Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reefer Madness Redux

Since the initial wave of the hippie movement travelled from west to east, it didn't reach Knoxville until well after the 1967 "Summer of Love." We had more of a "Springtime of Love" in 1968. Toward the end of the school year, rumors reached our Tennessee tribe that there was marijuana growing wild in the state of Kansas, right in the interstate median. Just like the Gold Rush of '49, van loads of denim-wearing, entrepreneurial hippies raced to the great plains and, sure enough, returned with garbage bags filled with something looking identical to cannabis. It was the remnants of a WWII era government program that grew the plants for their hemp value, and all these years later, the crop had survived. The problem was, the wild plants lacked the psychoactive ingredient that caused the euphoric effect in pot and were pretty much useless for anything other than weaving into handbags or sandals.

Personally, I never tried to sell pot because I lacked the ruthlessness required to profit from your friends, but even I got caught up in this deal. Since it was over 40 years ago, I trust the statute of limitations has expired. We tried to doctor this cabbage in every way possible, including baking it, but only ended up with brittle leaves of the worst pot anyone had ever tried. It wouldn't even give you a headache. I finally locked it all up in a Styrofoam chest filled with dry ice overnight and by the next day, the gas from the CO2 made you mildly dizzy. We drove it to Nashville, where a new breed of songwriters had settled and distributed all of it without complaint, and soon afterward, there was a Renaissance in country music. OK, that last part was a lie, but we did unload all the Kansas weed on Music Row.

Just recently, I was reminiscing with an old friend about that particular escapade and we couldn't help but agree what a dumbass, reckless college-boy thing that was to do, like trying to smoke the inner skin of a banana peel because we had heard Donovan singing "Mellow Yellow." We also agreed what a shame it would have been to have been arrested over such hideous weed during an age when people were going to jail for seeds in an ashtray. The irresistible lure was that it was just growing wild, but by picking it and carrying it in a sack, we were guilty of the crime of possession, and when we crossed state lines, our crime became federal. Kansas ultimately eradicated all the interstate pot because Hefty-Bag toting hippies kept popping up on the highways like penal farm work crews. It did occur to me, however, that if this weed could grow wild on a Kansas blacktop, it could pretty much grow anywhere, and people being who and what they are, it was only a matter of time before the prohibition of pot would be tossed aside just like the prohibition of whiskey. But, that was eight presidents ago. What has prevented even the discussion of decriminalization  until relatively recently, has been the same old-boy deal that has always muzzled debate on the issue; political influence. In this case, the beer, spirits, and alcohol lobby, who are still smarting from having their seductive and subliminal liquor ads removed from television. The pot industry doesn't have any lobbyists. Plenty of advocates, but no lobbyists.

Local news reported that a man was arrested in Memphis last week after a DEA task force raid with more than 1,200 pounds of baled marijuana in his humble Orange Mound home, and was being held in city jail under a bond of one penny less than ten million dollars. A somewhat saner judge reduced the bail to a quarter mil, but you'd have thought these guys caught Scarface. Rapists and murderers are given more consideration and less harsh treatment than a pot dealer, and they do less time. Though the bust warranted a scant five paragraphs in The Commercial Appeal, it was eye-popping news to pot aficionados who are experiencing the annual Memphis summer marijuana drought, or so I'm told. The DEA agents testified that after jack-booting the doors, they found large bales of a "green, leafy substance." Can you imagine the number of police and the manpower used to haul away a half a ton of leaves? In the end, they'll burned it all which was exactly what was going to happen to it in the first place. And this all-purpose panacea had a street value of over a half-million dollars. The zeal in which the pot dealers were captured and jailed was exceeded only last month by the Las Vegas police, who killed a 21 year old man while serving a marijuana search warrant. And this was in a state where citizens voted to decriminalize possession. The late outlaw's bride-to-be told local TV that her intended was "a recreational smoker. He smoked weed, marijuana, that's what he did." The police recovered "an unspecified amount of marijuana and some digital scales." A regular Al Capone, this kid.

In the Memphis bust, there will now be a trial or two and long incarcerations, costing the city and state and ultimately you. And because the profit motive is so high, (you know; Capitalism), someone else will take these guys' place and the criminality will continue. In fact, author Eric Schlosser writes, "There are more people in prison today for violating marijuana laws than at any time in American history." And that population will only grow as long as police forces around the country maintain the marijuana home-invasion mentality. Imagine if the ban on the plant was lifted for adults, and regulated and taxed by the government for the benefit of society. How many more policemen or teachers would that revenue hire? How much gang violence would be diffused by removing the profit from illegal pot sales? How would our problems on the Mexican border be affected if the demand for marijuana smuggling were eliminated? I'm not naive enough to believe that there won't always be a demand for illegal narcotics, but hard drugs that do emotional and physical damage are another matter entirely, and if we are being honest, we'll admit our major national drug problem is with good old home-made American pharmaceuticals. I'd prefer to be able to take advantage of that "pursuit of happiness" thing. All these people who are running around screaming that their freedoms are under siege and they want their country back; well, so do I. No federal agency forbids you from growing poppies on the veranda. Give me the freedom to determine what grows in my own backyard. I want the government out of my bedroom and the police out of my garden. This is an issue worthy of a tea party.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Gluttons For Punishment

I enjoy celebrating Independence Day much the same way as I do New Year's Eve; I stay off the streets. The nation's birthday has become an annual orgy of mattress and auto sales, not to mention the charcoal and lighter fluid. Aside from visiting with family and friends, there's really no good reason to leave the air conditioning for outdoor activities now that the downtown fireworks display over the Mississippi River has been cancelled due to budget cuts. However, the amateur fireworks were so loud on my block that we had to sedate the dogs. After viewing the July 4th hot dog eating contest at Coney Island, live on ESPN, I thought I would need sedation myself.

This has got to be the only country in the world where some people go hungry, while others are "professional" eaters. But, who could object to a good old fashioned sausage eating contest that's been going on at Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Stand since 1916?  I can. The once good-time event has now gone big-time with the formation of the Major League Eating organization. They are the governing body that oversees all professional eating contests in the nation, under the auspices of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOC). The MLE is looking towards global expansion, but they are constrained to places where they actually have food. Other than the U.S. and Japan, I think the International League is having trouble fielding a team in countries like Haiti or Bulgaria. And it's no longer merely hot dogs. In a year, there are over 80 major scheduled events, like the Krystal Square-Off and the Pizza Hut P'Zone Chow-lenge, with corporate sponsors as varied as Smirnoff Vodka and Netflix. The Coney Island competition was co-sponsored, appropriately, by Pepto Bismol. I like a Nathan's hot dog myself, just not 50 at once.

This years' contest was engulfed in controversy when former champion and world renowned eater Takeru Kobayashi refused to participate because of an "impasse" with Major League Eating. The Japanese challenger left the Mustard Belt up for the taking since the MLE wanted to bar him from participating in "outside competitions." This meant clear sailing for defending champ, Joey Chestnut, who out-gorged the rest of the field, winning by nine dogs plus buns. Without Kobayashi to spur him on, along with the 95 degree temperature, Chestnut fell far short of his own record of 68 dogs in ten minutes, devouring a mere 54 red- hots and half a bottle of Pepto. The real drama came after the event had ended, when Kobayashi, wearing a green "Free Kobi" T-Shirt, attempted to storm the stage during the award ceremony and was arrested and carted off by the police. The huge crowd of spectators chanted, "Let him eat" in unison, while The Who's "Teenage Wasteland" blared over the loud speakers. Just like professional wrestling, allow a league to take monopolistic control, bring in the corporate sponsors, and there goes your "sport."

In the end, the event looked more like the marathon dancers of the thirties; doing something unnatural and demeaning for the entertainment of the mob in the hope of winning the $10,000 grand prize. The "color commentators," who kept referring to the bingers as "athletes," reported that Joey Chestnut consumed 20,166 calories in 10 minutes while perfecting his technique of shoving two dogs in his mouth at once while doing a little jig to stretch his stomach lining. In his career as a professional eater, Chestnut has won over $200,000, three cars and a motorcycle. He's also eaten 10.5 pounds of macaroni and cheese in seven minutes, and 56 matzoh balls in one sitting, even though he didn't know what a matzoh was before the competition. While the other contestants looked for buckets, Chestnut waved the Mustard Belt aloft while drooling hot dog juice down the front of a T-Shirt covered in corporate logos like a race car driver. I couldn't decide which was more offensive; the mindless inhalation of massive amounts of food, or the corporate takeover of "the sport of competitive eating."

This Super Bowl of gluttony is a typically American spectacle that would be an occasion for mirth were it not for the fact that the gulf between the haves and the have-nots has never been greater since the Gilded Age of Robber Barons. But even then, the "in-your-face" attitude was subdued, lest the proletariat rise up and storm the suburbs. Major League Eating does nothing to help the nation's obesity epidemic, especially now that Tennessee has been ranked second in the country, only behind Mississippi, as the fattest state in the Union. There are many issues to blame, but there is no worse perpetrator in the enlarging of America than the fast-food restaurant chains. I sympathize with people who struggle with their weight, but lately it seems as if most have simply stopped the struggle. Exhibit A is the sandwich sold by KFC consisting of two fried chicken breasts filled with bacon and cheese, a heart attack available in the drive-thru, while products like the Triple Whopper are directly marketed to the poorest among us. Morbid obesity is so common here, the front pew in church looks like the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line.  Major League Eating seems sort of incongruous while the Memphis Food Bank is feeding over 186,000 people per year that otherwise would not have nourishing meals. Other than gluttony and sloth, there is a word that describes this big-money, "professional," eating circuit; disgusting.