Pubdate: Thu, 12 May 2016
Source: Lodi News-Sentinel (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Lodi News-Sentinel
Author: John M. Crisp
Note: John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, 
teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus 
Christi, Texas. Tribune News Service


You may not like President Obama's political philosophy or leadership 
style, but you have to admit that he is one cool president.

If you're unconvinced, consider his speech at the White House 
Correspondents' Dinner on April 30. His poise and charm were on full 
display, and his comedic timing was impeccable.

Still, his best joke made me cringe a little: he said that his 
popularity rating had been rising. In fact, he said, "The last time I 
was this high, I was trying to decide on my major."

Funny stuff. It would be even funnier if there weren't so many 
Americans in prison for the crime that the last several presidents 
have all committed, smoking a little pot.

Of course, we're a nation of laws, and we aspire to the principle 
that undergirds that condition: before the law everyone is treated equally.

But that noble aspiration is threatened by our inconsistent attitude 
toward marijuana and by the patchwork of drug laws that follow in its wake.

Thus, a 19-year-old kid in my state (Texas) was threatened with life 
in prison for trying to make brownies laced with hash-oil, while 900 
miles to the north (Colorado) he could legally create a profitable 
business and be appreciated for his entrepreneurship and for the tax 
dollars that his business generates.

And thus celebrities (Bill Maher, Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson) 
have made marijuana a part of their brand, and the President of the 
United States can joke charmingly about smoking pot in college, 
while, according to a 2014 New York Times story, as many as 30,000 
Americans are in prison solely for possessing or selling marijuana.

Sometimes prison terms for marijuana possession are staggering. The 
Times cites the case of Jeff Mizanskey, a Missourian who was arrested 
in 1993 for purchasing a five-pound brick of marijuana. Because of 
two previous nonviolent marijuana convictions, Mizanskey was 
sentenced to life in prison without parole.

A more typical case is probably Bernard Noble's, a 45-year-old father 
of seven, who was stopped in New Orleans in 2010 with the equivalent 
of two joints in his pocket. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Noble's case is more typical in another way, as well, one that 
amplifies the ironic contrast between his situation and the 
president's wry joke: Like Obama, Noble is black.

Not only are our marijuana laws stunningly inconsistent, their 
application is informed by a striking racial disparity: although 
blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rates, according to 
a study by the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks are 3.7 times 
more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than whites.

In some states - Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois - blacks are arrested at a 
rate eight times higher than the rate for whites.

I'm not an enthusiastic proponent for the decriminalization of 
marijuana. I don't smoke it and don't plan to start. But if I did, as 
a middle class white guy, I suspect I could join the other 30 million 
Americans who smoked it during the past year without getting in 
trouble. Not everyone is so lucky, and this discrepancy should make 
us pause to consider the injustice of our current system.

In addition, we should thoughtfully situate marijuana among the array 
of intoxicants and addictive and harmful substances that surround us. 
We could start with alcohol, tobacco and heroin, of course, and, 
especially lately, prescription opioids.

But an honest calculation would include sugar, salt and fat, as well. 
It's not much of an overstatement to say that, in the way that 
Americans eat them, these substances are both extremely harmful and addictive.

In fact, a great deal of American life revolves around activities 
that are enormously time-consuming, compulsive and addictive. Food 
and drink. Sports. Video games and electronic screen time of all 
sorts. There's a reason we call it "binge-watching."

Marijuana should be understood in this context, and we should pay 
more attention to the disparities associated with it. Some of us 
should not be able to use it with impunity and even joke about it, 
while others are going to prison.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom