The fun questions are the ones that never get answered. Sometimes because they answer themselves.
For instance, there is the one posed most recently on Real Time with Bill Maher: If alcohol and cannabis were introduced to the world simultaneously, for the first time ever, which one would stand the better chance of being made legal?
Or, to cut even closer to the chase: Knowing what we do about the respective effects of these two wonder drugs, which is more worth prohibiting for the sake of the well-being of society?
Did you even need to reach the end of that sentence to formulate an answer?
As every college-aged American is by now well-aware, among the many landmark votes of last Tuesday, November 6, were those by the good people of Washington and Colorado to legalize possession and use of small amounts of marijuana in those states, and to regulate the substance more or less as alcohol is regulated. Once in effect, these will be the first two laws of their kind in the United States.
Of the many facets of the marijuana question, the one that most fascinates me is the nature of the substance’s status in the public consciousness and in media, and the ways in which we talk about it in polite society.
For the moment, marijuana finds itself very much at a crossroads in the American legal system, its status defined on a state-by-state basis, even as its use has been consistently prohibited on the federal level.
At present, cannabis may be used for medicinal purposes in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Thirteen states have decriminalized possession of the plant without legalizing it fully. We have every reason to think these numbers will continue to rise, albeit in fits and starts, until they very nearly reach 50 states apiece, however many decades that might take.
I say “every reason,” but perhaps the greatest of all is simply the drug’s ubiquity in American life. As we know from past experience, once a practice becomes socially accepted and widely practiced, it is only a matter of time before it becomes legal.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart rightly lampooned the fatuous way the legalization votes in Washington and Colorado were reported by TV news anchors, many of whom acted as if they had never encountered the drug in their travels and had no earthly idea what it was.
The facts argue to the contrary, and it is the duty of journalists to report the facts.
From various recent studies, we find that 40 percent of all Americans (or thereabouts) admit to having smoked marijuana at least once. Forty-two percent of 12th graders, 32 percent of 10th graders and 16 percent of 8th graders have reported the same.
Mind you, these are just the people with the nerve to tell a government poll-taker. We do not know the number of citizens who prefer to keep their illicit drug activities to themselves, but it’s probably greater than zero.
These twin factors of pot’s legal limbo and increased social acceptance—a majority of the country now favors legalization—leave us with a very awkward, and somewhat Orwellian, culture in which we are compelled to act and speak as if this most common and (relatively) harmless pastime did not exist at all. We are permitted to act and speak otherwise only under the agreement that those who indulge are all silly, selfish, worthless dead-enders.
I am endlessly tickled that I can oh-so-casually regale an audience with tales of gaily swilling beer and whiskey—fluids that could very easily kill me in the long run and do a great deal of harm in the meantime—but replace the bottle with a joint, and the laughter suddenly becomes hushed and uncomfortable.
In certain crowds, one is exceedingly hesitant to be known as a pot-smoker, or, barring that, to be seen fraternizing with and condoning those who are. This despite the very real probability that a sizable chunk of that very crowd will go home and engage in that very same behavior—and somehow still stumble into work the following morning.
We are, as I say, in a period of transition on this subject, to which our culture will naturally and necessarily adapt. I eagerly await the day, however distant, when marijuana and alcohol really are on equal footing, legally and morally, and we can feel free to discuss them both without any fear of reprisal.
At the risk of sounding insufferably self-righteous: A free society would be well-advised to err on the side of freedom.