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Marijuana and the "Silent Colossal National Lie"

by Bruce Mirken

I’ve been absent from this blog for a couple weeks, taking a much needed vacation and trying my best not to think about marijuana policy. While away, I did what I usually do when I need to clear my head: I read some Mark Twain — in this case a collection of his topical writings, some too incendiary to be published during his lifetime.

And Twain, damn him, got me thinking about marijuana policy.

In a piece called “Corn-Pone Opinions,” first published 13 years after his death, Twain observes, “I am persuaded that a coldly thought-out and independent verdict on a fashion in clothes, or manners, or literature, or politics, or religion, or any other matter that is projected onto the field of our notice and interest, is a most rare thing — if it has indeed ever existed. … we shall merely conform and let it go at that. We get our notions and habits and opinions from outside influences.”

Twain’s essay was written manydecades before public opinion polling showed that, once the results of an election are known, a far higher percentage will say they voted for the winning candidate than actually did so. As a race, we like to follow the pack and not stray too far from what we believe our friends and neighbors think.

And that tendency is what makes possible what Twain calls in another essay “the silent and colossal national lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses…” Such lies, he explains, are rooted not in what is said, but what is unsaid — by, for example, the millions of Americans who, when Twain was a child, knew slavery was wrong but said nothing. By silently acquiescing to what they thought was the majority sentiment so as not to stand out from their neighbors, they enabled a massive evil to be perpetuated for decades.

And so it is with our war on marijuana, an evil that persists because most of us silently go along with the colossal, national lie that the criminalization of tens of millions of our fellow citizens — and the arrest of over four-fifths of a million of them each year — is accomplishing something worthwhile rather than spreading injustice through every facet of society.

The answer — the only answer — is to break the silence. End the lies — and not just on this blog or drug policy listserves or other forums for the converted. We need to speak up at every opportunity — at work, at PTA meetings, at the barbershop, with friends and neighbors and co-workers. Even when it’s awkward. Especially when it’s awkward.

So how was your summer vacation?


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