Phillip Tutor: ‘Reefer Madness,’ revisited — Legal marijuana isn’t ‘public enemy number one,’ but it is complicated
Jan 02, 2014 | 2864 views |  0 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Clerks assist customers at a legal marijuana shop that opened Wednesday morning in Denver. Photo: The Associated Press
Clerks assist customers at a legal marijuana shop that opened Wednesday morning in Denver. Photo: The Associated Press
A premise: Never in American history has the hypocrisy of the nation’s stance on substances that affect our behavior been so apparent as it was Wednesday morning.

Two days ago, untold numbers awoke with the mother of all hangovers, expected but unwelcomed remnants of their alcohol-fueled New Year’s Eve revelry. It had the news value of another sunrise.

That same morning, people in Colorado lined up, in the cold and snow, to be the first to legally buy marijuana for recreational use in this country. Unlike our Jan. 1 hangover epidemic, the pot sales drew national media attention.

Which example bothers you more?

Alcohol affects people — their bodies, their moods, their behaviors, their lives. It creates “mean” drunks and “sloppy” drunks. It’s embedded in criminal statistics. When overused, it destroys families and marriages and, at its worst, it kills. But it is legal and socially acceptable in most circles.

Pot affects people, too — otherwise, there would be no such thing as “recreational” marijuana use. Like most drugs, its social side effects when overused are steep. But, other than in Colorado, it is illegal today in the United States to buy or sell dope for reasons other than medical use. In many states, including Alabama, marijuana use is illegal, be it for medical reasons or for fun.

In essence, this is yet another example of how the United States’ experiment with Jeffersonian government is so quirky and inconsistent. In certain Nevada counties, prostitution and brothels are legal. Gambling laws — on sports, on horses, on dogs, on bingo cards, on slot machines — vary from state to state, if not county to county. Laws on abortion and immigration differ across the map. Death by firing squad remains an option for certain death-row inmates in only one state, Utah. And in Colorado, you can legally buy marijuana — and, in a few months, in Washington state.

Right or wrong, it’s how we roll in America.

But let’s be clear: All drugs, legal or otherwise, aren’t equal. Tobacco isn’t marijuana. Marijuana isn’t meth. Alcohol (a drug, by my definition) isn’t cocaine. Cheech and Chong are losers, and they’re funny, but there’s no humor in someone hooked on heroin. (For that matter, isn’t it sad that Mayberry’s town drunk, Otis Campbell, often sleeps in a jail cell?) In other words, the one-size-fits-all argument doesn’t fit unless you’re willing to tackle the impossible task of proposing all of these substances — including booze — should be illegal. Try getting that past the alcohol lobbyists in D.C.

That doesn’t mean all drugs aren’t serious business; they are. As ubiquitous as beer, wine and liquor are in America, their negative side effects are immense. Count me among those who see nothing wrong with having a glass of wine with dinner or a dog and a beer at the game, but the ramifications of binge drinking, driving while drunk or alcoholism are irrefutable. Serious business, remember.

Modern-day marijuana use is caught up as much in discussions of fiscal policy — tax it for public use — as it is morality and social harm. (In Colorado, taxes on legal sales are around 30 percent.) It’s dangerous to compare one substance to another, but if you equate alcohol use to pot use — in terms of health and social effects — then legalizing sales becomes a sound argument. That is, in effect, what Colorado lawmakers are banking on, literally and figuratively.

It’s impossible for this week’s dope discussion not to bring back memories of Reefer Madness, that campy 1930s-era propaganda film that tried to scare parents into thinking their children would go mad if they smoked a joint.

Marijuana, according to the film, was “the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marijuana is that drug — a violent narcotic — an unspeakable scourge — the real public enemy number one.

“Its first effect is sudden, violent uncontrollable laughter, then comes dangerous hallucinations — space expands — time slows down, almost stands still ... fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances — followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions — leading finally to acts of shocking violence, ending often in incurable insanity.”

Still campy, 70 years later.

Consider marijuana what it is — a drug, mostly illegal, that shouldn’t be toyed with as if it’s harmless fun. Even if it’s legal, it sits alongside booze, a substance whose effects are serious business, indeed.

Phillip Tutor — — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at
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