03 October 2010

Jonah Raskin : The California Cannabis Countdown

Supporters of Proposition 19 rally in Bay Area. Photo by Bill St. Clair / SF Weekly.

California counting down to November 2:
Marijuana initiative leading in polls

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / October 3, 2010

Thousands and thousands of words have been published in newspapers, magazines, and blogs -- and broadcast on TV and radio stations -- all over the word about Proposition 19 that would make it legal in California for an adult over the age of 21 to possess one ounce of weed, and to grow it for personal use in a 25 square-foot area.

The latest polls show 19 winning, not by a wide margin, but still by a comfortable margin. The polls have fluctuated all summer long and they may continue to fluctuate until Election Day, Tuesday, November 2, which is also the traditional Day of the Dead in Mexico.

I am planning to vote for 19, though I know that it is far from perfect, and though I know that even if it passes it will not end once and for all the prohibition against pot that has been in effect on a national level ever since the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. (Yes, in those days the word was spelled with an “h,” as in the word “hell,” and not with a “j,” as in the slang word “joint.”)

Opponents of 19 include groups such as, not surprisingly, the California Beer and Beverage Distributors, and the California Cannabis Association, a group of medical marijuana dispensaries -- despite the fact that the dispensaries have benefited financially, and indeed owe their very existence to the movement to legalize marijuana.

Moreover, no major politician in office or running for office has come out in favor of 19 -- not Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, or ex-Governor Jerry Brown who is running for governor once again. His opponent is against it and so are the candidates running for the U.S. Senate.

Proposition 19 supporters rally in Irvine, California. Photo from ZUMA Press / Newscom / Christian Science Monitor.

What is obvious is that on the issue of the legalization of pot politicians are not on the same page as the voters. Hell, they aren’t even in the same book as the citizens of California, or in the same century. On the whole, they are hypocrites and cowards; some of them, such as Schwarzenegger, have even smoked marijuana and are still against it. The same holds true for the mayor of New York who has admitted to smoking pot and enjoying it -- and is against legalization.

In the great desert inhabited by former California politicians, only Tom Hayden has come out clearly, forcefully, eloquently, and unambiguously for 19.

“I support the November ballot initiative because our country’s long drug war is a disaster and there is an alternative for our health, safety and democratic process,” Hayden said. “We need to consider carefully,” he added, “why the drug crisis is embedded in U.S. military campaigns -- from the Golden Triangle in the Vietnam War era, to cocaine and the Columbia counterinsurgency and now to the current Afghanistan war, where 10,000 Europeans over-dosed on Afghan heroin during last year alone.”

Hayden does what few politicians do; he connects the war on drugs, including the war on marijuana, which has been waged now for about 100 years, to a global crisis. Indeed, while marijuana grows in our own backyards, and on native soil all over the United States, the politics and the economics of marijuana are connected to the whole world. The local is global and the global is local.

Yes, I am voting for Proposition 19 for most if not for all of the political reasons that Hayden gives. I am also voting for it for personal reasons. I have smoked marijuana for much of my life; I started in 1967 in New York. A Columbia Law School student who is now a judge turned me on for the first time.

For a decade in the 1970's and 1980's, I lived among the commercial pot growers of Northern California and wrote about them and their cash crop for High Times, the L.A. Weekly, and other publications. I also took my idea for a marijuana movie to Hollywood in 1980, and saw it eventually turned into a film called Homegrown.

I do not now nor have I ever considered myself a head or a stoner, but marijuana has wound itself around my life and around the lives of my friends, many of whom smoked it recreationally in the 1960's and 1970's, and who smoke it today for aches and pains, insomnia and arthritis, as well as to stimulate the appetite and just for pure pleasure. Who said that good old-fashioned getting high had to be a bad thing?

Deputies raid medical marijuana growers in California. Image from True/Slant.

Meanwhile, as the campaign for and against 19 goes on, as editorials are written and as advocates make speeches and hand out leaflets, the war on marijuana continues all over California. That is sad. That is tragic.

This year at least four marijuana cultivators have been shot and killed in California by deputies during raids on pot gardens. 2010 has been the most violent year that I know of in the war on marijuana. Many of the growers are armed. They have guns. That is true. But no grower has fired on a deputy. In fact, it has long been a rule of thumb among pot growers not to fire on deputies.

Besides, as most marijuana smokers know, smoking pot does not make users violent. It tends to calm smokers. Almost all of the pot farmers I know are also pot smokers and nonviolent individuals. Who are the violent ones? Look at the statistics. Look at the facts. It isn’t the deputies who are wounded and dying. It’s the growers.

Last month while visiting a woman who grows marijuana in the mountains -- and who was arrested last week in a raid and all her plants confiscated -- I asked her if she saw herself as a victim caught up in a war. We were sitting in the sun gazing down at plants that are now in the police locker.

“Is this a war?” I asked her and she just laughed. “Marijuana is not truly a drug,” she told me. “Drug implies a laboratory and scientists. What’s going on here is a plant war. It’s preposterous to make a plant illegal, and it’s obnoxious to stipulate that plants are illegal.” Then she asked rhetorically, “Are you going to put Mother Nature in jail for growing it as it does in the wild?”

Last week, she spent a night in jail sleeping on a cold cement floor with a dozen or so of her neighbors who were also arrested and their crops confiscated. Now, she’s back on her mountain, her garden stripped of her plants.

Proposition 19 can’t help her, but if it passes it might help some marijuana growers and some marijuana smokers. It might keep a few Americans like her out of jail. That would be a good thing, a kind thing, an act of forgiveness, and a saving grace in a legal system that has been barbaric and cruel for far too long.

[Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California and a professor at Sonoma State University.]

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