A career criminal's plea for honesty in the drug debate.
I HAVE NEVER SMOKED commercial cigarettes. I've rolled my own, filling little pre-gummed papers with marijuana, a substance I consider an herb but which state and federal laws deem a dangerous and illegal narcotic.
Am I proud of this illegal habit? Not particularly. As a reporter, I have not enjoyed the possibility that I could end up a subject in a news account of a bust.
Moreover, like all smoking, it's dirty. And unhealthy.
So I recognize the many uncool aspects to smoking marijuana. But the fact is, I enjoy it. For the past two decades, I have smoked, on average, about a joint a day.
There will be those who jump on this admission as evidence of how I've come by what one friend calls my "far-fetched and dangerous ideas." Others, concluding I have now totally discredited myself, will use it to dismiss everything I have ever written or am likely to write in the future.
I won't argue with them. I will point out, however, that aside from my career-long criminality on this one point, I haven't been much of a desperado.
I have shown up for work most days. I have paid my taxes and tried to keep my car tags up-to-date. I return library books, volunteer on a few worthwhile causes and have a tendency to pick up litter.
I divulge all this not because I have developed a sudden urge to be arrested. I make this confession because I can no longer stand this nation's restricted, one-sided rhetoric concerning drugs: I've seen too many pictures of sheriffs posing triumphant in fields of marijuana; heard too many officials expound on how marijuana is a dangerous "gateway drug"; talked to too many police officers who acknowledge in private that "alcohol's the problem, not marijuana."
And I've grown fed up with Arkansas's drug task forces, many of them scandal-ridden themselves, tracking down and arresting twice as many people for marijuana as for all other narcotics combined — at a cost of lives and millions of dollars.
Most of all, though, I am stepping out of my smoky little closet to protest the stifling of reasonable debate on this subject. According to the Justice Department, some 70 million Americans have smoked marijuana in their lifetimes; an estimated 10 million are, like me, regular marijuana users.
Who are these people? And if marijuana's so bad, where's the havoc they are wreaking? Their testimony could refute much of the government's false propaganda, but few risk speaking out because the penalties are so severe. The atmosphere of repression that has accompanied the war on drugs has squelched any hope of the kind of reasonable discussion that could begin to straighten out our country's miserably failed drug policy.
We have come to accept as normal a most dangerous form of political correctness: a situation in which only those on one side of the issue feel safe to speak, while any would-be opposition exposes itself to heightened scrutiny, at the very least, for daring to protest or acknowledge contradictory information born of valid, personal experience.
In a 1992 Justice Department survey, 73 percent of the people interviewed between the ages of 18 and 34 said that finding a source for marijuana would be "easy." Clearly, despite massive interdiction efforts, the expenditure of billions of dollars on law enforcement and the incarceration of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens, the marijuana business is bustling.
But when was the last time you read a book about the workings of this mega-agricultural industry? Or heard anyone joke on television about their experiences scoring some dope? Or saw a movie, in the vein of "Thunder Road" or others in that Prohibition-era genre, about this latter-day, illicit subculture? To speak, to write, to film is dangerous, and so honest discussion has been stymied.
If long-term, regular users like myself felt free to articulate their experiences with marijuana, the walking, talking evidence we'd represent could put our marijuana laws to shame. We may not all be intellectual and moral paragons. We probably are courting cancer. Obviously, we have not all exhibited an abject regard for the law.
On the other hand, few of us are wild-eyed marauders, genetic mutants or drooling derelicts from whom society need protect itself. And as we get older, our lives begin to make the lies that have been broadcast about marijuana look even more ridiculous.
If they could see us veteran smokers — some of us now approaching grandparenthood — the more law-abiding members of society might begin to wonder what in the world our politicians got themselves so worked up about. They might also begin to question the wisdom of expending such effort to keep people like me from smoking.
Mara Leveritt is senior editor of the Arkansas Times, a weekly newspaper in Little Rock. This article originally appeared in that publication on March 24.