I smoke pot, and I like it

Will Wilkinson on the issues surrounding the legalization — and taxation — of marijuana

"The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy." President Obama said it with a chuckle last week at a town hall-style forum. The idea was for Obama to answer some questions about the economy submitted to the White House website. The most popular ones all had something to do with the virtues of legalizing and taxing marijuana. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama joshed, and the good Americans assembled at the forum shared a little laugh. What does it say about the online audience? Maybe it says that advocates of marijuana legalization have hope that a president who once inhaled will, even in the middle of a recession, devote some attention to our country's disastrous drug policies.

Have you heard of Santiago Meza Lopez? They call him “The Soupmaker.” In January he confessed to Mexican authorities that he had dissolved over 300 dead human bodies in acid. There’s a lot of money to be made in America’s black market for drugs and Mexican suppliers are willing to kill a lot of people to control those markets and capture the gains. Conservative estimates put the death toll of the war between rival Mexican gangs at over 5,000 in the last year alone. When you kill so many people it’s hard to know what to do with all of the rotting bodies. One way to handle the problem is to call in the Soupmaker. Six hundred American dollars per corpse.

Did you know that the United States of America, the Land of the Free, puts a larger portion of its population behind bars than any country on earth? Thanks in large part to the War on Drugs, Americans lock more of their own in cages than do the thuggish Russians or those “Islamofascist” Saudis. As it happens, American drug prohibition and sentencing policies hit poor black men the hardest, devastating already disadvantaged black families and communities—a tragic, mocking contrast to the achievement of Obama’s election. Militarized police departments across the nation month after month kick down the wrong doors, terrify innocent families, shoot lawful citizens, and often kill the family dog.

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So why is Obama laughing? To be fair, in 2004, Obama called the War on Drugs “a complete failure.” And he’s much saner about pot than most politicians. He has in the past called for decriminalization of marijuana and his Justice Department has promised the DEA will ease up on medical marijuana dispensaries that comply with state law (though the Feds just cracked down on a cannabis coop in San Francisco). Sure, Obama’s got a lot on his hands these days. But his dismissive snicker reflects a sadly common nonchalance toward America’s disastrous experiment in prohibition. This is a “war” that has not only failed utterly to shut down the market for drugs, but has, on the way, perpetuated the shameful American legacy of racial stratification, eroded the rights and safety of American citizens, and fomented a civil war on our southern border in which knock-on markets for assassins and corpse liquidation specialists flourish. To call this “complete failure” is to put on a happy face.

Barack Obama inhaled. “The point was to inhale,” he once smartly observed. But Obama also knows how to get elected president. Sadly, at this point in history, it remains a political liability to have become intoxicated on certain safe but illegal and stigmatized substances, like marijuana. Obama has said his past drug use was a regrettable youthful indiscretion, and he might even believe it. But why regret it? He managed to become president, didn’t he? It’s easy to laugh off the folks who jammed the White House switchboard when we imagine them as pranking “stoners,” and this picture of “the online audience” concedes the harmlessness of marijuana users while refusing to take them seriously. But why not imagine them as regular folks motivated by a love of liberty, justice, peace, and, sure, maybe a taste for grass? Why not imagine them as successful professionals, unlike Barack Obama only in political ambition?

Marijuana is neither evil nor dangerous. Scientists have proven its medical uses. It has spared millions from anguish. But the casual pleasure marijuana has delivered is orders of magnitude greater than the pain it has assuaged, and pleasure matters too. That’s probably why Barack Obama smoked up the second and third times: because he liked it. That’s why tens of millions of Americans regularly take a puff, despite the misconceived laws meant to save us from our own wickedness.

The Atlantic Monthly’s Andrew Sullivan has been documenting on his blog the stories of typical, productive Americans—kids’ football coaches, secretaries of the PTA—who smoke marijuana because they like to smoke marijuana, but who understandably fear emerging fully from the “cannabis closet.” This is a profoundly necessary idea. If we’re to begin to roll back our stupid and deadly drug war, the stigma of responsible drug use has got to end, and marijuana is the best place to start. The super-savvy Barack Obama managed to turn a buck by coming out of the cannabis (and cocaine) closet in a bestselling memoir. That’s progress. But his admission came with the politicians’ caveat of regret. We’ll make real progress when solid, upstanding folk come out of the cannabis closet, heads held high.

So here we go. My name is Will Wilkinson. I smoke marijuana, and I like it.

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