Get on the Cannabus

I did not smoke pot this past April 20.  Truth be told, I haven’t smoked pot at all since the summer of 2010—and only a handful of times before that.  I don’t say this to impress you.  Were a joint to spontaneously appear in front of me, I’d likely grab it faster than Donald Trump grabs a Filet-o-Fish (and to greater effect).

I first encountered (read: inhaled) marijuana during my freshman year of college—specifically, in my dorm’s communal bathroom on Good Friday—because some guy down the hall had a secret stash and I happened to be idling nearby.  While I wouldn’t call that evening life-changing—if memory serves, it consisted mainly of eating a family-sized bag of Doritos and avoiding eye contact with the RA—it set the template for every weed-smoking episode that followed:  I didn’t actively seek it out, but when the opportunity presented itself—invariably through some vague acquaintance whom I’d probably never see again—I didn’t put up much resistance.  Following years of curiosity—and all the hysterical anti-drug propaganda that went with it—I wanted to understand what the fuss was about, and I was seldom disappointed with the result.

That was then—a blessedly distant world of prohibition in which to get high was to put oneself at the mercy of the American legal system—a risk that, as with underage drinking, undoubtedly added to the allure and pleasure of the overall experience.  (White privilege probably helped, too.)

In the intervening years, however, something rather strange has happened:  Marijuana has become legal.  As of this writing, nine states and the District of Columbia have OK’d the personal recreational use of the cannabis plant in all its forms, while another 20 states have sanctioned it for medicinal purposes—a gateway maneuver if I ever saw one.

Among the nine-and-a-half states that have gone whole hog on the pot question is my home commonwealth of Massachusetts, whose voters approved a pro-pot ballot referendum on November 8, 2016—an admittedly ironic day for such a liberal, forward-thinking decision.

Strictly-speaking, marijuana became legal in Massachusetts less than six weeks after Election Day, with residents allowed to grow, possess and consume small amounts of the substance to their hearts’ desire in the privacy of their own homes.  However, government bureaucracy being what it is, it will not be until July 1—fully 20 months after the vote—that recreational pot shops will open their doors and, for the first time, their products will be commercially available to those, like me, who have been largely cut off from the cannabis black market up to now.

Of course, the $1 billion question is whether the normalization of weed will turn me—and, in time, the entire state—into a lazy-eyed smokestack who spends all day listening to Pink Floyd and giggling at the wallpaper.  Whether ease of access will translate into frequency of use, and all the productivity-depleting horrors that supposedly follow.

Having never tended my own private marijuana nursery, I cannot know that answer for sure until the magic hour arrives.  However, my hunch is that very little will change in my consumption habits overall, and I would wager the same about most of the fellow inhabitants of my state.

How so?  First, because, as a rule, the per-serving market rate for legal weed tends to exceed that of alcohol—already the far more entertaining of the two drugs—and I am nothing if not a cheap date.  Second—and speaking of booze—I can’t help but notice that, pound-for-pound, I imbibed a lot more liquor before turning 21 than after.  As enjoyable as moderate drinking can and will always be, once all the legal barriers fell—once I could walk into a package store without a fake ID and emerge with a six-pack of Sam Adams unmolested—the temptation to overindulge was just never the same.  Call me an old fogy, but I find that spending the majority of one’s Sunday hunched over a toilet bowl isn’t nearly as fun at age 30 as it is at 18, 19 or 20.

The dirty little secret about drugs—as with pretty much everything—is that nothing dulls the appetite like legalization, and the most surefire way to create a culture of addicts is to take their favorite product away from them.  History is littered with examples of this very phenomenon—not least in the United States between 1920 and 1933—although my personal favorite is the observation made in the 1990s to Salman Rushdie—then under fatwa for writing The Satanic Verses—that “in Egypt, your book is totally banned—totally banned!—but everyone has read it.”

To be honest, it’s unlikely I’ll be smoking cannabis ever again—even after July 1.  Having never learned to roll a joint properly and not wanting to set off smoke alarms in my own house, my pot consumption, such as it is, will almost surely come in edible form, be it candy, chocolate or whatever else the kids are cooking up these days.  While I understand the pitfalls of ingesting marijuana-laced baked goods for the first time—elucidated most memorably by Maureen Dowd in a 2014 New York Times column—the notion of sucking smoke deep into my lungs has struck me as an increasingly unappetizing means of getting high when biting into a slightly odd-tasting cookie will produce more-or-less the same result.

But that’s just me.

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Yes We Cannabis

Is New England’s most trailblazing state about to get a little blazed itself?

Thanks to a forthcoming public referendum, the question of whether to fully legalize marijuana in Massachusetts will be among the loudest political battles in the Bay State throughout this summer and fall.  In Monday’s Boston Globe, a team of major political leaders fired the opening shot, and I would advise my fellow pot proponents to take their case with the care and seriousness it deserves.

In a joint op-ed (ahem), Mass. governor Charlie Baker, Boston mayor Marty Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey strongly argued against the proposition, known as the “Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act,” writing that fully legalizing cannabis would be a reckless and expensive act of public policy and should be rejected out of hand.

The essence of the piece, simply titled, “Do not legalize marijuana in Massachusetts,” is that should Mass. residents vote themselves permission to grow, buy, sell and smoke marijuana, the commonwealth would incur gargantuan costs—direct and indirect—that would probably not be balanced out by whatever new revenue this exciting new product might generate.

Those costs, the authors argue, cannot simply be written off as negligible, immaterial or alarmist.  If marijuana were made legal, that means a lot more people would use it, which in turn means a lot more people would abuse it, which further means that such institutions as schools, hospitals and police departments would be forced to deal with the consequences, and God knows if they’ll be ready.

To be clear:  When we talk about such extreme misuse of a drug like pot, we’re mostly talking about children and teenagers.  It is a matter of historical record—not least in my own experience—that high schoolers and college students are much more prone than grown-ups to do stupid, reckless, destructive things to and with their own selves—either in the name of rebellion, curiosity or sheer idleness—and that not all of those activities magically wear off before you graduate and move on to the so-called real world.

It is equally true—according to a towering pile of research—that a person is much more likely to get hooked on some drug or other—and, with it, risk a lifetime of hardship and misery—if he or she first experiences it as an adolescent.  We know beyond doubt, for instance, that a person who begins smoking cigarettes at age 15 is in serious danger of dependency, while someone who manages to avoid it through, say, age 21 is quite likely never to start smoking in the first place.  That’s just how our brains work and we can’t pretend otherwise.

As it happens, the proposed law in Massachusetts would only legalize marijuana for those 21 years and older—as well as capping, at one ounce, the amount an individual can carry out in the open—which in theory should render this whole issue moot.

Or it would, except that the world doesn’t run according to theory.  Regrettably, to say that a legal age restriction on pot would prevent teens from getting high is just as laughable as saying the legal drinking age has prevented 19-year-olds from shooting tequila and playing beer pong.  The latter sure didn’t stop me from indulging in youthful debauchery on a regular basis, and I wasn’t exactly a black marketeer.

And so, on this, the skeptics are right:  If marijuana is legal and widely available to the public, it will find its way into the wrong hands without a whole lot of trouble.  More kids will smoke it and some of them, while under the influence, will commit various offenses against the law, common sense and their own physical well-being—and Mass. taxpayers will be on the hook for a great deal of the ensuing damage.  That’s to say nothing of the possible long-term effects of regular marijuana use, which are certainly alarming but by no means settled science.

Which brings us to what is, for us libertarians, the most essential question of all:  Under what circumstances should we, as a people, prohibit an enjoyable recreational activity on the grounds that some of us will enjoy it just a little bit too much?

Amidst all the gloom and doom about the downside of pot legalization, we have nearly lost sight of a rather important fact:  Of all the people who have ever ingested the cannabis plant, the overwhelming majority have derived nothing but pleasure and merriment from the experience, with little to no aftereffects—except, perhaps, the distinction of having lived a slightly more interesting and fulfilling life.

Normal, responsible people smoke marijuana because they enjoy how it makes them feel.  In the right setting with the right people, pot smoking is an utterly benign and blissful pastime—a way to relax and commiserate and act all goofy and weird, and before you know it, the high wears off and you can safely return to the obligations of adulthood.

Consumed in moderation, marijuana is—or should be—a vice like any other:  Not healthy, per se, but part of a satisfying, well-balanced life for anyone who treats it properly.

Now then:  Is everyone in America as responsible with their drug use as you and I?  Nope.  Nopity nope nope.  But I wonder:  Should we really be designing our drug laws based on the assumption that there are no responsible people at all?

We sure don’t feel that way about guns.  Or booze.  Or gambling.  Or chocolate.  Commodities like those are as widely and freely available today as they’ve ever been, despite the spectacular social and economic costs that result from certain folks behaving stupidly.

And why is that, ladies and gentlemen?  It’s because we all instinctively understand, as Congressman Barney Frank so tartly put it, “If we were to outlaw for adults everything that college students abuse, we’d all just sit at home and do nothing.”

So what, may I ask, makes marijuana so goddamn special?  Why is a substance that is demonstrably less destructive than, say, alcohol, treated as seriously as a substance like heroin—a scourge that, as Baker, Walsh and Healey note, really does pose a clear and present danger to the good people of Massachusetts?

The short answer—depressing, but simple—is that because pot has been outlawed for so long, we can’t know for sure exactly how it would be regulated, especially with regards to so-called edibles, which Baker et al. cite as a big fat question mark and a particular danger to children.  (It’s not difficult to see why.)

But why—in Massachusetts of all places—should fear of the unknown prevent us from doing something that just might be worthwhile?

Not to brag, but on matters of large-scale public policy, my home state has a long and storied history of doing just about everything exactly right.  In a nation of faintheartedness, Massachusetts has a way of storming into the future with one innovation after another—be they social, medical, technological or political—inducing other states to sheepishly follow our lead.

Massachusetts started the Revolution.  We welcomed gay marriage before it was cool.  We introduced universal healthcare with a model that inspired the Affordable Care Act.  Our education system is the envy of the world.  And by way, in 2006 we decriminalized marijuana and six years later made it available for medicinal use.

Are we really suggesting that, having accomplished all of that, it is somehow beyond our ability to create a chocolate bar wrapper that says, “This product is not intended for children”?  What an odd concession that would be.

Yes, we need to be smart about this.  Of course we do.  As with any new “social experiment,” we need to anticipate unintended consequences and design ways to prevent or minimize them.  As written, the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act goes a certain distance; if passed, it will fall to the state legislature to fill in any remaining holes.

Why go to all the trouble, you ask?  Simply:  To enable free people in a free country to make free choices about how to live their lives.

As Americans, we have somehow managed to balance the safety of children with the liberty of adults many times in the past.  Why on Earth couldn’t we do it again?

Everybody Might Get Stoned

I must confess I’ve never ingested marijuana in chocolate form.  From what I’ve been reading lately, I’m not sure I’d ever want to.

It turns out the cannabis baked into pot brownies and other such “edibles” is far more concentrated and potent than we inexperienced noobs had previously grasped.  One need hardly take more than a small nibble to become buoyantly blazed for the better part of the evening.

With my relationship with sugar being what it is—I take a few bites, everything goes dark, and suddenly the whole box of Tagalongs is empty—I would be liable to inadvertently gorge myself into a stoned oblivion from which I might never completely return.

A sugar high is disorienting enough.  One need not pile an actual high on top of it.  (To say nothing of pot’s well-known ability to direct one’s hand deep into the cookie jar.)

But of course many people do exactly that, and with Colorado having become the first state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, the buying and selling of cannabis-infused baked goods has entered the legal free market for the first time.  As such, the country has been compelled to think more critically and carefully than ever before about precisely how this new industry should operate.

While this question has myriad angles—many of which mirror those about the regulation of legal marijuana overall—perhaps the most essential involves the wide dissemination of basic scientific facts.  Namely, how much pot does one need to eat in order to achieve the desired effect?

It’s a rather important piece of information to possess if one has even the pretense of wanting to make intelligent consumption decisions.  And yet, an alarmingly high number of potential marijuana users are completely clueless.

They can’t be blamed too much:  When a substance is totally banned, discussions about proper dosage tend not to pop up all that frequently.  (Much like how abstinence-only sex education doesn’t bother teaching how to operate a condom.)  And so, when it then becomes legit, there is a lot of catching up to do.

(We should also not fail to note that, thanks to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the prohibition of a particular drug effectively prevents the scientific community from conducting all kinds of research into how the drug works.)

In any case, the pot edibles debate barged into the mainstream press in the last week after New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recounted a recent evening in a Denver hotel room, during which she unwittingly ate several times more chocolate weed than necessary (at least for a first-timer like her) and proceeded to experience something resembling Leonardo DiCaprio’s Quaaludes adventure in The Wolf of Wall Street.  (Thankfully, she did not get behind the wheel of a car.)

Dowd’s column went viral, thereby alerting the masses to what is an entirely legitimate critique of the pro-pot push:  Widespread legal marijuana will necessarily invite its use by a sizable pool of new customers—perfectly intelligent in all other respects—who have no idea what they’re getting themselves into, and who will very predictably make highly regrettable decisions that will not be completely their fault.

That is, unless the marijuana-smoking-and-eating community makes a considered effort to educate the public about exactly what its product does.  Do pot proponents not have an obligation—moral, if not legal—to not simply assume that everyone else is as informed about the powers of weed as they are?

This wouldn’t seem to be an especially arduous challenge.  If the wrapper of a regular candy bar is capable of quantifying a “serving size,” then why can’t a weed-laced version of the same bar?  It may be true that marijuana, like alcohol, affects everyone in a slightly different way, but surely it is possible for a label to explain, “If you eat this whole bar at once, terrible things will happen.”

I speak from relative ignorance on this subject, owing to my aforementioned lack of interest in patronizing the “edibles” industry myself.  (Honestly, can’t y’all just smoke it from a pipe like everyone else?)

But then I might change my mind one day, and I would rather the relevant dosage information be planted directly in front of my nose—not to mention the noses of my countrymen, some of whom are not nearly as cautious or clever as I.

Plus, it would clearly be in the interests of the marijuana industry overlords to see that this happens.  It would, after all, relieve them of most of the culpability for when their customers ignore the warnings and eat the whole brownie anyway.

Stupid people can always be counted upon to do stupid things.  But when smart people start doing them, too—well, that’s quite a high risk to take.

If Stoners Were Angels

Haven’t we been through all of this before?

One group of citizens agitates in favor of legalizing some long-verboten practice, while another group of citizens argues to the contrary, insisting that such a move would hasten America’s moral decline.

The activity in question becomes legal in one of the country’s 50 states.  Then another.  And another.  Time passes, and when we are given enough data from which to formulate some conclusions, it turns out that the initial hubbub was unwarranted and overblown, and the whole business really isn’t that big of a deal after all.  Everyone’s life returns to normal, and the world just keeps on spinning.

That’s roughly what America has experienced with gay marriage over the last decade, and now, thanks to the states of Colorado and Washington, what we are about to experience with recreational marijuana.

Not that legalized pot and legalized same-sex marriage have anything further in common.  Nor, for that matter, do we know for certain that the trajectory of the former will mirror that of the latter.  One should never be too presumptuous about these things, no matter how strong the urge might be.

However, there is one way in particular that pot-smoking is different from most previous national prohibitions, and one that should hint at how its legalization will pan out.

Everyone has already done it.

OK, not everyone.  But a pretty sizable chunk of everyone.

In an August 2013 Gallup survey, 38 percent of respondents acknowledged that they had “tried” marijuana at some point in their lives.  The number rose to 49 percent among those aged 30-49, and 44 percent among those aged 50-64.

Mind you, these are merely the people with the nerve to admit it to an anonymous poll-taker.  While we cannot know how much higher the true figure is, we can probably agree that “higher” is the correct word.

As such, most who have written or spoken about the benefits and drawbacks of legalizing cannabis have, with little or no hesitation, noted their own past use of it.  More interesting still, none of these folks particularly regrets having done so.

In a widely-circulated New York Times column from the past week, David Brooks argued against the legalization of marijuana on largely moral grounds, writing, “[I]n healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship.”  By legalizing pot, Brooks argued, Colorado and Washington “have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use.”

However, this was not before Brooks recounted his own smoke-filled youth, reflecting, “It was fun.  I have some fond memories of us all being silly together.  I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.”

You don’t say.

Brooks has been duly ridiculed for his highly mixed message, but I suspect his ambivalence reflects that of countless others, and it illustrates the unique conundrum of arguing against this particular drug’s normalization in American life.

To wit:  How can you credibly say that the wide availability and use of cannabis will alter our society’s moral fabric when, in truth, cannabis is already widely available and used, as it has been for the better part of half a century?

The argument from Brooks et al. seems to amount to, “Marijuana would be fine if only everyone else were as responsible with it as I was.”

On the one hand, one hears this and reflects upon James Madison’s observation in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  In other words, the whole point of most laws is to rein in those who are too dumb or too sociopathic to rein in themselves.

On the other hand, one cannot help but turn to the likes of Brooks and inquire, “If pot was so enjoyable and beneficial for you and your friends, why are you so quick to withhold its pleasures from everyone else?  What gives you the right, let alone the nerve?”

Here’s a thought:  In a future world where marijuana is a socially acceptable substance from coast to coast, maybe more Americans will act responsibly with it than we think.  More to the point:  Maybe this is already the case.  Maybe we who can handle our weed are not the prodigious outliers we fashion ourselves to be.

Maybe those who personify the “lazy stoner” stereotype come by it honestly:  They smoke too much pot because they’re useless idiots, not the other way around.

Gay marriage has turned into a less-than-apocalyptic reality in the United States because, in truth, it was not nearly the seismic realignment of national values it was made out to be.  Gay people already existed and marriage already existed.  What was the big mystery we were supposed to fear?

Likewise, when the dust settles, the legalization of marijuana may yet turn out to be one giant nothing burger, albeit one that, for some mysterious reason, is tastier and more appetizing than it ever used to be.