Higher Ground: The heart of the matter

Sep 30, 2015 at 1:00 am

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently brought up marijuana while speaking to students at Amherst College in Maryland. As she talked about the need to be passionate, she said, "Pick something in your life that you don't like and that you work to change."

She acknowledged that some young people were passionate about legalizing marijuana. But then she shrugged her shoulders dismissively as though marijuana legalization was small potatoes — more or less bullshit.

I got a similar reaction a few years ago in conversation with a lawyer who has spent his career fighting for civil liberties. When the subject of marijuana came up, he kind of grinned and said, "That's not my issue." The way he said it seemed to imply that he wouldn't give such a lame concern the time of day.

I understand where they're coming from. When legalization efforts really started taking off I generally supported them, but sort of relegated the right to get high to the backburner of social concerns. Over time, as I've learned more about how drug prohibition is woven around so many bad social outcomes, I've come to see it as a key element of putting things right in this country.

To begin with, marijuana prohibition started out based on a bunch of lies. It was ramped up to the War on Drugs by President Richard Nixon in direct contradiction of his own Shafer Commission, which had concluded: "Neither the marijuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety." Nixon started the War on Drugs mainly because most of the people who liked marijuana didn't like him.

In addition the policy has led to a situation where police can smash into your home, arrest you, take your money and property, take your children and more, all on the flimsiest evidence possible. Even when people are found to be innocent, police don't have to return their property.

Prohibition has been particularly hard on communities of color because the law is pursued more vigorously against blacks and Latinos than in white communities. The results of felony convictions — such as families torn apart, the inability to become employed, and losing eligible for government education or housing funds — have plagued communities of color much more than white communities.

Regarding the question of whether marijuana is medicine, I point out that at the congressional hearing for the Marihuana Tax Act (which made it illegal) in 1937, the sole person to argue in favor of marijuana was the legislative counsel for the American Medical Association. Exhibit 2 in this argument is that in 2003 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took out a patent — No. 6630507 — titled "Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants." Cannabinoids are the active compounds in marijuana.

And then there are the economic effects, from jobs and taxes to the tens of thousands of goods made from industrial hemp.

Any one of these points has merit, but when you put it all together, reversing marijuana prohibition stands for so many good things it stands as a significant social movement. It stands for honesty in government, policy driven by evidence and science, it stops a major contributor to problems in communities of color, it's an effective medicine with few negative side effects, it gives police time to chase real criminals, and it can give our economy a boost.

So Justice Sotomayor may give it the shrug, but fixing America's marijuana problem is a step toward fixing other problems. In fact, it has reverberations around the world. The U.S. anti-drug policy was sold around the world and tied to foreign aid dollars. Changing our own policy will have an international effect. And that's nothing to shrug at.

Change in Michigan

There's plenty popping right here in Michigan for folks who are passionate about marijuana. Some months back, there was talk about three different petition initiatives for recreational legalization in this state. Now, as rumor has it, there is only one. That one is the initiative known as MI Legalize. Chances are that if you've been approached to sign a petition it's probably from that organization. According to rumor, the Michigan Cannabis Coalition (MCC) has sent their paid-for signature collectors home. The MCC's website is still up and I called the contact number, but the voice mail is full. The MCC has never returned a call to me. The third group, the Michigan Responsibility Council, hasn't ever put a petition on the street. So at the moment it looks like any significant petition action will come from MI Legalize.

In the state legislature, the House Judiciary Committee has passed a package of bills that would legalize and regulate medical dispensaries, set an 8 percent tax on retail sales, allow medibles and other non-smokable forms, and set a seed-to-sale tracking system on it. After seven years the legislature is finally addressing the practicalities of a medical-marijuana system, but the approach seems to be built around fear and squeezing a lot of money out of it. The laws create a five-tier licensing system with various fees that could easily keep the cost of medication high, and it sets up the hiring of 113 state regulatory personnel, 34 state police, and four state attorney general staff to keep an eye on the medical marijuana business.

Democratic Ann Arbor Rep. Jeff Irwin said, "When we add all these layers of regulations, we are increasing the cost in the legal market, thereby giving a huge advantage to the illegal market. If we grab too tightly, this may squeeze through our fingers, and we end up with less control rather than more control."

Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for the Detroit Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator.