As pro-marijuana forces deployed their sidewalk soldiers to gather signatures to put pot legalization on the District’s November ballot, Aaron McCormick, a 47-year-old city native and father of three, watched with growing alarm.
Somebody must stop this scourge, he decided. But how?
McCormick says he knew of no group fighting the initiative, heard no opposition to it in his church and got no traction for his anti-weed views on his vibrant Twitter account, @blackmanhelping, where he opines on local affairs. McCormick, a construction project manager, considered challenging the ballot initiative himself, but he ultimately realized the futility of fighting an army of marijuana advocates.
Such is the lonely lot of today’s pot opponent. Parents like McCormick, once heroes of the just-say-no 1980s, find themselves outgunned: The anti-marijuana movement has little funding or staff, little momentum and, it appears, little audience.
Decriminalization went into effect last week in the District, setting a $25 penalty for possession of up to an ounce of weed. Earlier in July, pro-marijuana activists scored another victory, submitting 57,000 voter signatures, more than double the number required, to bring the ballot measure, which could add the District to the vanguard of legalization along with Colorado and Washington state.
“I hope and pray that Congress will step in and shut it all down,” McCormick said, noting federal lawmakers’ penchant for trying to block marijuana initiatives in the District. “To me, we just came out of the crack epidemic and are still seeing its effects. Now we want to allow people to smoke marijuana 24-7?”
It would seem so. More than half of Americans support legalization, various polls show. The Pew Research Center has found that 48 percent have tried pot. Seventeen states plus the District have eliminated jail time for possession, and medical marijuana is now okay in nearly half of the United States (23 states plus the District).
“Interestingly, whenever we have a debate on TV, we hear the producer asking, ‘Who can we get to debate against marijuana?’ ” says Tony Newman, spokesman for the reformist Drug Policy Alliance.
The cable-show bookers’ “con” choices are indeed scant.
“It’s unbelievable what’s happened,” says Robert DuPont, a psychiatrist who was the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the 1970s. “You can’t find anybody to speak on the other side. . . . The leaders in both parties have completely abandoned the issue.”
DuPont, an addiction specialist, could hold his own in any debate about drugs. He and other experts point to research showing that 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted, a figure that rises to 16 percent when use begins in teen years. In various studies, weed also is linked to lower academic performance and mental illness and other health problems.
The marijuana normalization movement bats back such findings by citing the devastating results of alcohol and tobacco dependency and abuse, for example, and the palliative effects of marijuana as medicine. And they say the disproportionately higher rate of minorities’ arrests and incarceration for pot-related offenses have caused greater social harm — which became a major selling point for decriminalization in the District.
Backed by deep-pocketed funders, the legalizers deploy lobbyists, spokesmen and researchers from well-staffed organizations like the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, Americans for Safe Access and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). They even have their own business alliance: the National Cannabis Industry Association.
“These guys are in a full-court press coming at you from every angle,” says DuPont, 78, who runs the small, Rockville-based Institute for Behavior and Health. He sounds exasperated. “They have a bench 1,000 people deep. . . . We’ve got Kevin Sabet.”
Sabet, 35, first testified before the Senate against drug legalization when he was 17 and now runs an anti-pot-legalization group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). Last year he made No. 1 on Rolling Stone’s “Legalization’s Biggest Enemies” list.
“Do we want a stoned America?” asks Sabet, who has served drug czars in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. “Is that where we want to go at a time when America’s place in the world, in terms of academic and economic competitiveness, is greatly threatened? Good luck.”
Based in Cambridge, Mass., Sabet says he commits “100-plus hours a week” to raising the alarm and has help from SAM affiliates in 27 states. People who still see grass as “a harmless giggle in our basement” are ignoring the “Wall Street sharks” hoping to profit from a nationwide cannabis industry as large and powerful as the booze or tobacco businesses, he says. Sabet predicts increases in buzzed driving and health problems.
But such arguments clearly have not stopped the other side’s momentum. “Woeful Kevin” is what Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director, calls Sabet.
“I feel blessed by someone like Kevin,” St. Pierre says. “Since he has come on the scene we have prevailed, prevailed, prevailed. We could use 500 Kevins.”
The reversal of fortunes in the reefer battle is rooted in politics as much as anything. NORML was founded in 1970, when the counterculture ethos was in full flower, so to speak; millions of baby boomers experimented with drugs. The Nixon administration was decidedly anti-hippie, but by the time Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency, “decriminalization looked inevitable,” DuPont recalls.
In 1977, Carter said the punishment for marijuana possession “should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself” — a message still reinforced by legalization advocates today.
But in the mid-1970s, a potent counter-movement was already stirring across the land, a phenomenon tracked by Emily Dufton, who wrote her recent doctoral thesis at George Washington University on the remarkable shifts in American attitudes on marijuana in recent decades.
In the mid-1970s, middle-class parents, alarmed at finding stashes in fake Coke cans and hash pipes under mattresses, started banding together to talk about behavioral changes they saw in their weed-toking kids. In 1977, one Atlanta woman wrote to DuPont, then at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and invited him to meet with her group. At the time, he supported decriminalization, but he came away a staunch prohibitionist, convinced that heroin was not at the center of America’s drug woes — it affected relatively few users — but marijuana, which affected vastly more families.
The parent movement, embraced by the Reagan White House, eventually garnered enough strength to entirely change the debate. In just a few years, they transformed marijuana “from a seemingly benign middle-class drug into the most dangerous drug in the United States,” as Dufton put it.
But in the 1980s came a new scourge, crack cocaine, and marijuana became significantly less frightening to people than crack, she says.
The parents’ campaign did result in a major drop in teenage marijuana use from the 1980s to the dawn of the ’90s, research shows, but the campaign was ultimately doomed.
Professional organizations like the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and D.A.R.E. siphoned funds away from the amateurs. The public grew weary of nonstop, sometimes hyperbolic anti-drug messages. (See: “This is your brain on drugs.”)
Promoting a message of compassion for the sick, medical marijuana advocates led the way in the 1990s to a more accepting public view toward recreational pot. The number of pro-pot groups began to surge.
“It’s our fault,” Sabet admits, but he cites one mitigating factor. “They have money and we don’t.”
Still, other forces explain why reform has caught on now, including supportive baby boomer voters; a lingering recession that dampened government revenue, making the taxation of marijuana tempting; and an overwhelming public view that alcohol prohibition was a “great failed experiment,” St. Pierre says. In addition, the Obama administration decided not to challenge legalization in Washington and Colorado and to allow banks to do business with legal marijuana sellers.
“This is like gay marriage,” St. Pierre argues. “Twenty years ago if you voted for it you were a loser; now 20 years later, if you vote against it you’re a loser.”
In the District, the legalizers are predicting success. Sabet’s group decided against challenging the signatures gathered for the ballot initiative: “We are picking our battles,” he says.
So where does that leave concerned residents like Aaron McCormick, who has 6- and 7-year old daughters and a 14-year-old son?
Even if pot is legal, he has told his teenager, think of career consequences: If you want a good job, you’re still going to have to pass a drug test. In the Navy, where McCormick served six years, regular drug testing was part of the drill.
“I have never smoked it,” he says. “My kids know that Daddy is definitely a hard-nosed person. I don’t give any slack on this marijuana issue. None. Zero.”
So, kids, some advice: You’d better just say no.