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Two weeks ago, the local press went into a frenzy when a man named Don Kerr was arrested for possession of marijuana. His alleged offense was to sign for a package, delivered by the crack agents at the United States Postal Service to his New Paltz office, that contained a reported eight pounds of weed.

Kerr is my neighbor. The corner of his property touches mine, in the manner of Utah and New Mexico. (As I type this, in fact, I can see the back of his house). He’s a nice guy, a family man, a self-styled aging hippie, soft-spoken and personable, who played Bob Dylan covers on a beat-up acoustic guitar at the neighborhood block party this summer. He also happens to be—or happened to be, until his arrest—the president of the New Paltz school board. Which explains the media frenzy. And the local TV news van camped out in front of his house the day after the arrest.

In my circle, which is not especially laden with potheads, the news was something of a buzzkill. We felt bad for him, for his wife and kids, for the school district (no one wants to be the board president; Kerr had to be begged to take the job). The neighbors, far from turning on him, told that TV news truck to get the fuck out of New Paltz.

Even if the allegations are true—and Kerr pled not guilty, so even that is in doubt; far as I know, there’s no law against signing for a package—it’s almost certain that his plans for the product did not include distribution. Some people like to relax by fixing a stiff drink; he likes to smoke a bowl. Who cares?

* * *

I mention the Kerr controversy because the “supercommittee” charged with solving our nation’s debt crisis—has the super- prefix ever been a less worthy modifier?—is now two days away from an epic fail that will make the Kardashian divorce seem like an unqualified PR success.

Just as any disinterested observer with half a brain could, after five minutes, tell you exactly what deal will ultimately end the NBA lockout, that same half-brained disinterested observer could predict what deal will ultimately end this federal standoff: tax increases in the form of cuts to entitlements, combined with drastic reductions in services. As with the NBA, only the people in charge seem unaware of this. We keep hearing the same old party-plank talking points, with nary a new idea in sight.

Well, I have one, a proposal that will drastically reduce the nation’s prison population, eliminate billions of dollars in law enforcement spending, and add a huge source of revenue to the federal coffers:

Legalize pot.

Think about Kerr, about the resources used to arrest him, to try him, and, if it gets that far, incarcerate him. That’s a lot of dough, and for what? How is my neighbor and erstwhile school board president a menace to society? Why—seriously, why—is what he (allegedly) did a crime?

* * *

I’m reading a terrific book now: Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s expansive, exhaustive, and entertaining look at the Prohibition era, a work that puts all of the disparate forces at work at that time into historical context. (If you’re even remotely interested in that time period, run-don’t-walk and acquire that book.)

In 1913, Congress passed an amendment to allow the federal government to tax income. I’d assumed that they did that because we were in a situation like we are now, mired in debt. Not so. The income tax amendment was a necessary precursor to Prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League, far and away the most effective lobbyist group the United States has ever known—Wayne B. Wheeler, its mastermind, was the antecedent to Grover Norquist and Karl Rove—engineered passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in order to achieve its ultimate goal: the Eighteenth, Prohibition.

The ASL needed the income tax revenue to keep the lights on once Prohibition went down: prior to the Sixteenth Amendment’s tax on income, a staggering 30 percent of the federal budget was financed by an excise tax on alcohol. When the country went dry—which it did only on paper—that alcohol tax money evaporated, too.

The nation never stopped drinking, and alcohol was easily procured throughout Prohibition. But instead of collecting money from booze, the government began to spend money on its removal—a fool’s errand at best.

This is true now of marijuana.

* * *

We are, and always have been, a nation of drinkers. Another fun fact from Okrent’s book: the Puritans, the dour bunch who founded the country, came over from Europe with more beer than water in the hold of the Mayflower. They were not puritanical about their booze.

There are not as many potheads as imbibers in the U.S., and the process of growing marijuana, when you remove the part about having to conceal it from DEA agents, is far simpler than, say, distilling whiskey. There’s a reason it’s called weed. So it’s unlikely that the government would collect enough in taxes to underwrite a third of the budget. But would a marijuana tax be sufficient to pay for a health care overhaul? To keep teachers from being laid off? To keep more police on the streets? Isn’t it worth finding out?

(I should interject here that I am not a fan of the wacky weedus. I’ve smoked pot three times, the result being a coughing fit that made me sound like a late-stage consumptive, followed by a not-unpleasant sleepiness. I’d rather smoke a cigar.)

Is marijuana perfectly safe? Of course not. But neither is alcohol. Neither is tobacco. Neither is NutraSweet. Neither is high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, I’d argue that all four of those legal substances pose a greater threat to the public health and well-being than readily-available pot would.

Another Last Call fun fact: one of the legal ways to acquire alcohol during Prohibition was to have a doctor write you a prescription. This is, of course, already happening in California and other states with legalized medical marijuana. The (patchouli-scented) winds of change have already started to shift.

It’s only a matter of time before pot is legal. We should make that time now. I’d rather experiment with a little weed than see the entire economy go up in smoke.

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Greg Olear GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

28 Responses to “Barack, Meet Mary Jane”

  1. Ronlyn says:

    In high school in the late 1980s, I wrote an editorial for our school newspaper against mandatory drug testing. I considered it an invasion of privacy and thought it was ridiculous that people would be fired from their jobs–as if that was going to help them if they indeed had addictions. (Yeah, I get it–a drugged employee might cause real damage to property and others. But that’s another issue.)

    Perhaps certain laws are a deterrent for some people, but in general, if people want to indulge, they will. The amount of time, energy, and money spent on fighting the so-called drug wars hasn’t stopped the drugs being made, trafficked, or consumed. Why not try legalizing marijuana? The economics of keeping up the fight don’t make sense.

    Although if an Anti Corn Syrup League gets traction, I will have to find an old recipe for homemade caramels that does not involve that substance…or get some on the sly.

    I hope all goes well for Mr. Kerr.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Ronlyn.

      What really hits home about Prohibition is how royally it failed, in every way, and how obvious the failure was, even to people at the time, before it became law (Taft, for one, predicted exactly what would happen almost perfectly). The pot/drug “war” thing is the same. As with Prohibition, the people who want to keep pot legal are the people who now make money from it. Why should they have their way? The only reason it’s illegal is because Hearst lobbied for it to be, as hemp was cheaper than paper, and he happened to own a shitload of paper mills.

      Re: corn…if our fructose can be high, why not our citizens?

  2. James D. Irwin says:

    It always seems silly to me. I mean in the UK they did a fuck load of research into the dangers of marijuana and found none. They advised the government downgrade cannabis. Instead the government upgraded it to be a Class B drug, because that was more popular among conservative voters.

    The thing is the dangers would be even less if prouction was regulated. AND there would be less of the crime that surrounds the illegal growing and distribution.

  3. I’ve often wondered what, deep down, the objection to pot is, where it poses nowhere near the health threat of so many legal substances and plays little to no role in violent crimes they way booze for instance does. There must be something in the inertia and the perception-altering of its effect that will always scare people. And its sensibilities will always stand counter to the kind of capitalist ambition we’re all taught to revere. But what do I know, I’ve probably had too much…Nutrasweet.

    Holland meanwhile is tightening its laws. Evidently by 2013, the Amsterdam coffeeshops will only be available to Dutch citizens.

    Maybe by then the French will have to fly to New Paltz for their ganj.

    • pixy says:

      i must note here that the ganja in utrecht (as that’s the only place i smoked when i was out and about) is WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY more potent than anything else i’ve had. 2 hits and i couldn’t feel my toeses.
      and, for serious, how many hooligans are high on pot when they destroy something? i mean, it’s hard for me to even get off the couch when i’ve been smoking.

      the peanut butter is SO FAR away…

    • Greg Olear says:

      Fun fact: NutraSweet was only declared OK by the FDA after intense lobbying by a group led by — wait for it — Donald Rumsfeld! And nothing HE does could be evil.

  4. I’ve been told that the problem with legalization now is that prisons are still a lucrative business–especially private ones, which are on the rise in the U.S. As with Hearst’s paper/hemp thing, the greed of the 1% comes around to haunt us here, too.

    • Greg Olear says:

      That is at once evil, depressing, and logical, so it’s almost certainly true.

      I listened to Katie Arnoldi’s (wonderful) podcast yesterday, and she talks about how the people growing the pot illegally in the state parks use these pesticides that are so potent, you can’t even get them here. It winds up killing fish, wildlife, plants, bugs, everything…and gets mixed in with the leaves.

      Sometimes the stuff our government does is so profoundly stupid, it makes me want to bang my head against a wall…

      Thanks for writing.

      • Gloria says:

        I heard that, too. I was super impressed by the breadth of her knowledge. Also disheartened.

        I read this yesterday and meant to comment, but got caught up with work. Nicely formed piece here, Greg. You’re right, of course. I mean, you being right isn’t going to change anything, but you’re still right.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Thanks, Gloria.

          The country is so fucked right now, maybe it will take some drastic measures that it would not, in times of prosperity, have attempted. Let’s just hope the liberals win out. (When you define “conservative” as “protective of the status quo” and “liberal” as “pro-change for the common good,” periods of liberalism have ALWAYS been good for the country. Liberals won independence from Britain, freed the slaves, enfranchised blacks and women, made workplaces safer, repealed Prohibition, fought for civil rights, and, now, stand for greater income equality and the protection of the environment. Conversatives were pro-Torey, pro-slavery, anti-suffrage, etc. We WILL prevail, if those fuckers don’t ruin the earth first.)

  5. This is such a hot issue here in California, including here in Bakersfield, where Mexican drug cartels rule the nearby mountain ranges. I wrote an opinion blog for KERN Radio, News Talk 1180 titled “Pot Farms are Scary Places.” They are!

    As a non-pot user, I admit I am torn on the issue. You make good points, but then so do the people who I interviewed for my blog post, some of who take an opposite stance (http://kernradio.com/Pot-Farms-Are-Scary-Places/9216945?pid=59513).

    It’s a polarizing issue for sure. And I feel bad for the Kerrs of the world.

    • Greg Olear says:

      The only argument in your piece for keeping it illegal is the asinine “it’s bad for you, some people abuse it, it hurts families” one. This was used by the Women’s Christian Temperance League in the late 1800s re: alcohol, which was (and is) MUCH more dangerous and addictive than pot (drunk men would routinely come home and batter their wives). Marijuana is not meth; it’s a naturally occurring plant; we may as well ban poison ivy. Why make it illegal and not alcohol, or cigarettes of any kind, or gambling (which I’d argue has far worse consequences for many more people).

      If that’s the best argument the opposing side can muster, I frankly don’t see why you’re so torn. Illegal pot is: horrible for the environment, hideous for our relations with Mexico/immigration, dangerous for even casual users (no federal safeguards), a drain on our prisons, and a HUGE enforcement expense that does virtually nothing to keep the stuff away from anyone who wants it (kids do drugs because drugs are easier to get than beer). Legalize it, and we bring it a boatload of dough, and all those very serious problems vanish instantly. For that return, I’m willing to risk a few more people smoking too much (which would almost certainly happen anyway).

  6. Dana says:

    Legalize it!

    I’ve heard that the major breweries help finance aerial search operations for pot growers. You’d think the people at Lay’s would get on board with our side.

    Now, who’s going to put this on Barry’s desk?

    • Greg Olear says:

      The breweries have themselves to blame for Prohibition passing. Better PR, more of a willingness to work with the distillers, and things might have turned out differently. They should have learned their lesson the first time.

  7. I am totally with you on EVERY point!
    Great article. Poor neighbor-man Kerr. Keep me posted on him!

  8. Sara H says:

    I’m with you. What’s that line from the first season of Weeds? Something to the effect of how she only deals pot because it “only makes you stupid and hungry.” Plenty of legal things make you stupid and hungry, why not add this?

    Thus concludes my not at all smartypants comment.

  9. It makes perfect sense. Not legalizing it, I think, is highly immoral. You are criminalizing good people. Putting mums and dads and sons and daughters in jail for doing absolutely nothing wrong. Legalize it and you may just help dig America out of a particularly nasty hole.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I just read an article today where the feds are TARGETING pot smokers, instead of actual drug dealers, because the local agencies get more money that way or some crap. These people all need to be locked in a room until they watch all five seasons of “The Wire.”

  10. Tom Hansen says:

    I commend you for writing this Greg. I got extremely lucky. IF I had been caught anywhere along the line of my drug career (and not been able to weasel out) I would never have been able to go to school, write books, and would most likely still have been selling and using dope–if I were still alive. Taking the gloves off capitalism has led to for-profit prisons, unfettered greed and all manner of negative and destructive human qualities being regarded as “good.” It makes me fucking sick, pardon my French

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Tom. I was curious what your take is on all this would be.

      Obama should include this in a huge, ambitious, far-reaching package to reform everything…the only people who would care are the extreme right (less the libertarians, of course, who should be for it), and he’s not winning them over regardless of what he does.

  11. So much truth here, Greg. Please keep TNB posted on what ends up happening with your neighbor.

    It doesn’t make any sense to me that smoking pot (or even signing for a package!) can get you literally sent to prison. Even if pot is “bad for you” (which sure, inhaling things through your lungs is usually not the healthiest thing on the planet, but tobacco is legal, and alcohol is far more detrimental in terms of its addictive qualities and its mood/ability altering potential), doing something that’s bad for you shouldn’t lead to your being arrested! Are people going to be arrested for eating at McDonald’s, or drinking too much beer in the privacy of their own homes, or refusing to quit smoking cigarettes even if they end up on an oxygen machine? It’s just crazy. Smoking weed is a personal choice. It has been proven, over and over again, not to be any more harmful than many things that are legal, and to be less harmful than a handful of other legal things.

    It goes without saying that legalizing it would also be a boost to the economy, while simultaneously taking away some of the “risks” of pot use. The pot that would be sold, if decriminalized, would be safer because it would be regulated. The “dealing” part of the whole enterprise would be eliminated because people could buy weed from approved vendors/distributors, not from such-and-such’s cousin in the parking lot, who got it from some random guy in Baltimore or whatever the fuck.

    I used to live in Amsterdam, and the most interesting thing of all was how few Dutch people I met who were even that interested in pot/hash. Mostly it was the foreigners/tourists who couldn’t do soft drugs legally in their own countries who were coming over and partying to excess and making fools of themselves. The Dutch, to whom pot was accessible anytime (you can even have it delivered to your house if you’re too lazy to go out!), seemed casual, calm and unconcerned about it. When you decriminalize something, you actually encourage moderation and discourage fetishization.

    I also agree that the so-called libertarians should of course be for legalization. Though I wonder if that’s how it would play. I am still mystified by the fact that American libertarians identify so closely with the Right. This just fails to make logical sense to me. It seems so philosophically out of whack for what I understand libertarianism to actually stand for. But that’s another issue.

  12. Exactly. What he said. Yes! I’ve been really lame about reading/commenting/writing here lately, thanks to a new day job and familial illness, but I just wanted to quickly tell you how much I agree with this one.

    As you know, I can’t smoke pot. But I also can’t handle hard alcohol either. One makes me crawl under the covers of the nearest bed, cold and shivering, while I pray for sleep to save me from my racing brain. The other makes me vomit up my bloody stomach lining in a state of semi-consciousness, and do reckless, dangerous things that I can’t remember doing in the morning. Guess which is which? And I will never understand why one is legal and the other is not. It makes no sense to me.

    Here’s hoping prescription marijuana is truly the beginning of the complete legalization (and taxation) of it. Really well-written piece, sir!

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