PO Box 3002
Iowa City, IA 52244
319-351-1531 voice
319-351-0255 fax
Thursday, November 21, 1996, page 2


Of pot, pills and politics

        In the midst of an election day that seemed notable only for its low turnout, residents of two states voted to punch a fair-size hole in the status quo.  While the attention of the nation was diverted by the task of re-electing incumbents this election day, Californians and Arizonans approved separate ballot initiatives effectively decriminalizing the medicinal use of cannabis and in doing so fired the first serious counter-salvo in the ongoing war on drugs in many a moon.
     Legally, the step taken by these two states is a rather small one -- manufacture, distribution and possession remain illegal in both states, meaning that at best these measures provide a criminal defense for them.  Politically, however, they represent a giant leap away from officially approved conventional wisdom on the topic of drugs and their ramifications could lead to a major shift in policy.
     By asserting that pot can have legitimate uses, these measures tear a key stone out of the wall of "weed with its roots in hell"-style demonization that the government has used to justify its zero-tolerance drug policies for decades.  Without the until-now prevailing characrerization of pot as pure evil, such features of current drug policy as mass incarceration, mandatory sentencing, confiscation without due process and the rhetorical declaration of war on US citizens might begin to seem like extreme overreactions.
     By making this change in cannabis's context, Californiast and Arizonans have fundamentally altered the terms of the drug policy debate.  While the "pure evil" argument has skewed that debate toward the concept of drugs as a law enforcement issue, the initiative's view of pot as having a role in medical treatment effectively recasts drugs as a public health issue, which observers as diverse as Clinton administration Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz think it should have been all along.  With this change, the language of hysteria is to some measure replaced by the language of science, raising the level of debate accordingly.
     The arguments raised against the propositions before their passage are particularly instructive as to just whose interests are affected by drug policy, with money as usual taking a greater role than might seem just.  One of the major, though ultimately unconvincing, arguments against passage was that the medico-pharmaceutical industry had developed a synthetic analog for the active ingredient in cannathis that had none of pot's "side effects."  With competition from a naturally occurring product of a plant that can be cheaply grown just about anywhere, the market for the much more expensive artificial version whose main advantage lay in its legality was obviously threatened, and the industry fought both initiatives hard.  In the end, naked self interest lost to common sense, a result too rarely seen in American politics.  It can also be seen as somewhat disingenuous that an industry that has made Ritalin tablets more common at American elementary schools than M&Ms and built a "happiness industry" around Prozac and its ilk should object to a drug's psychoactivity.
     Despite the slippery slope arguments offered by supporters of current drug policy, these measures are unlikely to hasten the day when hard packs of 20 sinsemilla filter tips are available at the corner market.  At best, it makes marijuana a prescription drug, subject to regulated distribution and medical protocol.  Nor should the issue of abuse be belittled -- anyone who's been out in the world at any time in the last 30 yean can probably point to any number of individuals who could serve as walking arguments against the stuff (though to be fair, any honest adult could probably point to many more individuals who serve as warnings against good old legally available alcohol).  Nor should what happens in these two states be mistaken for a national trend -- what effect this will have in the other 48 remains to be seen.
     Still, this could represent the first part of a distinct shift in the way we deal with drug policy.  By electing to take the issue away from the SWAT team and giving it to the research team, the people of Arirona and California have at least raised the possibility of replacing fear and reaction with reason and informed decision, a hopeful sign in a political culture that's offered very few hopeful signs lately.