Bill White puts his finger on an important question in the midst of our marijuana policy changes.
The issue of concern is not simply the legal availability of drugs, but the larger visibility and status of these drugs within American communal life. A problem with the legalization of any drug in a free-market economy is that those who profit from the growth, manufacture, sale, and use of the drug invest enormous resources in expanding the pool of people who use their product, expanding when and where the drug may be purchased and used, influencing norms on socially approved frequency and quantity of use, creating more biologically rewarding forms of the drug, and introducing novel and more efficient methods of drug administration. The history of American alcohol and tobacco products and their advertising and related promotional strategies offer vivid examples of these processes. Similarly, effective public health strategies aimed at the containment of drug problems seek to affect these same dimensions in opposite directions, e.g., reducing global consumption, reducing drug access to vulnerable populations, limiting dose exposure per use event and cumulative lifetime exposure, limiting the public space where use can occur, and restraining promotional forces.
This gets at one of the sticking points in my mind, I’ve never supported people going to jail for possession of any drug in quantities consistent with personal use, but I’m also concerned about a culture that celebrates marijuana the way we celebrate alcohol. Think about it, almost every event I go to, there’s an expectation that alcohol will be served–weddings and parties of all kinds. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a baptism party, a birthday party for a 1 year old, a graduation party for a 17 year old (who we don’t want to drink), a baby shower, sports events, youth league banquets, etc.
Where alcohol is concerned, we also know that things like alcohol outlet density and exposure to advertising influence consumption.
Do we want to yield that amount of cultural space to marijuana? If not, how do we manage that?
Along these lines, two writers have been rolling around in my mind.
First, Bill’s own social designations of drugs–celebrated, tolerated, instrumental and prohibited. To me, marijuana seems to have been straddling prohibited and tolerated, and seems to be moving in the direction of celebrated. (Though, somehow, managing to live in all 4 designations.) The question on my mind is, how, culturally, do we keep it in the category of tolerated?
The second writer is Andrew Sullivan and his advancing the idea of a “cannabis closet“. His status as a gay man and gay rights advocate who has written about the corrosive effects of the closet on gay people, gives the idea a little extra power. This seems to me like and idea that is too easy to dismiss and too easy to overstate. I’d want to prevent marijuana from holding celebrated status without stigmatizing users. One big battlefront in this will be workplace drug testing policies.
If it seems like this post has no point, it’s probably because I have more questions than answers at this point.
I’d love to see a bloggingheads episode with Bill White and Mark Kleiman on this topic.