Election 2010: Marijuana turns me into a Marxist

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

By my title, I don’t mean that smoking it (never have, never will) sends me scurrying for my Mao cap and Ché t-shirt. Rather, in puzzling out how government should treat marijuana, I am very sensitive to social class differences. The Haves with whom I attended UCLA could close their dorm rooms Friday evenings, toke up, and still graduate and go on for their MBA’s. But among the heavily Have-not population where I teach, hop-heads have neither such security nor such safety net. They often fail to graduate from junior high. They become parents while attending a few years of continuation high school. By young adulthood, too many are on to harder substances, in prison, or dead.

Thus, as I come to a study of California Prop 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, which seeks to relax marijuana laws, I need to make it clear that my sentiments are middle class and my sympathies are for kids growing up in poverty. Rich kids will hire lawyers and avoid jail time. The rich and upper middle can afford to indulge in the so-called “victimless crimes,” while those same behaviors create victims to the third and fourth generation among the poor.

Secondly, I need to point out the sorry history of Nullification. Pennsylvania farmers announced they would not pay the whiskey tax, and Washington and Hamilton stomped them. Jefferson and Madison toyed with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, and lost. Calhoun said South Carolina would not collect the federal tariff, and got swept aside. The Civil War should have settled this question for all time, but for good measure, Orval Faubus stood in the school-house door to block federal integration, and Eisenhower sent the US Army to escort the incoming students to their classrooms. Drug policy, like that for immigration or marriage, needs to be set on a national scale. A single state may set more stringent rules (for example, California’s laws on greenhouse emissions), but can never set the bar lower than the federal laws. Federal policy should never be set by an initiative in California, the legislature in Arizona, or the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. Passage of this proposition on Nov. 2, will open many years of litigation on Nov. 3. Californians would be setting themselves up to forfeit untold federal dollars by drawing a marijuana Mason-Dixon Line at the Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona borders.

The practical purpose of this proposition then must be seen as leverage: California, a state with 53 congressmen, goes on record in opposition to the federal law. California, owner of a 10.2% share in the Electoral College, will now have the right to ask any visiting presidential candidate what he or she plans to do to remedy the situation. Maybe we would start a bandwagon effect. Maybe down the road we would see change in the federal law. There may or may not be merit in this argument. California voters have twice passed defense-of-marriage initiatives, with the total number of states that have passed traditional marriage constitutional amendments topping 30. Thus far, however, I see no congressional momentum for national legislation. This would seem to undermine the argument in favor of leverage. Any readers who have come this far looking only for my recommendation on Prop 19 may stop here. Proposition 19 is rejected as out of order.

Nevertheless, the subject having come up, I have a few additional thoughts over a full, federal legalization of marijuana. The best reasons have very little to do with California, at all.

Personal experience #1 – I walk into a restroom and the twelve-year-old is quick enough to flick his joint into the toilet tank, but a little too tipsy to correctly manipulate the handle. The ten year old is blurry-eyed and can only stammer bad answers to my questions.

Personal experience #2 – I discuss Prop 19 with five classes of 7th and 8th graders, and ask midway through each what it probably costs in our area for a kilo of marijuana. Five consecutive classes each settle quickly in the $450 ballpark. I have no way of knowing if they were correct, but the agreement was startling, and every class knew whom to turn to as the in-house expert.

Personal experience #3 – Juan, teacher in a thatched-roof jungle school house and a friend from my days in Colombia, is pulled from his classroom by drug-financed revolutionaries, taken to the village square, and shot, only because he serves in a government school.

From the first two experiences, I learn that whatever we’re currently doing has only limited success among the 12 or 14-year-olds I care about and can put faces to. The truth is, most of my students are clean. And for the minority who are using, the marijuana is probably a symptom—not the origin—of their pathologies (though it may serve as an accelerator). Even, though, at some $450/kilo, and
when we know it will be a curse on their lives, we are currently incapable of keeping it out of their hands.

But I have experience at both ends of the pipeline. As Haves, our buying power has the ability to destabilize any number of Have-not nations to the south of us. I can remember life in Colombia during a couple of years when drug cartels assassinated a judge, on average, every other week. Over the last decade and a half, Colombia has reestablished a fair degree of order, but the price has been a government willing to overlook thousands of extrajudicial killings of mostly Have-not peasants by mostly Have “self-defense” forces. For two decades, the US has been funding one side of the civil war with military aide and the other side of the war with our appetite for “victimless” recreational highs.

Proponents of Prop 19 argue that decriminalizing marijuana will save us enormous sums of money, redirect police attention toward violent crime, and provide a windfall in taxes. I believe all three claims rest on doubtful assumptions, but we have been suckered by such promises before. The state lottery, we were told when we voted for it, would dry-up illegal gambling and insure great wealth for our schools. Instead, it has saddled
Have-nots with a massive regressive tax, trained up a clientele for a vibrant-but-untaxable underground gambling industry, fostered a get-rich-quick mentality that helped fuel the housing bubble, and left us with schools that are starved for basic necessities.

However—and I offer this very tentatively—a reevaluation of our entire national drug policy (not a substance-by-substance approach) might make sense as an act of neighborly concern. Our Have drug appetite today is financing war in Have-not Mexico between over-funded thugs and an under-funded government. Legalizing marijuana (and thus reducing its price [and then you would also have to consider the likes of cocaine]) might take the lifeblood away from a criminal element that has become a force unto itself inside our closest neighbor.

I know, I’m talking like a Marxist.


Post a Comment