writing << lifestyle

[originally published in Beyond Race Magazine]

might california actually be able to legalize it?
q+a with dale gieringer of california norml

The legalization of marijuana should be a rallying call for conservatives in this country. Sean Hannity should be uniting his army of Angry Angry Hippos against government infringement on personal choice. Bill O’Reilly’s nightly “Talking Point Memos” should feature bulleted screeds against Federal laws which largely go ignored, yet fill prisons with non-violent offenders. Newt Gingrich should be decrying the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on enforcing a prohibition bureaucracy that denies revenue that could be collected from an otherwise flourishing market. There should be tea parties with monosyllabic protest signs made out of hemp. There should be bumper stickers on pickup trucks with pot leaves superimposed on Confederate flags. There should be country songs, ALL-CAPS message board posts, and school board meeting decrees.

But, of course, this is not the case.

Despite the mountain of reasons why marijuana legalization would benefit the country, it’s become just another unfortunate hot potato on the already starchy culture war menu. Conservatives are against it because it’s something they heard hippies enjoy. “Progressive” politicians won’t dare touch it for fear of being labeled soft on crime. But just when you reside yourself to comfortable cynicism, you are given hope from those loony whackballs out west. California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano recently proposed a bill which aims not only for decriminalization, but actually calls for a balls-out legal, taxed, and regulated marijuana trade in the Golden State. We spoke with Dale Gieringer, the state coordinator of California NORML (the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws – www.canorml.org) who helped write the Ammiano bill about how to challenge these 20th-century relic laws with 21st century thinking.

Beyond Race: What is the status of Tom Ammiano’s bill to legalize marijuana in California?
Dale Gieringer: The hearing on it has got delayed until Winter to give us more time to lobby the legislature.

BR: Governor Schwarzenegger announced that the state was putting together a study regarding the effects of marijuana legalization. Did that have anything to do with your bill in particular?
DG: That’s his response. The bill has created enormous nationwide public interest in the issue of legalization. And some polls came out which all of a sudden show that lo and behold, for the first time a majority supports legalization in California. In fact today we saw the first nationwide poll which shows legalization support. He was responding to the interest that has been generated.

BR: Has he made any public proclamations if he would sign the bill?
DG: He’s made it clear he’s not going to sign this bill.

BR: What do you think the chances are of the bill getting through?
DG: Well, we’ll see. It depends on who gets elected governor and how fast federal policy evolves here. The biggest obstacle at the moment is that the federal government might obstruct in state law and that would create a chaotic situation. There’s chaos in the fact that the federal government has still refused to recognize our medical marijuana laws. So, there’s been a lot of legal disputes about that. So, I think it will depend on how fast the federal government is willing to start letting states take more say on that. And it’s hard to say how that’s going to work out.

BR: What do you think of the arguments that a legal marijuana system would help alleviate the drug wars in Mexico?
DG: Yeah, there’s that argument. The drug czar said 60% of the Mexican drug gangs income come from marijuana. So that would obviously weaken them. It would also weaken the DEA because about 60% of drug arrests come from marijuana, so you’d need that much fewer drug agents.

BR: In California you have the medical marijuana system in place. For those not in California, can you give a brief description of how that works?
DG: Well, we have around 100 stores in California where anyone who has a doctor’s recommendation and documentation thereof can buy medical cannabis on the spot. The stores get their supplies from a network of patients who grow.

BR: The Obama administration recently said that they would not go after medical marijuana as the previous administration had. Have they kept to their word?
DG: Not yet. They haven’t really implemented it yet. They have the same people in running the DEA.  There have been no changes in the DEA regulations. They have the same US attorneys out here. There appear to have been no new instructions to the US Attorney’s office. We’ve got the same person running the DEA in Washington, D.C. The orders haven’t really been written up and transmitted. So, there’s still some DEA meddling going on here. It’s an issue that still has to be resolved.

BR: Barney Frank said he’s going to introduce a marijuana bill to congress…
DG: —for decriminalization. That’s somewhat different.

BR: What is NORML’s take on decriminalization vs. legalization?
DG: We support the right for adults to have legal access to the use of marijuana. Now, some people think this can be done without a full-scale legally-regulated tax system. I don’t happen to think that. I wouldn’t say that’s outside the organization’s mandate.

BR: I’ve heard several different histories of the reason marijuana became illegal. What is your take?
DG: Well, it’s a long story. But basically in my view, the work of professional drug enforcement people and drug bureaucrats and the prohibition movement. Marijuana was first prohibited in California in 1913. Before that, there wasn’t even a marijuana problem. It was implemented by public health authorities at a time when the whole drug police apparatus was being invented and the government was just starting to get involved in this. It was also a time of widespread alcohol prohibition. And the movements were connected by the notion that the government should protect people from using substances for pleasure. Only medical purposes. It was those people that passed the laws. There wasn’t a big outcry to throw all the cannabis users in jail, because there weren’t any. But it was the work of professional policy people who said we ought to control this like opium and cocaine. I think they saw it as an issue of principal and power. We’re gonna make it illegal for people to use pleasurable substances. That’s my take on it.

BR: Do you think other drugs should be legalized?
DG: Well, not speaking for NORML. I always like to remind people that more than a century ago when my grandparents were young. It was possible to walk into any drug store and buy any drug over the counter. Heroin, cocaine, opiates, cannabis, they were all available. There were no controls on it. However it you read the newspapers of that time, you’ll find the drug problem was really not all that big. It’s very hard to find drug problems back then. It was a minor issue. It became a much bigger issue when it became illegal and became a criminal issue. Drug crime was invented by this war on drugs. But I think the evidence is really pretty clear that the 19th century free market where people could exercise free choice on drugs was safer and had no higher rate of addiction or drug abuse than a highly regulated, criminalized modern system that results in 500,000 prisoners and a couple million arrests a year. I mean my grandparents would be astounded about how much drug crime has become a preoccupation of this society. I think it’s a last century hang-up that we’ve acquired. And I think we need to work our way through it.  And a free market with legal intoxicants I think will be a safer market than an illicit market, a black market with un-regulated intoxicants which are really dangerous and potent.