Keohane: In the Weeds

1222280754I was out with a Republican friend the other night, who, because he’s more about William Buckley than Jesus Christ, tends to take a libertarian perspective on matters of personal behavior. We were mostly complaining about Tom Menino’s recent crusade against cigar bars and drug stores that sell cigarettes, when the conversation turned to the ballot question proposing the decriminalization of small quantities of weed.

The organization pushing the measure, The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, has taken pains to paint the issue as a matter of criminal justice, distancing themselves from the drug itself, and whatever redeeming qualities it may or may not have.

That’s no easy dance. For years, the ranks of people who have called for saner pot laws have been riddled with potheads ranging from ineffectual to hilariously counterproductive. Take the annual HempFest, the central point of which, it seems, is to get arrested so you can wail about being a political prisoner.

These sorts of self-indulgent histrionics don’t help the decrim movement, to say the least. “How do you deal,” my friend said, “with people who are totally fucked up and counterproductive, but are on the side of the angels?”

Today’s Herald has a story underscoring the trouble in reconciling those camps. The vast majority of CSMP’s funding has come from out of state, and a significant portion of that has come from activist organizations that advocate the full-legalization of marijuana. But Whitney Taylor, the head of CSMP, tells me she’d be “happy” to leave the issue at decriminalization.

“You have to understand first and foremost that the committee does not condone marijuana use,” she says. “We are not the people who go down the road that says this is something we believe everyone should have access to. We have a whole bunch of people who are involved with us who see this as it is: Let’s have a smarter criminal justice approach.”

Taylor argues that the money spent in enforcing weed laws is a drain on police departments already facing cuts, and that arrests on marijuana charges carry CORIs that will hamper the smoker’s ability to get a job or a loan for the rest of his days. Even if the charge is dismissed CORIs are issued upon arrest; if the charge is dismissed, the record is sealed, but it remains out there.

“After the CORI is sealed, a piece of paper is generated, and unfortunately in human nature, when somebody sees a printed report that says ‘Record sealed,’ they automatically think the worst of those people,” she says. On top of that, a World Health Organization study has found that stricter laws regarding marijuana have no effect on actual usage rates.

All eminently sensible stuff that can be completely unspooled by a small ground of Trustafarians. With the state’s DAs and AG lined up against the measure–arguing that it’s a Trojan Horse promising to destroy children (never get tired of that argument)–the straits Taylor needs to pass are especially treacherous. The question is polling strong right now, though few politicians will go anywhere near it, as pols tend not to be precision instruments able to navigate such charged, nuanced issues.

Personally, I’d love to see it pass, because the state’s, and the country’s, stance on marijuana has been incredibly stupid and wasteful. But I have my doubts we’re going to be able to have the mature conversation we need to have on the issue, without succumbing to a fit of reefer madness on one side, and rampant quoting of Peter Tosh on the other.

On another note, watching this play out in parallel to the anti-smoking furor is instructive for anyone interested in the psychology of local liberals. Anytime an issue is debated, it needs to be framed in terms of victimhood.

The smoking ban was passed because supporters effectively argued the laughably bullshit point that waitresses and bartenders (working class, therefore deserving of protection from the elites) were being victimized by smokers.

I was at a hearing in Cambridge where anti-smoking zealots actually bussed in dozens of young blacks kids from Boston and paraded them before the council to talk about how if the workplace smoking ban wasn’t passed, they wouldn’t be able to get a job (because of all the secondhand smoke), and therefore wouldn’t be able to go to college. It was the filthiest thing I’ve ever seen, but it was also political genius and showed a keen understanding of the Cambridge mentality. It worked.

People on both sides of the weed issue are trying to play a similar song, but this one is tougher to frame. Taylor argues that our present lunatic policy ruins our vulnerable young people’s chances of getting a job or a loan. Though she didn’t say this outright, the corollary is that they’ll eventually turn to crime.

The anti-decrim forces say to change the law is to victimize said young people, by leading them down the path to heroin, or however that goes, softening their brains and making it so they couldn’t get a job. Naturally, at that point, a life of crime is not far off.

The next month and a half will be really interesting to watch, as the pot coalition tries to stay on message against the inadvertent pressure of the Cheeches, and the opponents try to absolutely mortify parents who, with a little prodding, will ultimately swallow the line that smoking weed, even in small doses, will surely win little Johnny a future as an underpaid rough trick covered from neck to ankles in track marks.

Reefer madness indeed.