Going to Pot 

Utah stands firm against the siege of medical marijuana.

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Sound the alarm! Man the battlements! Another threat to Utah’s guarded way of life looms large on the horizon. Colorado, California, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon now allow use of marijuana as medicine.

That the West is going to pot is a troubling development for those Utahns already feeling besieged by socialists, Mexicans, homosexuals and garden-variety nutcakes. I worry about the prevalence of a siege mentality; I don’t worry at all about sick people using pot to ease pain or nausea. Anyone having firsthand experience with medicinal marijuana would hold similar views. When a friend was dying of cancer last year, my wife brought pot from Northern California. It was easy to come by. It is so commonplace there that radio stations advertise supplies for the “indoor gardeners” whose cannabis crop is a mainstay of the California economy. The pot we bought did not prolong our friend’s life, but it was palliative in her final months.

Try as I might, it is hard for me to understand the viewpoint of officials like Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is “opposed to legislative and legal efforts to reclassify or decriminalize the use of marijuana.” State Sens. Curtis Bramble and Margaret Dayton are on the record with the same mindset. I am sure they are caring people who would work to ameliorate human suffering. To deny medicinal relief to those in need must be difficult for them to reconcile. I’m guessing they regard medical marijuana as a Trojan horse deployed by those who seek to legalize pot as a recreational drug. They can point to California as an example. Fourteen years after medical marijuana was legalized, a ballot initiative, if approved by voters in November, will decriminalize possession of the drug for those over 21.

I am not a marijuana activist. My recreational drug of choice comes in a corked bottle. I have confessed my dalliances with pot to the federal government as I sought to qualify for a top secret-security clearance. The feds took my confession in stride, thereupon granting me access to the secrets of the national intelligence leviathan. Thus redeemed, I have standing to take up the cause of pragmatism in the marijuana debate. Empirical evidence compels me to side with those who favor legalization. I have watched as the decades-old “war on drugs” has failed—utterly failed, by any measure. The government has spent more than $2 trillion and has accomplished nothing. Illegal drug use has increased, as has the population of America’s crowded prisons. An estimated 20 million Americans smoke pot. Can we afford to sniff them out and prosecute them? It makes no fiscal sense to do so. Given our unprecedented debt, logic dictates that we cut our losses by normalizing, regulating and taxing use of marijuana.

Utah may have more Ponzi schemers than pot smokers. Still, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, this state spends upward of $35 million a year to enforce marijuana laws. Does that seem like a prudent use of tax dollars in these recessionary times?

There are probably fewer than 150,000 Utahns who use marijuana, but if last year’s raids by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are any indication, the Beehive State is producing more weed than honey. DEA agents uprooted 84,000 plants in a statewide patchwork of clandestine gardens. Each raid produced the same results. The DEA got glowing coverage on newscasts and the growers slipped away to plant another crop. What bothered me was the ethnocentric undertone. More often than not, the growers were identified as undocumented Mexicans, even though most were never caught. I don’t know if that was true, but I do know that in Northern California, pot growers are gringos who drive a Prius and listen to Amy Goodman on public radio.

Mexican immigrants do get rightful credit for turning Americans on to the recreational side of marijuana in the early 20th century. Before 1910, marijuana was sold in pharmacies as medicine. The drug fell into disfavor as a result of an upswing of prejudice against the Mexicans, and it was outlawed in Utah in 1914.

Similarly, racism has been evident in the ongoing “war on drugs” launched by former President Richard Nixon. A disproportionate number of young black men has been jailed since 1971. In announcing support for the legalization initiative, the president of the California NAACP cited data showing that although more whites than blacks use marijuana, the arrest rate for blacks is significantly higher.

For Utah pols like Chaffetz, Bramble and Dayton, recent decisions by the federal government are a double-edged sword. It was welcome news that the Justice Department and the Veterans Administration would defer to state governments on matters relating to medicinal marijuana—a victory for clamorous, states-rights activists. But the notable shift in policy signals a validation of marijuana’s centuries-old status as medicine by the federal government.

In 1913, California led the campaign to outlaw marijuana. It seems certain it will be the first state to reverse itself. Like Congress revisiting the 2006 ban on Internet gambling, Californians will have to weigh the pros and cons before they just say no to the status quo. Increased tax revenue will be a deciding factor. Pot is California’s foremost cash crop. By legalizing and taxing it, the nearly bankrupt state stands to gain $1.3 billion in annual revenue. Taxing online gambling might raise as much as $42 billion over 10 years. Unfortunately, Utah will be slow on the uptake. In the near term, however, a quirk of regional reciprocity will get you fireworks in Wyoming, slot machines in Nevada, pot in California and a gun permit in Utah. 

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