Pubdate: Fri, 10 Oct 2003
Source: Financial Times (UK)
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2003
Author: Christopher Caldwell
Note: The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard


Posters have gone up in Washington bus shelters and underground stations in 
recent months, urging commuters to "Enjoy better sex: legalise and tax 
marijuana." The posters are sponsored by Change the Climate, one of two 
large lobbying operations urging Americans to reassess whether pot-smoking 
should be a criminal offence. (The other is Norml, the National 
Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.)

In spite of their misleading argument - for surely it is the smoking of 
marijuana, not the taxation of it, that delivers the alleged aphrodisiac 
kick - the posters have made many middle-aged Americans think about pot for 
the first time since university.

Worldwide, marijuana has not enjoyed such prestige for three decades.

In July, Canada began permitting doctors to prescribe cannabis, as Germany 
and Australia do already. The Netherlands followed suit in September. In 
several cases working their way through Ontario courts, judges are deciding 
whether Canada's marijuana laws pass constitutional scrutiny at all, given 
that the government has, in effect, declared the drug a medicine. Spurred 
by such concerns, Canada's parliament is rushing to decriminalise 
possession of 15 grammes of pot or less.

On the surface, the US appears to buck this trend. The Bush administration 
has favoured prosecuting doctors who prescribe marijuana. The Federal 
Bureau of Investigation recorded 723,000 pot arrests in 2001, double the 
number of a decade ago. But such figures may reflect not the public's 
intolerance but the drug's popularity, as Washington finds itself at odds 
with local authorities across the country.

At the state level, the estimated 18m Americans who regularly smoke pot 
have won significant victories. Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, 
Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington all have medical marijuana 
laws. At a September forum during the California governors' race, the 
candidates were unanimous on only one thing: keeping medical marijuana legal.

In Seattle, 58 per cent of voters passed a law ordering police to assign 
the arrest of pot-smokers their lowest priority. According to Keith Stroup, 
executive director of Norml: "We have essentially won the hearts and minds 
of the American public."

Not so fast, others might argue: wherever marijuana has made advances in 
recent years, it has done so as a medicine, not as a means of getting 
stoned. Legally, this is true; practically, it is hard to separate patients 
from recreational users. The list of people authorised to smoke pot tends 
to lengthen. Dutch law, for instance, allows pot to be prescribed for 
cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis and Tourette's syndrome; but activists are 
urging that glaucoma and migraines, Crohn's disease and chronic neuropathy 
be added to the list.

In the US, where many medical-marijuana laws allow authorised users to grow 
their own drugs, telling patients from pot-heads is even harder. A new law 
in Maryland allows marijuana defendants to argue for nominal sentences if 
they can show that they have any condition for which the drug could be 
prescribed. As one giddy Maryland lawyer said last week, "How many people 
out there don't have any kind of physical pain that marijuana might alleviate?"

Some people will continue to serve time: a California man who claimed he 
was growing marijuana to treat a wrestling injury recently got 18 months in 
jail - though it probably did not help that he was growing a 100-bush 
orchard of the stuff and had a semi-automatic handgun in his pocket when 
arrested. But, barring such circumstances, it is hard to imagine an 
HIV-positive person, or one who has ever had cancer, being convicted on a 
marijuana charge.

The medical basis for the marijuana campaign is in striking contrast to 
similar movements in the 1970s. Back then, the agitation to decriminalise 
grass was overtly hedonistic and was carried out in the context of a 
society-wide easing of restrictions on all manner of vices and 
nonconformities. Today's bid for liberal marijuana laws takes place in the 
context of an uninterrupted crackdown, in virtually every western country, 
on other illegal drugs.

Not to mention legal ones. The western jihad against cigarette-smoking 
continues to spread, even to the most unlikely venues: Israeli restaurants, 
Italian airports, Irish pubs. Alcohol is no different. Scandinavia now has 
zero-tolerance drink-driving laws. France is enforcing its own, for 
practically the first time, as part of President Jacques Chirac's campaign 
against reckless driving. America's National Academy of Sciences devotes 
vast resources to measuring "teenage binge drinking".

In late September, a UK Cabinet Office study warned that booze cost British 
workers 14m missed work days a year. No one is scrutinising marijuana's 
effects nearly so closely .

There is a strange bifurcation of criteria. We now take a puritanical view 
of traditional intoxicants such as alcohol and tobacco and a libertine view 
of non-traditional ones such as marijuana. How come? One answer is common 
sense: marijuana is simply a far less dangerous drug. You could legalise it 
tomorrow across the UK, say, and still not wind up with the 1m annual 
casualty-ward visits that the British Association for the Advancement of 
Science attributes to alcohol.

But surely part of the appeal of the marijuana movement is that it defies 
common sense. In today's self-doubting west, the most energetic politics is 
dedicated to stopping the runaway train of progress that the west set in 
motion. We see this in green, gay, anti-colonial, anti-globalisation, 
animal rights and feminist politics, all of which aim to throw into reverse 
longstanding western preferences and power arrangements.

In their minor way, alcohol and tobacco are vulnerable precisely because 
they are proper to our culture; marijuana gets a pass because it is not.

The most deep-seated values are delegitimised by the very fact of their 
having been formed in the first place. Whatever the people who brought us 
slavery, the Gulag and the hydrogen bomb did, we want to do the opposite. 
Right down to our choice of intoxicants.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman