David Hoppe

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:: Talking about pot

That unmentionable object of desire

By David Hoppe

Here's why changing the outdated marijuana laws in this country is taking longer than it should.

On February 1, a 15-second ad supporting the legalization of marijuana was supposed to start running on the giant, CBS Super Screen billboard overlooking Times Square in New York City. The ad argued that taxing and regulating the sale of marijuana to adults would raise billions of dollars in new revenue.

The ad was created by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). A company called Neutron Media Screen Marketing, which manages the Times Square billboard for CBS, encouraged NORML to produce the spot and was prepared to play it 18 times a day for two months.

On February 3, a Neutron Media representative told NORML headquarters that CBS had decided not to run NORML's message.

Now I am willing to bet that many of the people involved in this decision at CBS have smoked marijuana, and not just once-upon-a-time in college, when they "experimented" with the stuff. Odds are that if you offered a toke to these folks, a fair number would fill their lungs and thank you very much.

But few, if any, of them would admit it later. And most of them would rather not have their corporation seen as appearing to countenance the idea that pot legalization might actually amount to worthwhile public policy.

When it comes to marijuana, most people deny their own experience with the stuff. They may smoke it, but the last thing they want to do is talk about it. The result is that it's taking much longer than it should for us to get a rational discussion going about how to clean up laws that have led to the arrest of 20 million people since 1965, and created a law enforcement bureaucracy that could certainly find better things to do with its time and resources.

It's not easy to conduct an open discussion of the potential benefits of an illegal substance. No one, especially those of us who are parents, wants to be perceived as a lawbreaker or, for that matter, irresponsible. So talk tends to duck and weave more than it should. We joke about getting high. We cite statistics. In the end, marijuana advocates wind up sounding like perpetual teenagers, forever arguing for their rights with older, supposedly wiser, elders.

Back in the 1960's, when smoking pot seemed more like a young person's rite of passage, this might have been understandable. In those days, the people warning about weed came packaged in ill-fitting dark suits, cut their grey hair short and never, ever smiled, unless it was at someone else's expense. They used misinformation and cultural paranoia to make marijuana seem like an express bus to hell.

Thankfully, these troglodytes are virtually extinct. But their laws and bogus mythologies remain. What's puzzling is that the mass of kids who came of age smoking pot, then went on to become successful lawyers, doctors and business people, haven't done more to put those mythologies to rest.

In part, this may have something to do with the Baby Boom generation's love/hate relationship with its own experience. Sure, Boomers love to hear those golden oldies and watch endless shows about how they supposedly changed the world. But when it's come to turning their ideals into meaningful public policy, Boomers have flinched.

They helped Ronald Reagan, a grandfather figure, become president in 1980, all but renouncing the social movements of the 1960s and '70s. It was a save us from ourselves moment. And when Boomers finally chose one of their own, Bill Clinton, they tolerated his ridiculous claim of never having inhaled when he tried smoking pot in college.

Clinton's white lie about pot symbolized Boomers' middle-aged reluctance to challenge their parent's taboos - even when their own experience told them those taboos were laughably antique. It would be one thing if this reluctance were based in a genuine respect for older values. But, when it comes to marijuana laws, this is not the case. Many, if not most, Boomers have broken those laws again and again.

Some Boomers' reticence about coming out about pot is based on legitimate concerns about the health and safety of their kids and grandkids. They fear that legalizing pot would only make an already perilous world even more threatening. What, though, could be more dangerous than the unregulated black market, supplied by gangster cartels, that's making millions off pot today?

As long as pot exists in its current twilight zone - illegal yet available, an unmentionable object of desire - it will be difficult to move toward real reform of marijuana laws. The medical marijuana movement has created welcome pressure to think about pot in new, more realistic ways. But even it, finally, begs the ultimate question concerning what is gained by making pot illegal in the first place. It's not just the folks at CBS who need come out of the closet about marijuana. We all do.