The Q&A Hole: Why Is Marijuana Still Illegal in Most of the U.S.?

With Ngaio Bealum, Alan Metoskie, Chris Nicholas, and Maggie Gallant

The Q&A Hole: Why Is Marijuana Still Illegal in Most of the U.S.?

Here's the latest of our Q&A Hole series, wherein your reporter asks questions of various interesting people around Austin and beyond.

(Specifically: He asks them and then – with a gnat's-ass amount of editing (if any) – he prints the responses here for all to see.)

The questions can range from As Serious As It Gets to, ah, Pretty Damn Whimsical, and we reckon the answers will tend to fall along those same lines.

And, following up last week's Q&A Hole about how a person might succeed in this world, here's this week's call and response:


Ngaio Bealum, Comedian and former editor of West Coast Cannabis Magazine: Marijuana is still illegal in most of the U.S. for a few reasons:

Money. There are thousands of jobs that rely on marijuana being illegal. The DEA, the private prison industry, the liquor lobby, and Big Pharma all make billions of extra dollars off of cannabis prohibition. But hey, throwing nonviolent potheads in jail and getting American citizens hooked on opiates and booze for stress and pain relief is no big deal as long as the profits are rolling in, eh?

Ignorance and fear. Seventy years of racist fear-mongering propaganda about the effects of marijuana – “It leads to heroin addiction!” "It makes white women want to sleep with black jazz musicians!” "It turns Mexicans into rapists!” – have misled folks into thinking that weed is some sort of deranged killer, although pot is verifiably safer than coffee or aspirin.

Indifference. There aren’t that many marijuana users in the USA, so most people aren’t directly affected by cannabis prohibition. They don't realize that it’s their tax money being spent to keep thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens in prison. But people are starting to realize that the marijuana laws we have now need to change. I think we'll be close to full legalization in the U.S. in about six more years.

Alan Metoskie, Actor and Former Chronicle Pitchman: If you ask me, it all comes down to money. If I think way way back to my childhood "Just say NO!" anti-drug indoctrination in the Eighties, I seem to remember hearing a faceless, soulless, horribly nasal voice saying something like: "Each year the government spends X amount on the War on Drugs."

But, listen, I’ve been busted for driving around with pot in my car (like a genius), and it seemed like all I did was pay, pay, pay. After you pay to get out of jail, you have to pay to get your car out of impound. And lawyers aren’t free. And probation is a privilege you get to pay for, as is the weekly drug-education class you’ll be forced to take.

I vividly remember being in that class and doing a little worksheet where we tallied up everything and put a dollar amount on how much getting busted cost us. I’d been soaked for thousands. At that moment an unpleasantly familiar drone echoed in my head: "Each year the War on Drugs costs American taxpayers X amount of money." Bullshit.

Chris Nicholas of Austin's Staple! Independent Media Expo: It all boils down to money and politics (which is how it all got started in the first place). Vested interests with powerful lobbies – drug companies, prison industry, law enforcement entities, to name a few – rely financially on its continued prohibition and pay big moolah to keep alive the myths that were created to get it outlawed to begin with. The pols in their pockets won't risk losing their campaign funds nor alienating an ill-informed electorate that still subscribe to the falsehoods that demonized marijuana, and they eschew the science that (should have by now) redeemed it. That's the gist, anyway.

Maggie Gallant, Actress: As with gay marriage legislation, legalizing marijuana in this country is like watching the dullest, most interminable game of dominoes. A few of the states wobble a bit, and then a couple might actually fall, but there's no real momentum. And unlike pot, gay marriage isn’t even a gateway – unless it’s to equality and happiness, and where’s the fun in that?

I admit that I'm ill-equipped to answer the question, given that My Drugs Hell consisted of a few drags on a spliff during my college years. I suspect that I posed far more danger to myself and others during my British binge-drinking phase while surviving on an excess of coffee supplemented by caffeine tablets and no sleep.

I know far more about caffeine than marijuana, but there are similarities in that every argument is the right one. For every study that claims caffeine will cure Alzheimer's, improve your athletic prowess, and give you mind-blowing sex (if only), there’s another one warning you that Starbucks will steal your house and eat your children. Hey, look over here: Marijuana makes you stupid and lazy, reduces inhibitions, creates paranoia, makes you do heroin. Hey, look over here: Marijuana relaxes you, is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, has never killed anyone, makes you more creative. The usual parade of celebs – Bob Marley, Bill Clinton, President Obama, Helen Mirren – are trotted out to prove either theory, dependent on your leaning.

The only thing everyone seems to agree on is medicinal marijuana. I do recall being asked by a 68-year-old client (whom I was grocery shopping for) if I could get her some marijuana to ease her MS symptoms. She said she asked me because I was cool. Despite doing stand-up at the time – where you could get an applause break by yelling out "Anyone love pot?" – I had no clue where to get any. At least if it’s legalized, uncool people like me will no longer have to feel embarrassed. So there’s one good reason.

But, to the original question: I suspect it’s because each state has its own decision-making authority – which is clearly a bad idea and much like giving a child any say in how to do things. The weediest (haha) cave in first and the tough old bastards hold out till the bitter end. In England, we have 83 counties – if each of these had responsibility for issues beyond the placement of its rubbish bins or pedestrian crossings, then chaos would reign. You can’t trust Yorkshire or really any part of the north with that sort of power. So in conclusion I suggest America collectively says yes in 2015 and gives spliff a chance.

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