The government has been repeating the same message about marijuana for over three quarters of a century—that it’s a dangerous gateway drug—while Hollywood continues to get a lot of mileage out of the familiar pothead stereotype, avoiding realistic portrayals of marijuana users. The result? Too many people believe the propaganda, and we end up with overcrowded prisons and a whole class of people stigmatized—fearful of arrest, of being seen as some kind of burnout, of damaging their health.
Because of marijuana prohibition and the endless, futile War on Drugs, society has suffered.
As more people become informed of the facts, however, the tide finally seems to be turning. Medical marijuana is legal in 13 states, and society hasn’t crumbled. Quite the opposite. States that allow medically prescribed cannabis have seen an economic bump, not just in cannabis sales, but across related industries.
Steve Fox, Director of State Campaigns for Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and co-author of Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?, talked to the L.A. Record about the continuing struggle to legalize marijuana state by state, and about changing the way we talk about marijuana.
Of the politicians in Washington D.C. who are opposed to marijuana legalization, what do you feel is the breakdown between those who are benefiting from the anti-drug campaigns, those who are privately in favor but politically opposed, and those who are just legitimately opposed?
Steve Fox: Fear is probably the biggest reason of all. When you think of the American public and how they’ve been convinced that marijuana is a dangerous drug, elected officials are at a whole other level. Many of them have been convinced that marijuana is a dangerous subject for them. They just know from their little playbook that’s given to them when they’re running for office: ‘Here’s what we’re going to say when anything about illegal drugs comes up.’ I think it’s really going to take public pressure for many of them to change, and that is what our book is all about. The book is about giving people the confidence to be more outspoken. There are so many people out there that are supportive of changing marijuana laws or maybe even using marijuana themselves. In the past—though they believed that marijuana was safer than alcohol—they weren’t prepared to talk about it at length. Instead they would get caught up in talking about, ‘Well, this is a waste of government resources!’ We want to make the simple point that all you need to talk about is, ‘I should just be able to choose.’ Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. I should not be punished if I want to use the less harmful substance. We should be asking our elected officials why they want to force people to drink instead of using the less-harmful option, and make it about alcohol and not about marijuana.
When Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams got suspended for smoking pot and retired early, I thought the sports media really played up the pothead stereotype rather than discussing the fact that NFL athletes use toxic pills as pain relievers instead of the safer alternative.
Steve Fox: We’ve certainly been waiting for a situation like that, and while I was working on the SAFER campaign, we tried to push that as hard as we could. We even put up a billboard in Denver encouraging Ricky to come to Denver with the people who support his safer choice. This was based on the fact that we put an initiative on the ballot in Denver to make marijuana legal, and it passed. So we were glad, and we did get some national coverage from that effort. But discussion of the deeper issues just doesn’t happen. The same thing with Michael Phelps when the picture of him smoking from a bong was released. The ignored part of the story was that he was drinking heavily and hitting on women and being obnoxious, but nobody really cared about that. That part is ignored. But he takes one hit, and that becomes international news. People have to think about the fact that we are steering people toward alcohol for no reason.