Pubdate: Thu, 6 Aug 2009
Source: Las Vegas City Life (NV)
Copyright: 2009 Las Vegas CityLife
Author: Jason Whited
Photo: Steve Fox

Clearing the Air


For a plant that's never caused a single human death in the tens of
thousands of years it's been with us, marijuana still faces a
gargantuan social stigma.

Government propagandists and some social conservatives, in their quest
to proscribe our behavior, and consumption, are quick to cite
anecdotal evidence and piles of bogus liquor- and 
studies that warn of the dangers of firing up even that first joint.

Yet these crusaders invariably fail to cite a little thing we call the
truth: That alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs kill or maim
hundreds of thousands of Americans each year while marijuana kills,
oh, no one; that marijuana - still this nation's leading cash crop,
with estimated sales of $35.8 billion in 2006 - was legal in this
country until almost 1940 (long after Prohibition had come and gone);
that legalizing, and taxing, the sale of a plant that's been legal for
most of our history could help pull state governments, including
Nevada's, out of recent budgetary sink holes; that's it not the
government's (or anyone else's) business to tell Americans what they
can and cannot put into their own bodies.

Luckily, a growing number of legal, medical and policy experts are
changing perceptions through the intellectual and logical force of
their arguments that the time has come to re-examine and change our
failed drug policies. Policies which will cost us more than $15
billion this fiscal year alone.

Steve Fox, director of State Campaigns for the Marijuana Policy
Project (the nation's largest organization dedicated to reforming
marijuana laws) is one such expert. A former congressional lobbyist
and a longtime proponent of sanity in public policy, Fox recently
spent some time with CityLife talking about his new book Marijuana is
Safer and to hash out and contrast the relative harms, and legal
status, of this nation's two most popular recreational substances:
alcohol and marijuana.

CityLife: Considering the growth of the medical marijuana movement,
especially here in the American West, and an increasing number of
government and university studies that show alcohol to be far more
dangerous that marijuana, do you think the United States will join
other civilized nations such as The Netherlands and Portugal in
re-legalizing cannabis?

Fox: It's seeming like the writing is on the wall, but that doesn't
mean we're as close as we'd like to be. There are, obviously, decades
of propaganda and myth out there that have the ability to stall
reform. It will be a battle, in the end, to change things.

CL: Do you anticipate that chance coming at the direction of the
federal level or will states, particularly states west of the
Mississippi, continue to lead the charge toward sane health and drug

Fox: It'll have to go through either the state legislatures or
through votes of the people in one state or the other and it'll be
close, but I think we're getting there. You know, I just read an
article in the Wall Street Journal on the business of selling
marijuana [legally], so that's a good sign things could be changing.

CL: Will it take years for this change to manifest, and does that mean
we'll see another rash of states approve medical marijuana in the meantime?

Fox: I think we're in a situation where it'll need to be done state
by state, but one state gets the trend going and others will follow.

CL: Of course, a record number of Americans are purchasing marijuana,
so that doesn't hurt the movement, I'm sure.

Fox: Yes, about one out of 10 people are already current users, and
the sky isn't falling. But all those profits are underground, so
there's little reason not to bring it into a regulated market. All
the objections of our opponents could be addressed through a tightly
regulated market.

CL: You book is packed with studies, statistics and even a lot of
information from our own government on the rather innocuous nature of
this plant that seems to grow, naturally, on nearly every continent on
the planet. How important is the science to winning public opinion on
marijuana decriminalization/legalization?

Fox: That was very important. This book is multiple purposed. At one
level, it's designed to educate those who have only heard that the
government has said about marijuana. For those people a real
objective assessment is necessary. You have a third of the public who
believe marijuana is more harmful than alcohol, a third of the people
who believe it's about the same as alcohol and a third of the people
who understand it's less harmful than alcohol.

CL: When Barack Obama was running for office, some of his statements
led many of us to believe that when it comes to marijuana, finally,
here was a politician who "got it," who understood this plant has
clear medical and societal benefits. Although he has stopped federal
raids of medical marijuana dispensaries, he's also spouting some of
the same old government lies about this plant. What happened to this

Fox: As soon as they get elected president they're focused on winning
their next election. I'm not going to knock Obama. He said he would
end raids in California, and he's done that. He's come a long way.
Others, such as Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, will not let him
come out and say we're going to legalize it. And it's almost
irrelevant what Obama says anyway; it would be great for movement,
but in truth we are going to do this at the state level first. If we
have a president willing to allow states to enact their own systems
of regulating marijuana without sending in DEA agents that would be a
positive. So far, he's shown this.

CL: Of course, it doesn't help matters when his new drug czar, former
Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, recently told newspapers such as
the Fresno Bee that cannabis has no medical value, and is actually
dangerous. Are we right back to square one in this debate?

Fox: Good question. I can't say we're back to square one. The
national youth anti-drug campaign has been cut almost entirely and is
now going to be focused more on prescription drugs than marijuana. I
don't see this drug czar acting like his predecessor, John Walters,
but [Kerlikowske's] recent statements to the media were not at all
good ... lying isn't a good start. No serious person who cares about
the facts and science should be saying it's harmful. The government
knows it has medical value; they even have their own distribution
plan for the [handful of] federal medical marijuana patients.

CL: Our own analysis of Nevada's gargantuan budget deficit indicates
that decriminalized or legalized cannabis sales here could generate as
much as $18 million in annual tax revenue. Will similar financial
realizations eventually lead to marijuana policy changes?

Fox: Well, it's certainly contributing to, advancing and stimulating
the conversation. As you've seen in California, the economics have
helped bring the issue to the fore, but I don't think that will be,
or should be, the reason for changing the system. I don't think
people want to do something they feel isn't right just because it'll
raise money for the state. What we want is for people to understand
that marijuana is not as big a deal as people have been convinced it
is. It is a less harmful recreational alternative to alcohol. Once
they appreciate that, they can take the next step and say, "If it's
less harmful, why not tax it and use the revenues we generate to
improve schools and roads and ... ?"

CL: What did you think about Michael Phelps' recent victories in the
pool - many months after he dared to rip a few bong hits? Doesn't his
most recent athletic success shoot an Olympic-sized hole in the
dishonest assertion that cannabis is for losers?

Fox: You have examples across the board of people who have used
marijuana and who have gone on to do great things. From our
perspective, it was more ridiculous that the night he was
photographed smoking he had also been out having a whole bunch of
drinks and acting like an ass.

CL: What are some of the worst things about our pro-alcohol

Fox: I don't like to say I consider it a problem with our pro-alcohol
culture. We're steering people toward a substance [alcohol] that is
far more likely to result in acts of violence. What I find disturbing
in our culture is the willingness of leaders of our society to ignore
this possible solution to an existing problem - and by that I mean
look at the recent Amethyst Initiative [a push, started in July 2008
and supported by more than 100 American universities] starting a
national debate about lowering the drinking age ... we're now asking
these university presidents to likewise reduce penalties on marijuana
use so students are not punished for using a less-harmful substance
than alcohol. Why not allow students to use marijuana instead of
alcohol? Why not support a debate on this topic?

CL: What can average people do to change the minds of those around
them concerning cannabis? How can they wade through all the lame
stoner jokes and misinformed cautionary tales to convince others that
they've been lied to by a few giant industries that hate marijuana
only because they can't stamp its leaves with a Pfizer or Budweiser
logo and commodify it?

Fox: I honestly feel that people just need to talk about marijuana
and alcohol. Alcohol is everywhere in our lives, and there are always
opportunities to bring up the subject. This book was written because
we believe as soon as people recognize that marijuana is less
harmful, as soon as there is consensus, that the laws will just
crumble. So each person should just bring up the conversation
whenever possible. Tell their family or friends to read the book or
send them to Just do what they can

CL: Which is preferable: Decriminalization or legalization?

Fox: Legalization, although we refer to it as taxing and regulating
marijuana. Decriminalization would be a significant step forward.
There's just no reason to punish adults in any way for making
rational, safe choices.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake