Reefer reflections

Austin, TX

It is 4.20pm on the 20th of April (4/20 in the American parlance) and across the country (and globe) stoners are voicing peaceful demonstrations by publicly ingesting a substance still classified illegal in most places.

The origin of the numbers is contested – often hotly debated over junk food binges in hazy basements and backseats – but whether coined by a bunch of skater punks in California or reflective of some deeper Rastafarian resonance, one thing is clear: this day, and these digits, are now synonymous with marijuana and its international sub-culture.

#420Day is trending heavily on Twitter right now and college lecture halls and workplaces have found themselves inexplicably empty, while 7-Eleven stores are experiencing a momentary boom.

It is dope’s national day.

By way of disclaimer, this esteemed thread does not necessarily advocate the consumption of weed. It undoubtedly makes people lazy and could be a factor in thwarting ambition and productivity, in turn potentially leading to more unfulfilled lives. The suggestion that it is a ‘gateway drug’ to more nefarious substances may also have some merit and I defer to the opinions of more medically trained folks on that issue. Bottom line: there are probably plenty of better things the kids could be doing with their time this afternoon.

But on the other hand, the fact that this ancient and global custom is still treated as a crime – punishable in many places (including here in the US) by incarceration – is completely ludicrous. The inhaling of marijuana vapours may not be conducive to healthy lungs or a productive morning but compared to a stint at ‘her majesty’s pleasure’ it will hardly ruin your life.

According to the ACLU, 8.2 million arrests were made between 2001 and 2011 for marijuana-related offences. Of these, 88 per cent were for possession only. Meanwhile, more than half of the 2.5 million-strong American prison population is currently locked up for drug offences, and a good number of these inmates were done for marijuana supply, distribution or consumption.

The law has a disproportionately adverse effect on America’s poorest communities and there is an undeniable racial element. Black and white Americans apparently smoke pot at fairly comparable rates, yet African-Americans are 8.3 times more likely to be arrested for it, according to The New York Times.

Granted, I have relied on some pretty politically-charged sources here but even if you water the numbers down, it still tells a story of unnecessary social disharmony and distress. We imprison drug users, break apart families and then expect their offspring to not make similar mistakes.

This is not to mention the mind-blowing financial costs of subsidising three meals a day and shelter for these incarcerated weed fiends. The irony is that many of those who support the status quo of marijuana prohibition describe themselves as fiscally conservative. That waste could be re-allocated to drug education (something that can’t be done properly while it remains stigmatised and illegal) or put back into taxpayers’ own pockets so they can make purchasing decisions that might improve their lives and make getting high less appealing.

The War on Drugs has categorically failed. A ‘zero tolerance’ policy is counter-productive and only fuels the kinds of conditions that incentivise drug use (and more sinister crimes) in the first place.

Moreover, the role of government is not to save people from themselves and this is just another bullet point on the extensive list of human behaviours the state has taken upon itself to regulate.  We have become much too complacent in being told what to do – and more pertinently, what not to do – on some flimsy basis of a non-existent ‘social contract’.

Many sensible people will no doubt agree, including some inside the world’s legislative bodies that are too cowardly to do something about it. Either that, or the cannabis lobby isn’t greasing enough palms, providing an insufficient supply of medium rare rib-eyes on K Street.

This election, however, could signal a turning point. There is not much on which Bernie Sanders and I agree, but on the issue of drug policy reform I must admit even I am ‘feeling the Bern’. The Vermont senator has been a consistent voice against the War on Drugs for decades, criticising it as nothing more than a culturally-motivated attempt to cleanse society of poor people and hippies.

True to form, Hillary Clinton has held a wide range of views on the topic depending on whom she is speaking to. She is on the record supporting a declassification of cannabis from a Schedule 1 drug (equivalent to Class A in Australia) to a lower grade, as well as advocating legalisation of medicinal marijuana. She has stopped short of supporting full blown decriminalisation of recreational use, but if Bernie’s campaign continues to give her grief don’t be surprised to see this shift.

Ted Cruz has said that while he opposes legalisation and would vote against it in his home state of Texas, that he supports the right of states to determine their own approach, as Colorado has recently done. By contrast, as Governor of Ohio, John Kasich voted down legislation to permit recreational use, but has also relaxed punishments for weed offenders.

Only Donald Trump remains stubbornly against reform. As a man who has apparently never consumed alcohol in his life – a feat that would make him unelectable in the UK or Australia – and warned his kids against drugs every day before school, this is perhaps unsurprising.

But given his infamous temper and admission that he “doesn’t sleep much”, the Republican frontrunner might want to give it a try.



Published on ‘420 Day’ April 20 2016

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