A counter-proposal to ban patchouli

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, April 6, 2009 15:08 EDT
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One of the biggest obstacles to massive decriminalization and perhaps even legalization of marijuana has been the loudest advocates of this policy. There was a surge in pro-legalization organizing and sentiment a few years ago in Austin, and the only result I’ve seen is that the cops came down like a sack of hammers on pot smoking, which used to be tolerated to a much larger extent than it is now. Seriously, when I first lived in Austin, someone who wanted to sit on her front porch smoking a joint rarely had to worry about any harassment, so long as she reasonably quiet about it. I don’t know the last time I saw someone publicly smoking a joint outside of the context of a really crowded rock show, and even then it’s a much smaller amount of people—I used to be surprised if I didn’t smell pot at a show, now I’m mildly surprised if I do. Of course, with the overall decline in popularity of smoking, pot may be losing out, too, but I’d honestly be surprised since the percentage of pot smokers who smoke tobacco is probably about the same as the general population.

Before I digress further, I’ll say that I remember that back in the more liberal days the pro-legalization people were everywhere, and they had the deadly mix of hippieness and more than a whiff of crankery that made even people who agreed with their general points run in the other direction when you saw them descending on you with their pamphlets about how hemp can cure cancer, their tie dyed Bob Marley shirts, and their dopey smiles. If that’s the face of your movement, no wonder they’re doomed to fail. I wanted pot to stay illegal just to annoy them. But don’t take my word for it—Obama hid behind this living stereotype in order to dismiss the people going on and on about it. Will Wilkinson describes what happened.

“The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.” President Obama said it with a chuckle last week at a town hall-style forum. The idea was for Obama to answer some questions about the economy submitted to the White House website. The most popular ones all had something to do with the virtues of legalizing and taxing marijuana. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama joshed, and the good Americans assembled at the forum shared a little laugh.

The worst part is he’s probably not far off. The pot question has created this black hole of effective advocacy, because we all know what sorts of people obsessively pepper presidential townhalls with those kinds of questions, and you’re ashamed for them that they think that their obsession with pop is a more legitimate concern than the other pressing issues, like the economy, the war, etc. You can just picture them, blunt in one hand, pizza in the other, drifting between watching the Cartoon Network and writing the same question over and over into the townhall site.

It’s too bad, because they’re right. And as long as we believe that being a stoner precludes being a serious person, and as long as we assume all pro-legalization/decriminalization people are stoners, we won’t get anywhere on this very serious question. Unfortunately, I can’t out myself as a stoner like Will, because I’m not. My attitudes towards pot vary between dislike and active loathing—the last time I even touched the stuff, I spent an hour wishing repeatedly that I could just have my brain back sans fog. Like Ezra, I used to be a big fan, and then suddenly one day it quit being fun, so I quit. This isn’t an unusual trajectory, which strikes me as all the more reason that pot should be legal, because people actually put it down when they’re done with it, unlike so many other substances. For this reason, I actually rank pot differently on the danger scale than Matt does—it’s probably less dangerous than cigarettes, beer, and M&Ms, because of how M&Ms and all sweets are linked to the high rates of Type 2 diabetes in this country. People who smoke pot in their leisure time and avoid driving cars stones are pretty much the definition of harmless. Truth is, I’ve known people who were, without pot smoking, really mean assholes and so perhaps it’s a good thing they self-medicated that part of their personalities into submission.

I’m linking these guys (and Joe Klein!) because they’re reacting to Obama’s dismissal by coming out of the cannabis closet. It’s really the only way, because these guys are not your stereotype of stoners. (Then again, Ezra and Matt, like myself, aren’t big on pot, so it takes some of the punch out.) I’ll add that they are working the same privilege that I noticed in the “yea hemp!” hippies all those years ago—being a bunch of middle class white guys, they largely feel shielded from the dangers of outing yourself in this way. But it’s a good example of how privileged people can use that privilege for social good—Will Wilkinson especially makes a note out of how the War On Drugs is basically just a fancy excuse to make life harder for people of color and perpetuate poverty. Reminding people that pot smoking is a cross-racial, cross-class activity can heighten the perception of the injustice of the War On Drugs.

I think it’s useful for those of us who don’t smoke pot to speak out, too. The War On Drugs is perpetuated by the belief that people only have two opinions of a behavior: for it, or think you should be thrown in jail for it. (The same kind of thinking motivates the anti-choice movement, who seems to think that disapproving of female sexuality means that you have to pull out all stops to punish it.) I’m not big on pot smoking, and while I like a lot of stoners I know, I’m obviously impatient with the huge hippies who can’t or won’t put pot smoking into perspective. But by god, it should be decriminalized and possibly even legalized. If dirty hippieness is that big a public menace, then they should ban patchouli and not marijuana. First of all, it would be more effective as a way to improve the air quality and comfort levels of those of us who share the city streets with hippies. But mostly, it’s because a ban on patchouli wouldn’t become an excuse to put a bunch of people away in jail for being the wrong race, and I doubt a deadly cartel war that threatens the very stability of the Mexican government would erupt over the sale of patchouli.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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