(Revised version of column first published in 2002)“…Legalize it, yeah yeah, that's the best thing you can do" – Peter Tosh, “Legalize It,” 1975
Start spreading the news — the times they are a-changing and New Yorkers will soon be a little less anxious about getting high with a little help from their friends.
After more than 40 years, the winds of change have a distinct hint of marijuana blowing across the nation with legalization and decriminalization slowly taking effect. Though federal legalization is still a pipedream — soundly opposed by diverse pockets of resistance — on Election Day, Oregon and Alaska became the third and fourth states to legalize and regulate the commercial production and sale of marijuana for adults. What's more, voters in the nation's capital and in several cities nationwide decided to eliminate marijuana possession penalties.
New York City is set to join the expanding list of municipalities liberalizing archaic drug laws, which could end most arrests for low-level marijuana possession, with police officers directed to issue summonses without detaining the suspect.
As a matter of fact, New York City will now conform to the state’s 1977 Marijuana Reform Act, signed into law by then-governor Hugh Carey. The statute calls for possession of up to 25 grams of pot as a violation, punishable up to a $100 fine for the first offense.
New York is actually one of eighteen states, including a few Republican strongholds like Nebraska and Ohio that have decriminalized marijuana possession — with no prison time or a criminal record — for first-time possession of small amounts for personal consumption.
After 37 years, New York City cops will be directed not to exploit a segment of the act specifying the weed must be in public view to qualify as a violation. (Under the controversial stop and frisk policy, NYPD officers routinely demanded individuals empty their pockets. When they saw a joint, the concealed pot was suddenly “in public,” and, therefore, a crime.)
A substantial majority of baby boomers have either smoked or sampled pot. It could also be taken for granted that some of that generation’s politicians did a doobie now and then. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former New York State Governor George Pataki, former New Jersey Senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to name a few, have admitted smoking pot in their youth. Former President Bill Clinton did, too, but, without a smirk or a wink, noted he never inhaled.
One presumption hostile to legalization is that marijuana, which is much more intoxicating today than when it was the choice of trendy young adults years ago, leads to harder drugs. That’s as preposterous as proclaiming regularly consuming beer may lead to drinking more potent potables!
There was an unsubstantiated anecdote circulating in the freewheeling 60s that a major American university had conducted research in which lab rats were fed their body weight in marijuana over a 30-day period. Consequently, the drugged rodents showed a multitude of problems, leading to the conclusion that cannabis could result in similar effects to humans. The research seems scientifically questionable and patently unrealistic. Nonetheless, anyone capable of smoking their body weight in marijuana in a month would experience a relentless case of the munchies, not to mention likely turn acutely sick and impaired!
Anyone consuming their body weight of anything in a brief period, whether it’s water, broccoli, tofu, potato chips or Twinkies, would probably risk adverse side effects.
I’m not aware of any conclusive research asserting that smoking an occasional joint does more harm to the human body than a daily shot of liquor. Nonetheless, marijuana is criminalized, while alcohol supports multi-billion dollar businesses, from agricultural to advertising to your local saloon. On the plus side, if pot were legal, it could be a major source of sorely-needed revenue at all levels of government.
Even when comprehensive marijuana legalization was a long shot in the early 1970s, American tobacco companies supposedly seized an opportunity that was too good to miss. Big tobacco reportedly registered a bunch of brand names, such as “Acapulco Gold” and other pot-related monikers, so, if and when the substance was legalized, they’d be set to commence production.
More than a decade ago, a national substance abuse group reported that underage drinking accounted for one-fourth of all alcohol consumed in this country. Predictably, the alcohol industry rejected that estimate as “absolutely wrong.”
While continuing to preach “No” to illegal drugs, that message should similarly repudiate any addictive substance, including prescription drugs. After all, excessive abuse, in any form, is irresponsible behavior.
It is also time to admit the “war on drugs” was a disaster that was mostly waged domestically. Fighting the cartels that transport illegal substances to our communities may seem effective, every now and then, when there’s a major bust, but, by and large, the drug pipeline has scarcely been clogged. It has also damaged countless lives, overtaxed the criminal justice system and led to numerous incidents of corrupt law enforcement agents, excessive police tactics and exploitation of civil forfeiture laws.
Besides, you don‘t need a sociology degree to grasp that criminal enforcement has disproportionately targeted minorities and low income neighborhoods.
According to NYPD statistics, 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession through August 2014, were black or Latino. Yet, the 2010 census indicated those ethnic groups just comprise over 60 percent of the city’s population.
After the repeal of prohibition, America didn’t turn into a country of alcoholics. Consequently, modernizing marijuana laws would not result in nationwide reefer madness. On the other hand, it would end the inequitable imprisonment of tens of thousands for a minor offense, as well as boost federal, state and local treasuries.
With that in mind, toke ‘em, if you got ‘em. Roll another one, but, don’t Bogart that joint.