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Legalize Only Medical Marijuana or All Marijuana?

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By "Radical" Russ Belville

David Malmo-Levine forwarded an article he’s written as reaction to an online conversation in which many leaders in the marijuana movement are participating.  Let’s call it the “Crossroads Debate”.  

Some folks, like Malmo-Levine, whom I’ll call “Medicalizers”, believe the proper strategy to fulfill our aim of ending adult marijuana prohibition is to continue expanding the the medical marijuana model under an “all use is medical” or “wellness supplements”, to keep broadening the conditions for which patients can get medical marijuana recommendations and to reduce the requirements for a patient to legally use cannabis until cannabis is treated as aspirin – a safe over-the-counter substance requiring no doctor and no registrations.

I and folks like Mickey Martin at, whom I’ll call “Legalizers”, disagree, believing that all use of cannabis is, indeed, not medical; it can be spiritual, recreational, and industrial, too, and we don’t need to have medical excuses to get high.

So in this “Crossroads Debate”, David Malmo-Levine concludes his article with:

The biggest mistake we could possibly make is to associate medicine only with the sick:

Mickey Martin – the “Cannabis Warrior” – makes that mistake in his latest blog. He argues that anyone who says “all use is medical” is also saying – in the same breath – that “every stoner is a patient”.

What some of us are ACTUALLY saying – and all of us including Mickey should be saying – is that “all use is medical and – when the war on cannabis finally ends and cannabis is first regulated like wine and then eventually like coffee beans – nobody needs to be a patient any longer.”

Doctors are a temporary buffer against the police – they are not the end goal of those who recognize cannabis as a medicine (and who recognize each user as someone taking a medicine and feeling the medicinal effects and thus being a “medicinal user” regardless of whether they are abusing it or having fun or blowing smoke-rings or whatever).

Until marijuana is regulated like wine, people will need to use doctors to protect them from the police.

You’re asking the reader to accept that medical = wine = coffee.  Nobody I know calls their after-dinner wine or before-work coffee “medicine”.  I get that you want to “inclusivize” cannabis like herbology, acupuncture, whatever non-traditional healing wellness thing, but none of those are also something young people do to get high.

If the end point is “it should be treated like coffee”, then face the public and say, “it should be treated like coffee”.  If it is a substance we should be able to use because we want to _____ (stay well, treat illness, commune with Jah, get laid, enjoy Jerry Garcia solos) then just say so!  Personally, I like “treat it like wine” better; I support age limits and location restrictions for cannabis use (of course, my “age limit” would be 16 and my restriction would be “anywhere there’s not a ‘no smoking’ sign”.)

All this dancing around holistic medical wellness makes the public feel like there’s something at the core we can’t be honest about and we have to dress it up with euphemisms.  No matter how holistically medically wellnessy cannabis is, mom and dad still worry about their teenager becoming a wastoid.  Folks worry about you wrecking your car into them on your holistically medically wellnessy cannabis.  The core we’re dancing around here is that marijuana can get you high – whether it’s “relaxation”, “recreation”, “wellness”, “stress relief”, “enhancement”, “medicated”, “lifted”, “stoned”, the name we give it does not change what it is.

Now, WE KNOW there’s more to fear from drunk teenagers and drivers on Oxycontin or cell phones, but those facts don’t make folks feel any less scared of the marijuana.  It’s like saying, “Don’t worry about your kid surfing in June – shark bite attacks are much more prevalent in August.”  Read some Drew Westen, some George Lakoff, even Frank Luntz or Karl Rove… people don’t vote and think reasonably and rationally, they vote and think from fear and self-interest.

We played the self-interest card with medical marijuana.  The voter was forced to decide whether he/she would allow cops to imprison sick people and let them suffer without pot.  This was a self-interest factor greater than the “I gotta protect society / my kids from dope” self-interest factor.

But now our opponents are trumping it with their fear cards.  Mexican gangs are growing in the forests to supply medical marijuana!  Drivers are stopped with hundreds of pounds of California or Colorado medical marijuana on its way to your state!  Your kids are smoking more pot than in thirty years because medical marijuana makes them think it’s safe!  Your neighbor is converting his house to a grow factory to profit from medical marijuana!  There’s also a self-interest factor of the voter who feels he was bamboozled when he/she voted for medical marijuana every time he/she sees a “Get Your Card $45″ placard or hears an ad for another medical marijuana expo featuring Kottonmouth Kings or Cheech & Chong.

Now is the time to get to the fear and self-interest that works in our favor.  Until the voter fears the status quo of prohibition more than the mystery of a new legal substance, fear of medmj adding to the “drug problem” is going to keep us in a defensive posture of approving stricter and stricter medical marijuana regulations  You can’t get the medmj for anxiety wellness approved outside California so long as voters think “druggies” can fake anxiety.

So we should make them fear the unregulated dealer who panders to kids far more than a regulated clerk would.  Fear the violence in Mexico that will spill over our border (more), lead our troops into a drug war on our continent (more), and nobody’s shooting anybody over Corona or Dos Equis.  Fear the over-militarization of our domestic police and inevitable corruption and racial profiling that results from trying to stop adults from smoking a joint.  Fear that someone who could use medical marijuana won’t be able to get it, because no matter how you craft a medical use law, someone won’t be “sick enough”, be able to afford the doctor visit and state registry, or afford prohibition-priced marijuana.  Fear that the truly sick legit patients now have to suffer shortages or live in fear of both the illegal gangs of rippers and robbers and the legal gangs of SWAT and feds due to prohibition.

Then ply them with the self-interest of increased tax revenues, reduced crime, new industries, yada yada yada.

Now, here’s where someone usually says, “but we tried all that and it didn’t work; only when we did medical did laws really change!” I disagree; I think we tried all that and it did work; that’s what got us medical.

Beginning Nixon’s drug war, marijuana legalization support was 12%.  By 1977, after nothing but a “I smoke pot and I like it a lot” strategy, 11 states decriminalized and support was at 30%.  Then it hit the Eighties and many factors, including cultural ties to cocaine, rejection of 1970s malaise / 1960s culture war, and bipartisan escalation of the overall drug war, led to legalization support dropping to 16%.

But those polls began inching upwards in the late Eighties and early Nineties, before anyone outside of San Francisco was putting “medical” with “marijuana”.  We went from 1987 and a Supreme Court nominee being sacked for admitting smoking pot at Harvard to 1992 and a presidential candidate winning after admitting (kinda) smoking pot at Oxford.  I’d venture that rise owes to Baby Boomers whose kids had left the nest then rediscovering pot and remembering it’s pretty cool, actually.  I’d note also the rise of hip-hop during that period spreading love of “the chronic” from the coasts to the rest of youth of America.  And the only message being spread back then in the bleak Eighties was Jack Herer’s (and others’) preaching about free and unregulated hemp, with medical use as just one aspect of this marvelous plant.

Then it was possible to pitch medical marijuana to a public softened to the notion that personal marijuana use wasn’t a big deal.  I doubt Prop 215 does so well in 1986 or 1988.  (I also don’t think it would do so well in a 2012 vote, if this were sunsetting and California had to vote to keep it exactly as is.  Interesting to think about until somebody polls it.)

Times change – there is enough evidence for most people, from medical use they see and read about to more people’s own personal use, that the strategy of the 1970s – legalize it! – doesn’t face the same perils today.  Support now is 50%, not 16%.  People under 50 who’ve tried it amount to 52% of the population, not 30%.  More than half (51%) know now that it is a safer substance than alcohol.  Three presidents have tried it and the greatest Olympic swimmer ever famously inhaled during his greatness.  Google abounds with factual references on cannabis and its users.

But people don’t change without the pain of staying the same being greater than the fear of change.  The public is at the precipice, ready to leap to legalization, knowing it is the right path, but scared of how to get there and whether it is worse than just staying here at the ledge.  ”Medical” doesn’t make them leap; “medical” is some other guy/gal on the precipice with their own issues.  I don’t even think “regulation” and “taxation” work as well, as many Americans think those two things are inherently bad (thank Frank Luntz).  I like to say “control” – it rankles the choir, to be sure (“No corporate / government control of cannabis!”), but to the public it evokes the counter, “out-of-control”, that many of them feel about marijuana (medical or recreational).  I think a wise initiative drafter would pen the “Marijuana Control & Revenue Act” and get votes from the ballot title alone.


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