Gov sends up ‘smoke signals’ on marijuana

I’ve met an awful lot of people who say that they smoke marijuana. A lot of people laugh when I tell them that I never have. Nevertheless, it would appear that a lot of people do and that we have created an underground economy, sort of a prohibition do-over, that has helped the criminal elements in our country to maintain their elevated style of life. With illegal distribution networks comes loss of taxes on the product and guns and gang fights and public corruption of one kind or another. In fact, you can’t have corrupt cops and public officials without drugs like marijuana. As Willy Sutton once put it, “That’s where the money is.” Hey, we all know it; you’d have to be in la-la land not to get the way it works. Of course, there are those who appropriately point out that the use of marijuana will get people high and impair their driving and cause accidents. That’s true. In other words, in a society where a far worse drug, alcohol, does far more damage, we allow the sales and subsequent taxation of the more dangerous one and send people to jail for the other.

There are people who will tell you that their pain and suffering from one disease, sometimes terminal, has been alleviated by using marijuana. There are studies that suggest this is a fact and so, in some parts of the country like California, it is legal to use marijuana, like other drugs, to help people who need help. Naturally, there are those entrepreneurial Americans who extend the concept of medical marijuana to pure recreational use, again, like alcohol. These folks have a very expansive view of who needs medical marijuana and are not averse to making a buck by selling the stuff. Obviously, there will be a lot of doctor shopping to find willing prescribers. That’s the same thing as folks who try to get a hold of other, more dangerous narcotic drugs that are manufactured by drug companies.

Into all of this comes the dynamic, young governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who is very, very good and pragmatic at judging what the public wants. On this one, however, he has a problem. He has clearly positioned himself, as has his president, to the right of center. That way, he picks up a lot of centrist, swing voters. But the polls are changing. Americans seem to be for much more tolerant of the use of medical marijuana. It’s hard for most folks to imagine making a criminal out of a dying cancer patient who might experience some relief from the drug.

Of course, most of the generally right wing libertarians are all for marijuana under the mantle of keeping government off their backs. Nevertheless, our history in the country has always been to promote the concept of “reefer madness.” Marijuana, we are told, is an entry drug. First you get high on weed and then you graduate to other drugs. In some cases that is accurate, but so is the use of alcohol. Andrew Cuomo has often been heard to say, “It is what it is.” On the other hand, there is some wisdom in bringing any problems we have into full view. By allowing the use of marijuana we can spot those with problems and refer them to experts who might help them.

For his part Cuomo has announced he is still opposed to marijuana use. On the other hand, his words made more than a few ripples when he said that he was reconsidering his position. That’s good, he should. His risk, and he knows it, is that people running for the presidency will eventually be asked whether they’ve ever had a drag on a marijuana cigarette. God forbid! If they are for fair minded use of marijuana they will be portrayed as permissive nuts. Cartoons will show them smoking weed and hallucinating. Cuomo has shown some guts on things like gay and lesbian marriage. He has appropriately led and not followed. If he senses a sea change in public reaction to marijuana he’ll be tempted to get out in front. That’s why he sent smoke signals to his public when he said that he was reconsidering but still opposed. This is called, “running it up the flag pole and seeing who salutes.” Hey, we’re going to get legal marijuana, the only question is whether this governor will have the cojones to do what is right.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 8/1/11

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