Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, in 1992, pleaded guilty-with-an-explanation to having taken a hit when a spliff — or a bong, he did not specify which — circulated in his vicinity during his graduate-school days at Oxford.
“I didn’t inhale…” he famously said, at a political forum in New York.
In the cultural atmosphere of 1992 the assertion passed for piety. Clinton was stipulating that while he might have smoked marijuana in his youth, he had not run the risk of enjoying himself.
The nation’s dope laws, in legislating morality… things that feel good can hardly be good for you… lend themselves to pontification and effortless emotional rhetoric, the kind of hot air that politicians and tabloid editors find irresistible. Clinton understood that, and he was paying necessary lip service to the convention. Until recently such sanctimony was the cover behind which lawmakers routinely took refuge whenever the issue of marijuana decriminalisation was raised.
Now, some three decades since the nation’s 42nd President copped to going rogue, thirty-seven states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, have legalised marijuana. Fifteen states, plus D.C., Guam and the Northern Marianas, have legalised it not simply for medical use, but for adult recreational purposes. And this month, on April Fool’s Day, the U.S. House of Representatives, for the second time in under a year and a half, passed legislation that would finally decriminalise cannabis at the federal level, where Americans can still be prosecuted for possession and sale.
Cannabis legalisation is widely popular in the United States with both Democratic and Republican voters. Overall, 70 per cent of Americans support it. And yet the House bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, has no more chance of passage in the Senate, where Republican votes are necessary, than similar legislation did sixteen months ago, when Republicans were in the majority there. With the exception of one or two outliers, the debate breaks down largely along party lines.
Legalisation advances economic growth (the cannabis industry, a $20 billion enterprise in 2020, is projected to be worth more than twice that by 2025, according to the bill); fiscal responsibility (the Congressional Budget Office predicts that legalisation will reduce the federal deficit by $3 billion); states’ rights (of course) and individual freedom. All four of these are issues traditionally associated with the Republican Party and conservative political thinking. Republicans in both the House and Senate, in whatever way they excuse voting against the bill, are acting not only against the wishes of their constituents, but against their own long-held political principles, as well.
The most obvious explanation for their doing so, and on Capitol Hill today it is viewed as adequate justification, is that the legislation was initiated by Democrats. It is the same zero-sum thinking that Mitch McConnell, as Senate president, brought to bear on the unsuccessful effort to make Barack Obama a one-term president, a twisted Republican take on the nationalist policy of America First. Call it America Second. It grows out of the same political instinct that has prompted the party’s surrogates at the Fox News Channel to side with Vladimir Putin in the war for Ukraine. McConnell and his colleagues do not want to see a Democratic administration receive credit for passing popular legislation any more than they want to see it credited with an American victory over Communist aggression.
You have to give it to Democrats for gamesmanship. They are sending their opponents home in an election year under pressure to explain to their constituents, many of them baked on legally acquired edibles, why they are against passage of the bill. Taking cover behind the smokescreen of morality, in the face of a righteously stoned electorate, is not nearly as convenient a political position as it was in Clinton’s day.
Keeping dope out of the hands of children, a Republican card that is being played early, is a long-standing defense. As a motivating sentiment behind prohibition, it is sincere and well-intentioned, but has been somewhat marginalised by facts on the ground. The drug most difficult for minors to score, surveys have shown, is alcohol, which is regulated in pretty much the same way that cannabis is being regulated by the various states in which it is now legal. Marijuana is less significantly a “gateway drug” than it is a gateway crime. Its prohibition has criminalised the behaviour of countless Americans, making felons of innumerable, otherwise law-abiding citizens, and breeding disrespect for the law, especially among young people.
When you buy weed on the black market, which prohibition drives you to do, you (and your children) are buying from drug dealers the more professional of whom are also the people who can get you cocaine, heroin, acid… whatever you need, or whatever they think you should try… “Hey, dude, I got polio vaccine, on sale…” and they themselves are supplied by traffickers who can probably get you a gun. Why not? With that joint in your pocket, kid, you are already a crook. Welcome to the underworld.
In the end, claiming to protect children is little more than a dodge. The truth is that the most reliable customers of every cannabis dispensary in the country are a bunch of people who have been breaking the law for better than fifty years, a voting bloc of geriatrics who have been burning one throughout the day every day since the Summer of Love. In the face of their enthusiasm, the government’s inability to end prohibition might seem to be that much more baffling. But there is one other attribute to the recent legislation, a fifth issue at play, which helps reinforce opposition among Republican lawmakers and the more passionate of their constituents.
The bill, at least in part, is a racial justice bill. It would, among other measures, expunge the marijuana convictions of a large, disproportionately black, inmate population, languishing in American prisons. And one certainty that has revealed itself since Donald Trump oozed his way into politics is that a strong component of the glue that binds the Republican Party is racism.
There is no clearer picture of American race relations than that which is reflected by the nation’s penitentiaries. The United States, with under five per cent of the world’s population, holds some 21 per cent of its prisoners. This country leads the world in locking its citizens up, ahead of places like El Salvador, Rwanda and Brazil. We are number one by a long stretch. We incarcerate people at about twice the rate that Russia does. We out-convict China by a factor of five. Our incarceration rate is in line with that of the Soviet Union during the twenty-five years of the Gulag. Forget Vladimir Putin, we are neck and neck with Stalin.
Incarceration is big business in this country. Take California as an example. In no other state is the prison-industrial complex more lucrative than it is there, and no organisation has shown a greater interest in keeping it that way than the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union representing the state’s prison guards. In 2008 the CCPOA spent $1 million to help defeat Proposition 5, a measure to alleviate prison overcrowding by providing treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent offenders and reduce penalties for certain marijuana convictions. Two years ago, with pot in California having been legalised for recreational use, the union spent twice that much money to support Proposition 20, which would have toughened prison sentences in the state by raising some misdemeanors to felonies and imposed restrictions on parole.
The CCPOA: One man’s trashed prospects are another man’s treasure.
There are currently two million people in the country’s prisons and jails, a 500 per cent increase over the last 40 years. We owe it all to the War on Drugs. Nearly half of the prisoners in the federal system are doing time for dope. And blacks, who constitute around 14 per cent of the U.S. population, make up almost 40 per cent of the inmates in federal detention.
Passage of the current legislation would, among other things, lower that number.
“If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner,” H.L. Mencken said.
Well maybe not so much with this crowd. The clown show on Capitol Hill continues, and the topic of decriminalisation continues to breed precious moments of what Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, recently referred to as “jackassery” among his colleagues in the Senate.
Meanwhile, the federal government for the current fiscal year has budgeted over $41 billion for drug control. We prosecute the drug war not because it is winnable, but because it is fundable. Thousands of people rely on the effort for their livelihood, and they have flourished thanks to its structural inability to deliver positive results. Legalisation of marijuana would have its effects, but DEA agents out walking the picket line, lobbying to re-criminalise the drug, is unlikely to be one of them. Or so one can only hope.
Legalisation, whatever its impact, is coming whether we like it or not.
If the Clinton presidency showed us anything, it is that voters do not really worry much about what Americans put in their mouths.
Robert Sabbag is an American author and journalist. His books include “Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade”, “Smokescreen: A True Adventure”, “Too Tough to Die” and “Down Around Midnight”.