Like it or not, the era of legalized weed is upon us. Four states and DC have passed recreational marijuana laws by popular referendum, while medical marijuana is legal in so many states, I can’t find an accurate up-to-date count. Some people like this, some hate it, and I still struggle. Regardless of your position, though, the changing climate is real. Seattle-area journalist Bruce Barcott decided the time was right to investigate what that means.
Barcott admits initially having dim opinions about legalized marijuana. Despite college experimentation, his opinion of pot, and pot smokers, was largely based on ONDCP leaflets, DARE seminars, and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No.” Then Washington Initiative 502 crossed his electoral view. Unlike Colorado’s “pot is safer than liquor” bill, Washington’s referendum turned on issues of justice. Ham-handed enforcement of federal and state drug laws unfairly targeted Hispanics, African Americans, and white trash, with Orwellian consequences.
Like many fair-minded citizens before him, Barcott realized he didn’t know enough. Not just enough facts, but enough people. He confesses thinking medical marijuana was for “just late-stage cancer patients or pain-faking stoners.” When he actually met the well-scrubbed lawyers pushing Initiative 502, the nerdy entrepreneurs spearheading commercial pot, or the remarkably ordinary people using—professional dancers with aching joints, AIDS sufferers, decorated soldiers with PTSD nightmares—he found a very different, more nuanced story.
It wouldn’t be unfair to compare Barcott’s narrative to Homer’s Odyssey. We could compare his discovery of cannabis creams (that don’t induce highs) for his aching joints to Circe’s island, or Colorado’s Cannabis Cup 2014 to the Lotus Eaters. But more than metaphors, what matters is that Barcott traveled a world that, amid changing laws and ethics, is hardly recognizable, even to anyone who visited Denver just five years ago. The people drive Barcott’s journey.
People like Dennis Peron, Barcott’s most memorable interview, despite only featuring in one chapter. Back in 1990, Peron’s partner, like many Castro District homosexuals, required intensive AIDS drugs that caused vomiting, making keeping the drugs down impossible. Smoking weed bypassed the spewing, but procuring weed landed Peron in jail, so his allies managed to pass America’s first medical marijuana referendum. Thus today’s two great upheavals, same-sex marriage and legalized pot, emerged from the same chrysalis.
People like Kevin Sabet, a leading voice defending status quo drug enforcement and advocating tough marijuana interventions. His lucrative nationwide speaking tours have made him legendary in anti-drug circles. Yet Barcott describes him lecturing a roomful of Seattle drug cops, who roll their eyes as Sabet rehashes anti-drug propaganda decades out of date. As Barcott writes: “When confronted with new evidence that challenged the beliefs of those in power, those in power dismissed the evidence.”
This book overlaps with Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream. They draw similar conclusions that most current anti-drug rhetoric is driven more by moral umbrage than scientific facts. They both pin responsibility for this hysteria first on founding drug enforcer Harry J. Anslinger, then on successor politicians scared of being called “soft.” They agree that current knowledge, coupled with changing social attitudes, means the time has come to change America’s approach to drugs, and drug patients.
But these books aren’t essentially interchangeable. Hari addresses the entire global Drug War, from Anslinger to today; Barcott focuses on America, pot, and mainly the present. Hari is synoptic; Barcott is specific. Hari strives, sometimes unsuccessfully, to maintain journalistic dispassion; Barcott jumps into the story, samples the product, and, Boswell-like, helps create the story by asking dangerous questions. Hari and Barcott aren’t doing the same thing. Read both together to better understand the entire controversy.
Society’s changing drug standards are real, happening right now. History stands still for nobody. And whether you advocate more and broader legalization, or prefer strengthening today’s drug laws and enforcing them rigorously, you need serious facts. Anybody who’s smoked a doobie, seen they didn’t turn maniacal, and thereafter stopped trusting propaganda, knows why the debate is turning. Rather than political camouflage, we need factual transparency. This debate will happen, and we mustn’t get left behind.