Higher Ground: The Pot Racket

Crunching the numbers in marijuana’s march to legalization

Nov 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Let's play a little numbers game today. This is not the kind of numbers they played in an illegal lottery that flourished for decades before states started taking over the gambling business.

Back in the 1940s, my uncle was a numbers runner who walked down alleys collecting nickel and dime bets in an illegal lottery that flourished for decades in poor neighborhoods. He couldn't write down the numbers that people wagered on because that was evidence if the police caught him. He had to memorize each number, who bet it, and the amount wagered. It was a tricky and intricate situation where a good memory came in handy.

This has little to do with marijuana other than an example of a formerly illegal industry (numbers game) that was taken over and made legal by the government (Daily Lottery) in order to benefit from the money folks were spending on it and to take it out of the hands of gangsters. I'm not calling my uncle a criminal; let's just say he was interesting. He's the only person I've ever known who liked to drink scotch and milk together.

But let's move on. Numbers, and remembering them, can sometimes be key information in discussing what's going on out there when it comes to fighting for the end of prohibition. They also help to assess where you're at in terms of turning it around. The following numbers aren't abstractions in any sense. They help define the reality and course of events as we change our social relationship with marijuana.

8 That's the number of Michigan cities where voters chose to legalize marijuana or make it a Lowest Law Enforcement Priority (LLEP) in this last election cycle. Back in August, Oak Park and Hazel Park did it. A couple of weeks ago, Mt. Pleasant, Saginaw, Berkley, Port Huron, Huntington Woods, and Pleasant Ridge did it.

5 That's the number of Michigan cities that voted not to legalize marijuana. Voters in Lapeer, Frankfurt, Onaway, Clare, and Harrison said no to the weed on Election Day. Surprisingly, these represent the first time Michigan voters turned down the opportunity to lessen penalties for marijuana possession. It was very close in Lapeer, with a population under 9,000, but it lost by six votes. It seems that the smaller the city and the farther north the vote, the less support there is for marijuana reform.

17 That's the number of Michigan cities that have voted for decriminalization or LLEP laws for small amounts of marijuana since 2011.

165,000 to 16,000 The bigger number is the sum of the populations of cities that voted in favor of legalization. The smaller number is the sum of populations of cities that voted against legalization. You can tell which way things are trending here.

3 That's the number of states (or vaguely similar regional entities) where voters chose to legalize recreational use of marijuana this year. Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C. all voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, joining Washington state and Colorado. D.C.'s law is different than usual in that it does not set up any state system of sales and taxation, but allows home grows of up to six plants and allows transfer of up to an ounce without payment. Due to the weird status of D.C., the initiative must be submitted to Congress for a 30-day review. That won't happen until January.

8 oz. That's the amount of marijuana an adult in Oregon can possess. That's also the limit per household. Most states don't allow more than about two or three ounces at a time, but you never know when a ½-pound stash is going to come in handy.

56% That's the margin of voters in Guam who voted to legalize medical marijuana in the U.S. territory.

58% The number of Florida voters who said yes to medical marijuana in the state in the last election. Unfortunately, the amendment to the state constitution lost because it required 60 percent of the vote to pass. At times, the amendment was polling well into the 60s, but casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson spent about $9 million to defeat the measure.

75% The amount of jet parts that that will be made from industrial hemp if all goes as planned for Derek Kesek. Kesek, the former owner of an organic restaurant in Ontario, has contracted with a Florida company to build the aircraft mostly of hemp next year and intends take his first flight from Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the first successful airplane flight took place. The four-seat jet's wings and outer shell, in addition to other parts, will be made from hemp instead of the usual fiberglass. Kesek plans to run it on hemp-based biofuel. Being high on marijuana could come to mean an entirely different thing.

O That's the amount of people known to have died from a marijuana overdose. That number stands in stark contrast to the thousands who have been killed in the War on Drugs. This brings us to the tragic story of 2-year-old Alexandria Hill. After her father admitted to using marijuana early in 2013, Alex was removed from her parents' Texas home and placed in foster care. The foster mother she was placed with was recently found guilty of murder in Alex's death later that year.

Alex's parents reported seeing bruises on her during parental visits, but authorities left the child in the foster home. Those blows culminated in death one day when Alex's foster mother slammed her to the floor. A medical examiner testified in court that the slam was so violent that the child suffered "subdural hemorrhaging, subarachnoid hemorrhaging, and retinal hemorrhaging in both eyes." An autopsy revealed several bruises over the child's body.

This is another case of the stigma of marijuana (I discussed it a few weeks back in this column) poisoning people's perceptions. Alex was reportedly happy and healthy while with her parents. Had she not been taken from them, it's likely she would still be alive today.

The last refuge of prohibitionists is "we must protect the children" from marijuana. Protecting the children should include keeping families together, whether they are in cases such as Alex's, or Bree Green (the girl in Michigan who was removed from her home and later returned to her medical marijuana patient parents). This includes cases in which families are separated by incarceration for nonviolent drug crimes, or custody cases.

It certainly doesn't mean putting kids in situations where they'll be tortured and killed.

693,481 That's the total of marijuana arrests in the United States for 2013, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report — 88 percent of them for simple possession. That's a lot of people entering the criminal justice system, but it's down from the 750,000 arrested in 2012, and continues a trend down from the 872,721 reported in 2007. There's still a long way to go before this is over, but it looks like the drug war is winding down.

4 That's the number of wrong answers I got on the 20-question quiz "How much do you know about marijuana," which can be found on the Christian Science Monitor website. It's fun. Give it a try and maybe you can raise your marijuana quotient.

This is not all to suggest that the marijuana movement is equivalent to some kind of lottery, although some people stand to make a lot of money in an open marketplace. Actually some folks have been making plenty in an illegal marketplace. However, as the numbers in support of marijuana grow (despite the cash of people like Adelson) politicians and police will take note. And that will be a jackpot for us all.