Society won’t sit on pot much longer

It’s hard not to encounter marijuana at most college parties these days. As the evening passes and the alcohol loosens everyone up, someone will inevitably get out a small, self-rolled cigarette. That person lights it, takes a long drag and holds it in for a while, then passes it on to the next partier.
The next person may or may not accept it, but there’s never much fuss over it. I’m one of those who don’t partake when a marijuana joint is offered to me, but I’m not one to stop others from enjoying it if they choose. I remember being really nervous the first time marijuana was in my presence. What if the cops rushed in right now, I wondered. What if the FBI has been stalking out this particular apartment for months, waiting for the right moment to burst in with a SWAT team and apprehend all of us? What if they ship me off to Tarantula Island where I’ll have to fight for my life, constantly running from larger-than-life arachnids as punishment for my anti-social behavior?
Today, I’m wiser and more mellow. It’s just pot, and there is no such thing as Tarantula Island. Marijuana is becoming an accepted drug in our culture. California voters helped foster this acceptance when they legalized it for medicinal purposes by voting on Proposition 215 last fall. Of course, some of the legalization effort’s supporters aren’t just interested in helping ease the pain of those who suffer from glaucoma. It’s about legal weed, man!
Although the medical-use argument is a strong one for legalizing marijuana, it also serves to further illustrate the cultural bias this country has toward the drug. The medicinal-use argument has its flaws, but few would believe in legalizing marijuana because prohibition shows cultural preferences for alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.
Even with legal drugs, people are always finding justifications based on health reasons. Studies have shown that a glass of red wine each day cuts cholesterol. A two-pack-a-day smoker friend of mine once tried to convince me that his lungs were strong because smoking exercises them. Hogwash.
It seems to me that the debate about pot is three sided. One group is vehement about keeping marijuana illegal, a second is vehement about making it legal and the third is somewhere in the middle — which is what I believe is the majority’s opinion.
According to a survey conducted of teens and adults by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, since 1991 people’s opinions about marijuana have mellowed. From 1991 to 1995 the number of people that say there is great risk of harm in regular use of marijuana dropped from about 80 percent to about 60 percent.
Regardless of the drug’s actual affect, people just don’t think pot is that big of a deal.
I feel rather comfortable now when I’m around it. I sometimes wonder where my initial uneasiness came from. But if I think about it, I know where; grade school health class. My health class taught blooming adolescents about all the evils of the world: bad posture, sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholism, tobacco and, among other things, illegal drugs, like marijuana. (This is the same health class that showed the movie “Outsiders” to teach us about gang violence.) Teachers warned that sex can be itchy; slouching, although it may look cool when your 11, can hurt you when your 65; cigarettes turn your lungs brown and fill them with holes; and marijuana kills your brain cells.
In high school, drugs took on some new meanings. For example, the hard-core drugs were discussed in my English classes. My teachers would point out, under their breaths, that this particular poet was wasted out of his mind on opium when he wrote the brilliant piece of literature before us. Sure, he may have died at an early age, but what writing! About all I knew of pot then was that the druggie kids got arrested and sent to juvenile corrections for doing drugs and rich kids got slapped on the hands for selling them.
College changed everything, though. I started to meet more and more people who smoked pot. They seemed decent enough, got good grades and cared about where they were going in life — a far cry from the washed-up losers I remembered seeing on ABC’s after- school specials.
Admittedly, I’ve also known a couple of people who have heavily used pot. They do live up to the pot-head caricature I was introduced to in health class — but these people are in the minority.
I’ve been asked for pot before, especially when I let my hair and beard grow longer. These days, I’ve been told, I look more like a Surge drinker who pops a Mentos every now and then rather than a pot head. I always felt uneasy when I was asked for pot, though. Sometimes my uneasiness was not because I was being asked to do something illegal, but because I felt sorry for the person asking. Social stigmas made a simple question a leap of faith.
I’ve realized the risk a person must be taking just by asking me that simple question, and to find out that I’m not who they think I am only adds to their anguish. It’s like being asked out by a gay guy. I’m not really offended, but perhaps a little uneasy when I say “no” because you know this guy’s putting his neck on the chopping block just to say a small group of words.
Whether or not pot is legal may not affect me directly, but the way the law stands now, too many good people are in danger of getting into big trouble for a drug arguably not much more dangerous than legal, common drugs. And, if you don’t think alcohol and tobacco are dangerous, tell it to a member of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers or someone afflicted with lung cancer.
The dangers of these drugs are only partially relevant to their legality. It’s mostly cultural. For some groups, smoking pot is a religious experience; for example, Rastafarians. Telling a Rastafarian not to smoke pot is like telling a Christian not to serve wine to minors during communion.
Certainly, the health risks are there. Some studies have shown that smoking one joint damages your lungs as much as a pack of cigarettes. However, the pleasurable effects of one joint go a long way, and most people don’t smoke marijuana in as great a quantity as cigarettes.
Keeping pot illegal has more to do with keeping American Puritanism alive and well than it does with keeping people healthy. Even the prohibition movement in the 1920s was culturally based. It was an attempt to get Germans to drink less beer and Italians to drink less wine.
The fight over the legalization of pot is no different, except that the culture being suppressed isn’t foreign, it’s home-grown. Ever since the 1960s, when many people’s parents first tried pot, marijuana has had a strong cultural niche in this country. As time passes, that niche grows larger and stronger.
This niche already elected a pot-head president. Soon, more pot heads are going to be seated in congress, at the head of companies and behind the desks of health class teachers. When that happens, the prohibition on pot will seem as distant a memory as this country’s prohibition on booze.

Chris Druckenmiller’s columns appear every Tuesday in the Daily.