the term "marijuana overdose" heard in the ER? Maybe it happens, but I gather that, in terms of toxicity, marijuana's pantywaist. It is to booze like booze is to nerve gas.

I'm not arguing for a new era of prohibition. I drink, myself. In moderation, drinking is healthy and interesting, and encourages hearty fellowship.

But we have to admit that illegal marijuana traffickers are not necessarily any more liable for our children's problems than legal alcohol vendors are.

We should do a study.

Wait, we already did. In 1974, in response to the overwhelming number of marijuana arrests, then over 7,000 per year statewide, the Tennessee Legislature commissioned a two-year study on the subject. The researchers finally determined that marijuana was "no more detrimental to the user than other accepted recreational drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco...." And that, in fact, "marijuana may be less harmful than alcoholic beverages...."

The state legislative report concluded, "The attempt to discourage its use through the criminal-justice system generates troublesome contradictions...."

Again, that was 31 years ago. Our society's hypocrisy on the subject is so profound that it would seem to suggest some variety of mental illness.

If we have stupid state or federal laws, we can't blame literalist cops, district attorneys, or any given judge who, in handing down a sentence, is obliged to go by the books. The people who can change the laws are our legislators, and the citizens who vote them into office. We have the marijuana laws we deserve.