You have to admire the political moxie of Rep. Steve Cohen for being the only Congressperson to address the Marijuana Policy Projects' 15th annual gala last week. It's not as if the congressman's district is clamoring for the reformation of pot laws, but Cohen has, ever since his days as a state senator where he proposed legislation to enable Tennessee's doctors to prescribe the use of medical marijuana for their patients. Cohen told the Memphis Flyer in 2005, "The laws are crazy to restrict an individual from something that can make them feel better when they're dying. There are so many other legal drugs out there that are much more habit-forming, addictive, and potent." Immediately, Cohen's detractors accused him of being a pot-head, but judging from his previous statement about marijuana's potency, he hasn't smoked any in a while. I was at first delighted and then confused over Cohen's appearance, along with "Trailblazer" honorees, Cheech & Chong, at the marijuana advocacy group's confab. I'm not used to my representatives acting on principle. First, this guy establishes a lottery that enriches the public school system, then he passes legislation formally apologizing for the institution of slavery, and now he's trying to decriminalize marijuana. Who does he think he is? Marcus Garvey?
Cohen told the self-confessed pot smokers that his own campaign polls have shown nearly 3-1 support for medical marijuana. "This is an issue that's important," Cohen said. "It's a freedom issue. It's an intelligence issue... I'm proud to be here." News reports said Cohen received nearly as loud an ovation as did Cheech & Chong, if not the belly laughs. It is a certainty that Cohen's political opponents will seize upon this issue in the 2010 elections. The conservatives will say that he's in league with Barack Obama in attempting to indoctrinate the nation's youth. And his Democratic opponents, including a group of African-American "ministers" who disliked his support over the passage of a hate crimes bill, of all things, will accuse him of being in favor of drugs in the 'hood, when what they actually mean is they don't want Steve Cohen there. The congressman, however, has shown consistency in voting his conscience, and anyone who is even vaguely informed knows that he is on the right side of history.
History teaches that cannabis was made illegal in the 1930s after a study by the Harry Anslinger Commission linked its' usage with illegal workers from Mexico. A marijuana "devil weed" campaign of provocative disinformation followed and was accepted as gospel until the beatniks and hippies exposed the hysterical propaganda as just plain silly. Today, cannabis cultivation is a billion dollar domestic industry that operates on cash and remains untaxed and unregulated despite the fact that, according to author Eric Schlosser, "There are more people in prison today for violating marijuana laws than at any other time in American history." Given the supposition that any mind altering substance is not good for children or the developing brain, isn't it time we admitted that marijuana is a gift from God for grown-ups and good for what ails ya'? Cohen speaks of pot giving comfort to the dying, but how about the living? This innocuous weed eases nausea, pain, and anxiety in most people, while causing passivity in its users. The Rastafarians use it as a religious sacrament, and there are now as many cannibis connoisseurs as wine experts. I suppose I've spent a full third of my life in bars and nightclubs, and I have seen a thousand fistfights, all fueled by alcohol. But I have never, ever, witnessed a pot smoker get high and become violent, unless he was about to be ripped off for drugs or money.
And that's the crux of the problem. Remove the massive illegal profits from pot cultivation and distribution, regulate it, and disassociate marijuana from other Schedule 1 drugs like Heroin and PCP, and prisons would suddenly have room for the rash of violent felons among us. The group for which Rep. Cohen spoke, The Marijuana Policy Project, issued recent statistics showing cannabis arrests outnumbering arrests for all violent crimes combined. And the hypocrisy of accepting thousands of deaths per year resulting from drunken driving while incarcerating nearly fifty thousand people, one out of eight prisoners, for pot use is dumbfounding. Yet the alcohol bandwagon rolls on unabated, creating shareholder wealth while destroying lives in its wake. New Jersey, however, has just become the 14th state to legalize medicinal marijuana and the ski-town of Breckenridge, Colorado has just decriminalized pot possession completely. There are a lot of rich folks in Breckenridge that just grew weary of the hassle and decided to stop pretending. And the Obama administration announced it will no longer conduct federal raids on state approved marijuana dispensaries, as the Bush government did in California.
We can all agree in hindsight that the temperance movement and the "Noble Experiment" of prohibition from 1919-1933, was a miserable failure with unforeseen consequences. The governmental ban of alcohol and liquor gave birth not only to thousands of "speakeasies," but led directly to the formation of the modern crime organization in America, whether known as the Mafia, the Mob, or La Cosa Nostra. Not just men with names like Capone or Luciano made millions from smuggling and bootlegging, but families named Kennedy and Bronfman did as well. After more than a decade of fierce bloodletting, the public had enough and repealed the 18th Amendment, abandoning prohibition. That "tipping point" has been reached again in the case of marijuana. Ordinary people are tired of seeing SWAT teams kick down doors and passive users being brutalized. Parents are weary of their children establishing arrest records over possession of a joint. And the people of the Southwest are sick of the Mexican drug gangs and their American accomplices who murder journalists, judges, and innocents to protect their cash flow. All this can end with the stroke of a pen. And with common sense congressmen like Steve Cohen leading the way, who says "It can't happen here?"