Minnesota’s marijuana moment: Why to legalize, by someone who doesn’t inhale

I don’t smoke marijuana. There are secret purchases required, plus the learning of code, dealer etiquette, dosing expertise, exotic strains, the latest artisanal delivery systems, and it all sounds way too complicated.

Also, because it’s easy to forget this detail, pot is illegal.

But even if pot were decriminalized tomorrow — a proposal on the table at the State Capitol — the chances of my racing out to score some “Chronicles of Narnia” and then heading home to roll up a fatty are, well, slim. Unlike Bill Clinton, the one time I did blaze up, over 20 years ago, I inhaled quite deeply enough to find the effect unpleasant. Some of us have all the feelings of alienation and existential weirdness you could ask for, thank you very much.

None of this is meant as a claim on virtue. My vice when the shop whistle blows comes by way of the less-healthy, socially acceptable pathway: that wrecker of livers, faces and families, the noble fermented beverage.

Point being, I don’t write any of the following out of the reason we tend to suspect a person calls for legalization — you know, because the writer is into weed.

It’s just that weed is already here, as if that really needed to be said, and has survived the ultimate multigenerational field test. Pot is ubiquitous in middle-class American life, or at least it was in mine. When I was growing up, my parents told us to stay away from drugs and people who take them, but the advice became tricky with pot. I smelled marijuana early and often, at parties, in the parks and at concerts back in the 1970s, mainstream shows filled with hypocrites now drawing salaries in the Twin Cities corporate economy.

Why anyone would be upset about a fellow Minnesotan lighting up is beyond me. As one of the everyday smells of life in the Midwest, I’ll take the scent of some guy’s one-hitter in Section 102 over that of lutefisk, manure-spreading or the Pine Bend refinery any day. My first record store, now that I think of it, was a clean, well-lit head shop. It sat a block from a Catholic church in the heart of south Minneapolis and offered up roach clips, rolling papers and long, welcoming cases of bongs, so-called paraphernalia that we blithely sauntered past on our way to the stacks of “Hotel California.”

Half of all Americans have tried pot, and more than 60 percent of Americans are in favor of making it legal for recreational use, according to the Pew Research Center. Eight states have done so — Colorado, California, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Nevada — mainly independent-thinking places that share more in common with Minnesota than most states.

Though the Trump Justice Department recently rescinded an Obama-era policy that brought federal prosecutors in line with state laws concerning marijuana, the reversal is likely to have limited impact, given the way that it pits busy prosecutors against the will of statehouses. Recreational use also seems to have pushed the many unknowable assertions about the benefits of THC for medical use to the side — you don’t need clinical trials if you can buy it over the counter — and it comes at a time in which popular culture has mostly abandoned its dated anxieties about pot.

No one really finds the act of getting high all that interesting, for one thing. (Are you listening, Seth Rogen and James Franco?) The Cheech & Chong sketches and stoner jokes of eras past have quietly given way to depictions of “the banal normalcy of marijuana in American life today,” as the Washington Post recently described the rise of closely observed cable dramas dealing with pot, shows like “Weeds” on Showtime and “High Maintenance” on HBO. This seems to align with the life trajectory of pot use on view all around us, which is that there is no singular life trajectory of pot use, or at least no singular narrative that ends in addiction and ruin.

In college, I had a hallmate who was selling. I looked him up the other day to see what fresh hell his life had become, but it turns out he’s a family man who holds a midlevel post at one of the Fortune 500 firms in town. The guy who got me stoned back in the ’90s is now a doctor for one of the big health centers in Minneapolis.

These are only anecdotes, of course, and selling weed at a small liberal arts college is a far cry from selling in the neighborhoods, which has lately become a hazard. As the Star Tribune reported last week, dealing marijuana on the black market has become deadly in Minnesota, with 29 dealers having been killed over the last 11 years. Is that an argument against legalization or for it?

Because smoking marijuana appears to be relatively safe. According to the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Science, just 9 percent of adults who try marijuana become dependent, compared with 15 percent of those who try alcohol and 32 percent of those who try tobacco. So while pot may show up in lives that go off track, there have always been enough exceptions that it’s hard to say pot was causal. The decades of telling ourselves smoking pot destroys lives only delays our reckoning with the forces that do destroy lives. Pot is just a part of who we are, a culturally sanctioned form of lawlessness, a looking-the-other-way endorsed in some form by all of us.

• • •

And with that out of the way, consider now the strange privilege allowed to lawyers who depicted pot as synonymous with erratic behavior and aggression when it was helpful in acquitting Jeronimo Yanez, the St. Anthony police officer who killed Philando Castile. The facts of the 2016 shooting are largely not in dispute: At the time of the traffic stop, the school lunch worker had THC in his system and the presence of mind to volunteer that he was carrying a firearm (with a permit, but Yanez began shooting before Castile could provide the paperwork). Having been told to hand over his driver’s license and “just don’t reach for it, then” after mention of his firearm, Castile had been given conflicting instructions about what to do with his hands. He had also been pulled over nearly 50 times for minor offenses in his lifetime, presumably enough to have made the act of reaching for his wallet second nature.

And Castile never did reach for his weapon, at least if the testimony of an EMT is to be given priority. He said the gun was found deep in Castile’s front pocket. Thanks to the ambiguousness of blood THC levels, Castile’s degree of impairment, if any, was unknown.

And yet the pot got all the attention. A web search on the trial reads like a farrago of pot-shaming and deflection, a bad crime novel from the 1950s. Lawyers endorsed Yanez’s panic over the smell of weed. They lingered over 6 grams of pot in a jar located where any driver would keep it, under the seat and out of view. Lead defense attorney Earl Gray interrogated Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds on whether it was she or Castile who had bought this small pile of San Francisco Whatnot, then belabored small changes in her story on the chain of possession of this pot. He badgered her over the interaction of her foot with the dull stash, and circled back to malign her for her daily habit.

“How much of the $20,000,” Gray taunted Reynolds over the proceeds of a bleak GoFundMe windfall, “did you use on marijuana?” Castile “was spaced out,” Gray told the jurors. “He was staring straight ahead. He was stoned.”

Does it help us to live under law to condemn a motorist to his death for staring straight ahead? Is it possible that Castile was avoiding eye contact because that’s what a cooperative person would do to preserve dignity after a lifetime of harassment on the roadways? Though blacks use marijuana at the same rates as whites, they are six and a half times more likely to be arrested for possession in Minnesota, or twice the national average.

This disparity is hardly the only reason for decriminalization — but given the role it played in Castile’s death it seems reason enough. “The tragic results of that traffic stop,” as state Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, wrote last year on the website Medium, “bring into sharp focus the unfortunate legacy of decades of criminalizing possession and use of marijuana in Minnesota.”

Thissen was, until recently, one of five DFL candidates for governor advocating for legalization of recreational marijuana by adults (he dropped out of the race earlier this month). My legislator, Rep. Tina Liebling, was among the first in the state House to call for the change, terming prohibition a “failed policy” and pitching decriminalization as a pragmatic pathway to responsible regulation of drug potency and prevention of marijuana use among minors.

First District U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, St. Paul’s state Rep. Erin Murphy and former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman (who also recently left the race) have taken similar positions, with Walz noting “the system we have had was that where we looked the other way, unless you’re a person of color.”

These are hardly the voices of the extreme left: Liebling’s district includes the Mayo Clinic, while Walz is an outstate moderate. Most would move to release all convicts in the state who are imprisoned for marijuana crimes and expunge the convictions from their records, according to a recent survey by Sensible Minnesota. All of these candidates are vying to replace Gov. Mark Dayton, whose opposition to legalization remains fixated on an outdated narrative of pot, as opposed to its illicit status, as threat to public safety. “We’ve got enough drugs,” Dayton has said, “an epidemic of drugs that’s floating through our society right now, and law enforcement’s got to deal with all the consequences of it.”

“It has no future whatsoever,” said former GOP Rep. Tony Cornish, who blocked the decriminalization bill from a hearing in his public-safety committee. Which is ironic, because it was the legislative career of Rep. Cornish that would turn out to have no future, albeit thanks to a separate social upheaval. (Cornish resigned following a sex-harassment claim last fall.)

Though on opposite sides of most other issues, Dayton and Cornish were working from a script with a blind spot for the dysfunction that criminalization introduces into law enforcement. The scent of “burnt marijuana” Yanez said caused him to fear for his life gives police a pretext to search a motorist’s car. Law enforcement receives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from earnings seized through marijuana conviction asset forfeiture, revenue that cannot help but to distort priorities and casts their impartiality on the issue into question.

From a fiscal standpoint, Minnesota taxpayers absorbed the cost of 9,000 arrests in connection with pot in 2016, or 50 percent of all drug arrests that year. It is an enormous demand on public resources and police officer time.

And for what? Among the findings nested within a 2017 National Academies of Sciences review of the medical literature at large are findings that pot makes users less, rather than more, aggressive; that it does not appear to cause lung cancer; and that the evidence is not strong for the shopworn assertion that pot use leads to harder drugs. (Illegal pot puts buyers in touch with harder drugs.)

Pot does have its share of problems. Long-term use is known to produce bronchitis and social anxiety, and at high doses is associated with a population facing the elevated risk of schizophrenia. Smoking pot appears to be a bad idea during the critical period of development that is adolescence, though that is something legalization would arguably reduce. Taking the market away from criminals, as Sensible Minnesota executive director Maren Schroeder points out, protects children. “Drug dealers don’t check IDs.”

• • •

All of which is to say that the evidence for treating pot as public enemy No. 1 is mixed at best. And yet it’s easy to see why the idea of legalization makes people uncomfortable.

I have driven down the freeway in Colorado after that state made recreational use legal. I remember how unnerving it felt to gaze over at a kid of maybe 20, barreling down the road in a beater covered in grime, smoking from a pipe in the middle of the day. It was a bright and sunny afternoon, and it just felt, ahhh, no. There’s a time and a place for everything, right?

Anyone who has visited Amsterdam, for that matter, the world’s test project for the social experiment of decriminalizing marijuana while surrounded by jurisdictions that prohibit it, knows how a charmed locale can take on the feeling of too many visitors with productivity problems and a dysphoric outlook.

Which might be our preferred way of thinking about repealing the prohibition on recreational use of pot by adults going forward. That the time has come to take away this tool for the endangerment of motorists carrying weed and the consignment of marijuana workers to dangerous conditions on the street — but to remember, as we do so, that our sense of connection with one another will surely face new forms of stress. Of all the problems with pot that have been noted in the literature, those that seem to stand out have less to do with crime than with human potential.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, pot is capable of decreasing drive and ambition. Case studies (and personal experience) remind us that pot can leave users feeling more insightful and connected within relationships, while in fact having functioned as a barrier to self-awareness and as a tool for avoiding interpersonal challenges, allowing them to multiply.

But none of those are legal problems. You could call them ordinary human problems. And they certainly aren’t reason to bear witness to even one more death of a fellow human for the crime of being stoned.

Paul John Scott is a writer in Rochester.

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