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Puritans and pot 

by Robert Herold
The Supreme Court majority, by tossing out California's attempt to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, yet again revealed itself to be both expedient and hypocritical. It is expedient in that it would seize upon a conflicting federal statute as the vehicle for overturning a state law it didn't like. It is hypocritical in that the effect of the Court's decision is an overly expansive reading, based on its own previous rulings, of the Interstate Commerce clause in Article I of the Constitution.


Caught up in the majority's ruling, however, is, I believe, something more basic. The majority remains locked into a range of social preferences that have everything to do with convention and little or nothing to do with the Constitution. I refer here to a latent Puritanism that instructs us that pleasure usually is to be avoided. As a result, as is so often the case in America, convention, even habit, becomes vice, which to so much of the world seems a most odd way of establishing moral codes.


Consider Andrew Sullivan's recent column for The New Republic. Sullivan, who has long written openly about his AIDS infection, observed that he takes for his disease-induced nausea a little pill called Marinol. The active ingredient is THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana. Sullivan can get Marinol with his doctor's prescription. Marinol, however, isn't as effective as would be the real stuff. But the real stuff isn't sanitized in scientific gift-wrap, so, says the Court, Sullivan must content himself with the pale copy.


Sullivan and others in his situation must hope that Congress will pass a law that addresses their problem. Even if Congress acts, my strong suspicion is that this unprincipled Court majority would simply revert to its preferred narrow reading of the Interstate Commerce clause and declare the national law unconstitutional.


The more interesting question, for me, remains the cultural one. Why do we remain so trapped by this heritage that regards (very selectively, I might add) pleasure and appropriateness to be two separate things?


Pot is a no-no because it is not officially sanctioned. Nitrous oxide, however, is okay because your dentist gives it to you. Or consider the medicine, Nyquil. Have you ever known a self-proclaimed teetotaler whose medicine of choice was Nyquil -- a liquid that has an alcoholic content of around 20 percent? I have. Several.


Of course, when all else fails, we resort to the Puritan's famous exit strategy: repression. But that's another story altogether.


In the case of marijuana, certainly an argument can be made that it is relatively harmless, even if viewed as a vice. Certainly it is far less harmful than acceptable vices, say tobacco or alcohol. But those vices have somehow managed to make their way, historically, over the bar of acceptable convention. Prohibition failed largely because, as one writer put it, most Americans didn't believe drinking was wrong. The same can't be said about marijuana, but why not? The former makes it under the Puritanical wire, the latter doesn't regardless of what might be pointed out regarding public result. It's a cultural thing.


When we permit latent Puritanism to so dictate, we place our body politic in very limiting binds. Such binds can close off any number of options that might hold out the prospect for improved public life and at no personal or social cost other than the cost associated with a narrower view of deviance.


Take, for example, Spokane's continued battle with methamphetamine labs, dealers and users. Now here we do have a truly dangerous drug with social effects that are anything but benign. From contamination to the threat of explosion to the user's often violent and unpredictable conduct, methamphetamine poses a palpable public threat. But our response? We are cracking down. We are waging a costly war on the labs. More police. More fire power. Hang 'em high.


Might we pause for just one question: Why the popularity of methamphetamine in the first place?


That's an easy one. The drug is cheap, like buying off the rack. It is the drug of choice, especially among those who have little money and are looking for a cheap high.


But suppose we could figure out a way to wade through our Puritanical heritage and suspend this phobia about pleasure. Suppose we were to simply legalize pot. A number of social benefits would seem obvious.


First off, we could tax its sale. More importantly, we could impose some quality control. Word is that today's marijuana can't be compared with the much milder form smoked during the '60s and actually does present a threat. The fact is, millions of people smoke pot, and through regulation it could be made safer.


Such a course of action would likely drive meth labs out of business, and the police could get on with more pressing matters. The drug problem gets a lot smaller if marijuana is taken out of the mix. The city budget would see some pressure removed. Our court load would be decreased. Prison populations would shrink. Street violence would be reduced. And the afflicted, like Andrew Sullivan, or as it turns out, people suffering from other diseases such as Parkinson's or Tourette's syndromes? They would benefit, too.


And what's the worst that we could expect? Here would come, no doubt, the myth of reefer madness. But in reality, we know that madness is what we get with methamphetamine, not pot.


No doubt some worriers would haul out the "dire consequence": Legalize pot and expect to see a downward spiral of public morals. But we know that for every hard-core drug addict who says that pot got him started there are a thousand high-priced corporate executives diligently contributing to society who "experimented" with pot in college.


But critics needn't worry, for we won't even entertain the thought that pot should be legalized, even in the face of strong argument. We won't even discuss the option; we won't explore it, either as a matter of morality or as a matter of practicality, for to do so we would first have to suspend our latent Puritanisim, and we just can't do that. History and culture, to no surprise, has us in its clutches.


Then there is our unprincipled Court majority. Should we express even the slightest interest in making some sense out of all this, as California tried to do, the Supremes stand ready to save us from ourselves.

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