Pubdate: July 30, 1999
Source: Isthmus (WI)
Author: Marc Eisen
Note: Marc Eisen  is editor of Isthmus


The last chapter of the Sixties ended for me on Dec. 9, 1985. Stevie Ray
Vaughan was in town, and I had picked up a half-pint of Jack Daniel's as
the evening's refreshment.

Great show. Stevie Ray lit up the Civic Center like a pyrotechnician--"part
of that rare, endangered species," our reviewer Phil Davis wrote, the
"guitar shaman." I loved it, but there was a constant irritation. The
ushers kept shining flashlights on audience members who were smoking pot or
drinking alcohol. No doubt a page was turning in the city's cultural history.

I sat there sneaking whiskey like a common criminal. Very annoying and so
unusual for Madison. Because for at least 15 years dope smoking and
drinking were the normal course for concerts.

The lights would go down and a thousand matches would be struck. Such was
life here, there and everywhere. Pot was omnipresent. Most everybody
smoked. During my college years in Kenosha, I can't remember anyone I knew
not smoking. By 1976, according to a national survey, 34 million Americans
had smoked marijuana.

Still, there was a subtle tension running beneath it. As common and utterly
mundane as pot was, it was still outside the law. As such, it played an
important role, I'd argue, in forging the remarkable cohesiveness of the
Baby Boomers' counterculture phase. Sharing a joint was, above all, an act
of social bonding. Of course, there was a lot of booga-booga attached to
being stoned. (Somewhere on my bookshelves, Andrew Weil's The Natural Mind
gathers dust.) But the hippie-dippie stuff only went so far.

The people I knew usually kept their wits about them and their blood-shot
eyes on the prize. They went to school, studied hard when it counted,
worked miserable jobs to pay tuition, fell in love, played softball, spent
too much time in bars, and after some hemming and hawing, launched
themselves full-throttle onto life's roller coaster. Thirty years late,
most of us find ourselves in the lap of bourgeoise respectability, worried
about crab grass and our waistlines.

Now my generation (I turn 50 in December) pretty much runs things. And if
the spirit of the '60s lives on in big and small ways (Would you believe
that Savoy Brown just played the Crystal Corner?), the curious thing is how
pot has disappeared down the Orwellian memory hole .

The huge cloud of marijuana smoke that hung over Madison for years and
years has been Photoshopped from our history. As attorney Lester Pines puts
it in Bill Lueders fine story this week, it's as if a whole generation has
come down with "collective amnesia" about their own pot usage.

It's crazy. As Pines points out, the very people who have first-hand
experience of pot's innocuous nature are now in the business of putting the
screws to miscreants arrested for simple possession of marijuana. The rest
of us keep our mouths shut.

I don't want to downplay the risks of drugs. I have friends whose dalliance
with heroin in the '70s has left them as sobered, middle-aged Hepatitis C
sufferers facing a daunting regimen of interferon treatment. But marijuana
is not heroin. Nor is it crack cocaine. It's a mild intoxicant that due to
the twisted contours of U.S. drug policy is considered a dangerous drug.
This is stupid, just plain stupid, because there are millions and millions
of people in this country who know that pot is a modest pleasure and no big
thing. And that's exactly the point: Marijuana is no big thing. When will
we get some law enforcement that recognizes this simple truth?

Part of the problem, obviously, is that few people are willing to raise
their hand and say, "I smoke pot, I like it, and I think the law ought to
be changed!" I mean, who wants the cops knocking down the doors? As Lueders
reports, a disturbing number of overzealous arrests and prosecutions are
already taking place in Dane County.

The silence fatally skews the drug debate. The prohibitionists call the
shots because the users--those millions and millions of Americans who've
enjoyed marijuana--are afraid to say anything for fear they'll be busted,
drug-tested, and hung out for the coyotes to eat.

Meanwhile, the contradictions in our drug policies grow even more extreme.
Does anyone not recognize that that our society is awash in lifestyle
drug-taking? Clearly, the corner was turned long ago from the simple days
when drugs were taken primarily to cure illnesses and succor pain.

Now we take drugs to improve our sex lives, grow hair, regulate our
hormones, overcome shyness, moderate our emotional swings, lose weight,
prevent pregnancy, abet pregnancy, relax muscles, reduce anxiety, and
probably for a hundred other things. (In development is a drug,
apomorphine, that will, among other things, facilitate sexual infidelity
because it supposedly reduces performance anxiety in men cheating on their

Yet, as drug-friendly as modern Americans are, if someone smokes a joint to
relax, to get silly, to listen to music, to have sex--that should be
illegal? It's nuts.

[raised cap]To be sure, I don't want my kids lighting up a spliff. But I
don't want them engaging in sex either, or sneaking alcohol, or seeing
R-rated or violent movies. For that matter, I'm such a cultural
conservative that I think school uniforms are probably a good idea. But I
don't confuse the nurturing of kids with the preservation of the rights
that adults presumably enjoy in this country.

That should be the bottom line: The old libertarian adage that people
should be free to do what they want as long they're not hurting other
people or damaging their property. You want to fondle your guns? Engage in
transgressive sex? Smoke dope? All of the above? Fine. I fail to see what
business the government has trying to save you from yourself.

Do I think the rules changes when you're out in public? I'd say yes. I
think society does have a right to regulate our behavior when we're out and
about. But it needs to be proportionate to the supposed offense. Smoking
pot? I'd put it in the ordinance violation category, like the $67.75 fine I
got whacked with for leaving my dog off leash.

That corks me, too, but that's another story. 
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