High time to legalize

It is great that California may finally legalize recreational use of marijuana this year by passing a ballot measure in November — The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 — even though the world needs more than just getting rid of silly drug laws so that legal drug companies can replace illegal drug dealers. Beyond legalization, we need to change the passive way we interact with drugs, the world, our consciousness, and each other.

It is too easy to relate to drugs as just another thing you can buy, sell or ingest — a social interaction that can easily be integrated into the dominant society with a legalization law without undermining the dehumanizing power relationships that are killing the earth. How can we remove drugs from the market economy, figure out cooperative, do-it-yourself production and distribution models, and harness the altered states of consciousness that can be associated with drugs to undermine and corrode mainstream institutions and cultural values? And why does it often feel like excessive pot use is actually holding back alternative communities a lot more than liberating us?

While the ballot measure permits personal cultivation for personal use meaning that people could theoretically create pot on a do-it-yourself, local basis outside the market, the last 15 years of experience with legal medical marijuana in California indicates that rather than promoting more activity outside the market, most people are going to want to buy their pot rather than grow their own. California medical cannabis patients have overwhelming sought to purchase, rather than grow, their medicine. In fact, the November initiative was put on the ballot by Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University in Oakland which is the flagship of the highly profitable medical marijuana-industrial complex that has developed to sell pot since medical marijuana was legalized.

Much of the text of the ballot measure is about figuring out the rules for the new market, including taxation of pot sales to help fund local governments. This is one of the marketing points on which proponents of the initiative hope to base their electoral campaign — that legalizing pot can raise money to pay for local governments starved for funds by government preoccupied with prisons and tax cuts for the rich.

That the ballot measure is really about creating new legal markets and products is sad but inevitable — the capitalist market system swallows everything within its reach. Word on the street is that some pot growers and dealers are against the measure because they know it will put them out of business. Residents of pot crop-dependent Humboldt County may organize a “no” campaign.

It’s up to radicals to set up alternatives in every social realm — housing, food, education, transportation, drugs and recreation — based on cooperation, sharing, production for use not profit, and meeting human needs not corporate greed. Turning fancy strains of pot into a new Napa Valley wine industry — complete with pesticides, low-paid un-documented workers, and fat-cat yuppie owners — is a likely but unpleasant picture of the future.

Clearly, drug prohibition is a bad joke that should be abandoned immediately. Laws against pot haven’t made it difficult to get. Rather, they have been a price support system and a tax on users, keeping prices high and promising super-profits to people involved in the trade. Billions of dollars have been wasted on police and prisons, pointlessly ruining lives. A few groovy hippies have been able to live rural lives growing weed, and a few corporate-style drug gangs have run a profitable business.

Average users pay an inflated price. Perhaps it can be a bit more fun to use an illegal drug than a legal drug like alcohol. Ultimately, people are going to decide what to do with their bodies no matter what the laws say and an awful lot of people seem to like smoking dope. So it is silly for laws to try to hold back popularly accepted cultural behaviors.

The ballot measure, if passed, would be the first state law to outright legalize pot for recreational use, rather than hiding behind medical uses for marijuana or past legal reforms aimed at “decriminalizing” pot by making possession and use a minor infraction, while keeping strict laws against selling and growing.

Under the proposed law, individuals over 21 years old could “possess, process, share, or transport” up to one ounce of pot “solely for that individual’s personal consumption, and not for sale.” Those of age could also “cultivate, on private property by the owner, lawful occupant, or other lawful resident or guest of the private property owner or lawful occupant, cannabis plants for personal consumption only, in an area of not more than twenty-five square feet per private residence”. That is enough space to grow an ample personal supply — perhaps 25 ounces every three months. The law bans smoking pot in public, while using a motor vehicle or “in any space while minors are present” as well as providing marijuana to anyone under 21.

The law would permit each “local government” including a “city, county, or city and county” to either ban the sale of pot within its jurisdiction, or regulate and tax up to one ounce sales by “persons . . . lawfully authorized”. Local governments would be permitted to regulate not just the sale of pot, but also who would be licensed to produce, process and distribute it. They could pass zoning rules to regulate the location, size, hours, advertising, public health and environmental impacts of marijuana production, sale and consumption within their jurisdiction.

The lack of a statewide standard could create a confusing patchwork of “dry” areas and legal areas, determined by local voters. Perhaps a few cities would emerge as drug supply hubs for the state, with potheads driving to the local dope supermarket, dominated by a few companies that were “authorized” because of their close connections to local government officials. Some cities could pass lax laws with low taxes and easy rules to become an “authorized” dealer, while others might opt for very high taxes and strict rules. There is no way to know what might happen but companies wanting to cash in on the marijuana market would be likely to heavily lobby local governments to earn potentially huge profits. The emphasis on local regulation appears to invite corruption.

Of course any petty corruption under the law is likely to be better than the status quo, which criminalizes huge numbers of people for their private decisions and spawns various levels of criminal activity, from benign to violent, throughout society. A friend who works trimming pot during harvest in Northern California described the creepy, power-tripping, paranoid dynamic that the constant fear of getting busted breeds amongst workers in the illegal pot industry. Everyone is wondering if there is a government spy in their midst.

The drug war — like the war on terrorism — gives the state endless excuses to intrude on individual liberty and privacy. This dynamic creates a corrosive, authoritarian atmosphere of expanded police budgets and authority. Ending the war on drugs is what I think of as a non-reformist reform because it opens up more liberated social conditions — space for people to build autonomy and community.

Opponents of legalization have always claimed that more people would use pot if it was legal but it’s hard to see how this could be true since weed is already so easily available to anyone who wants it. To the extent more people use it, this could be a good thing. Pot is a quick and easy way to alter one’s consciousness in an interesting way that can potentially help people question mainstream values of consumerism, human control, hierarchy, etc. When you’re stoned, social dynamics that normally seem natural or mandatory can sometimes be called into question. We need to conduct more hands-on research on this point . . .

On the other hand, there are a lot of ways to alter and expand your consciousness — meditation, playing music, extreme exercise, rioting, therapy, working on Slingshot, starting a guerilla garden or plugging into other participatory, social, interactive activities. Pot can be a lazy, passive high — a cheap trip to higher consciousness that can dull the mind, inhibit spiritual development and hold people back. When pot is just another product, users are just consumers. We need a world where we’re more engaged with each other, ourselves and able to address social contradictions — another way to check-out from reality heads the wrong direction.

Some of the harder, more do-it-yourself, non-chemical mind-altering experiences can be pretty deep. While I’ve had amazing moments feeling like I was floating on air while riding my bicycle stoned into the sunset, I’ve also noticed how I get depressed for about a week after each time I try pot. Each drug works differently for different people, at different times, and has different costs and benefits. Hopefully folks will try a lot of ways to expand their consciousness because too much of any particular pathway becomes boring.

Just legalizing pot isn’t the end of the story — the social and cultural struggle about how we use marijuana and other drugs (legal or illegal) will continue indefinitely. Hopefully, once pot is legal and “out of the closet” it will be easier to have a more complex and interesting dialog, and there will be one less absurd excuse for police to bust people.