Weed People Problems
As I write this, I am sitting in an apartment in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. Six months ago, I was writing from an apartment in the University District of Seattle, Washington. There are many things that make the two places distinct, but today I am thinking about how, in my previous home, I could buy and consume marijuana whenever I liked, and in my new home, I cannot buy it, use it, or even possess it under any circumstance whatsoever.
Seattle did not, to put it mildly, cover itself in glory when it came time to legalize recreational marijuana. Of the three states that have done so, its laws were the most incompetently, incompletely, and haphazardly enacted. The entire process was, and continues to be, fraught with bad faith, bad planning, and a poorly thought out implementation scheme. However, at the bottom line, there was the fact that, even if it was far more difficult to do so, anyone of legal age could purchase this harmless euphoric plant, consume it, and face no possibility of punishment from the law for doing so.
It’s hard to express how different this was from my prior experience of buying weed. For decades, it was a process infused with fear and peril; since I’m not black or Latino, the consequences for handling weed were never going to be fatal for me, but I certainly stood a good chance of going to jail, possibly for a long time. I could lose my job, I could find myself with a criminal record that made me unemployable, or I could serve serious time if I was arrested for marijuana crimes more than once; all of these things happened to people of my personal acquaintance. Beyond the legal issues, there were questions of quality (one could never be sure if the product one was buying was of good quality, or pencil-shavings skunkweed that would barely get you off), of availability (a big police bust could lead to a weed drought that would last for months), and of personal safety (whether you bought or dealt, there was an irreducible chance at every deal that you could wind up with a gun in your face, wielded by someone who’d figured out a way to make easy money). If you bought bad product, whether it was merely poor quality or actually tainted with vile chemicals, you had no recourse; you could tell no one in authority what you had done, let alone seek recompense for being ripped off.
In Seattle, of course, things were different. Even with the incompetent administration of recreational laws, good-quality product could be found everywhere, at reasonable prices. You could be assured you were getting what you paid for; regulations assured that your purchase be labeled, sourced, traceable, and subject to the same quality controls as foodstuffs. You could walk around with marijuana on your person without fear of being thrown in jail or destroying your life; you could sell it without fear of being the victim of a stick-up and having no legal recourse. You could be high in public and worry about nothing more consequential than being laughed at for your goofy behavior. You could even call a number and have a wide range of cannabis products delivered to your home quicker than you could order a pizza. Of course, common sense was included in the mess of a regulatory package; there were limits on how much you could transport, and you could not drive under the influence. But the difference in the way one felt about engaging in this simple, victim-free habit was striking.
Of course, there were issues. All of them arose from the half-assed way the recreational laws were written and enforced in Seattle; there are still restrictions on where weed can be smoked, grown, sold, and distributed, and these laws, as laws do, tend to marginalize minorities. Kinks must be worked out, and it’s pretty likely that, like most capitalist enterprises, it will end up favoring the already-wealthy. There is still a clash with the White House over the issue of whether states’ rights trump federal law in this case, or if it only applies to matters of subjugating blacks and women. But, critically, all of the issues now — as they did before — have to do only with the issues of illegality and enforcement. The legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Washington, as in other states, has in every other way not changed the daily lives of its citizens at all, unless it is for the better.
Colorado and Washington have both seen massive influxes of revenue: taxation, new employment, consumption, and tourism have all received a boost. There has been no notable spike in crime; indeed, most precincts report that, freed from the burden of busting people for petty weed offenses, officers are free to concentrate on more serious crimes. The majority of marijuana-related legal problems in these states stem from keeping the product out of neighboring states that still cling to their prohibition. All the predicted menaces — an influx of dangerous criminals, massive truancy, traffic accidents, little kids overdosing, high dropout rates, and the usual laundry list of horror ported in from alarmist tracts written in the 1930s and 1960s — have failed to significantly manifest; some are nonexistent, some are minimal, some have had the opposite effect (Colorado has actually seen a decline in traffic accidents, likely due to a decrease in drunk driving). Every prediction of the prohibition lobby has largely been a dud, while every prediction of the legalization lobby has more or less come to pass.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, we await the results of newly-approved medical marijuana laws. People still sell weed as they have always done, fearful of arrest or violence. People still buy weed as they have always done, fearful of ruin or disgrace. The product remains a risk for the seller and a crapshoot for the buyer; droughts still occur; and even if medical marijuana is phased in without a hitch, it will still leave millions of recreation users scrabbling in the shadows as before. No one will be harmed by consuming marijuana except in the framework of its prohibition. I will still be afraid of writing stories like this, throwing up a smoke screen of theoreticals and rhetoricals lest I run afoul of the law or risk offending an employer. Patients will keep having to use unreliable and possibly hazardous channels to treat conditions alleviated by cannabis, or rely on taking prescription drugs that are far more expensive, far more addictive, and far more likely to cloud their thinking and negatively alter their lives. Alcohol — now as ever more easily acquired than marijuana has ever been or will ever be — will continue to kill tens of thousands of people a year in America, while the world rolls on waiting for its first ever cannabis fatality. In one state, there is misery, and in the other there is liberty; and the only difference is the law.