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4/20: On National Weed Day, Has Legalized Pot's Time Come?

5 years ago
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It's April 20, a day millions of your neighbors, friends and co-workers have been looking forward to for the past year. Why? Because April 20 is 4/20 and 4/20 is 4:20 and 4:20 is counterculture slang for the time of the day when pot smokers worldwide are supposed to toke up and ease themselves into whatever their particular evenings are destined to hold. Some attribute the code's origin to Bob Dylan; some to a group of high school students in California in 1971. Either way, 4:20 has morphed into urban, suburban and rural legend. Don't believe me? Just ask your teenager.

If you didn't previously know about the significance of 4:20 -- and I hadn't, either, until I was 41 years old -- you are among a dwindling number of (relatively) older Americans who are just now realizing that the end may be near for the much-whined-about era of criminalized marijuana possession and use. You may rejoice at this news. You may detest it. But you can't deny the day grows nigh, mortality rates and demographics being what they are. 4:20 is already out of the closet. Sooner rather than later, it's going to be a part of "Happy Hour" at the bar down the street.

State medical marijuana laws -- 14 and growing at latest count -- look like they are here to stay, especially now that the Justice Department has wisely stopped its efforts to enforce federal marijuana statutes that conflicted with looser state laws. It's hard to imagine the next Justice Department rescinding that policy without a major court battle. And it's hard to see even this Supreme Court declaring unlawful a state's ballot-approved marijuana policy. The Justices had their chance last year and refused. Meanwhile, California plans to put to a statewide vote the question of whether the state "legalizes, controls, and taxes" marijuana. (And Humboldt County is apparently disappointed to lose its unique status in the annals of marijuana lore.)

Other signs of the changing mores about pot are more economic than legal or political. Conservative politicians are beginning to shed their long-trumpeted moral views on the topic of marijuana by embracing its enormous economic potential. Never mind just medical marijuana, some of these folks now are expressing their appreciation for what the legalization (and taxation) of marijuana would mean to desperately poor California, or any other state now burdened with disastrous budget deficits. They now can envision the lawful jobs such an industry would generate. They see all the bed spaces they could save in state prisons.

"The Establishment" itself -- Milton Friedman, for goodness sakes! -- has deigned to make the economic case for the legalization of marijuana, and the Freakonomics folks have churned through it as well. Against this bellowing chorus, few seem able any longer to justify the continued disparate treatment between the two most popular recreational drugs. Our children see every day the consumption of alcohol glorified on television commercials, but the dad next door loses visitation rights to his children because he smokes medical marijuana? Why beer and not pot, kids are beginning to ask. And more and more of their parents just don't have a good answer. Where exactly is the battle line to be drawn in the war on drugs? And how much more do we have to spend on this part of it?

You know a genie can no longer be put back into a bottle when a controversial moral issue turns into a vibrant commercial venture. I realized that the days of illegal marijuana are nearing their end when I began to be annoyed by the waves of "4:20" commercials that were airing, one after another it seemed, on my radio station in advance of today's big day. In Colorado and in many other states where medical marijuana is legal, pot-related commercials are as ubiquitous and as obnoxiously funny as anything ever conceived by used car dealers and sent forth onto the air.

"Get glass with class," goes the jingle, evidently referring to the mode by which amenable listeners might want to consider ingesting their medical marijuana. And to whom are these advertisements directed? Easy. To the millions of American moms and dads who reportedly smoke marijuana. They can nowadays be directed in their cars via radio to their local dispensary, or accoutrement shop, just like they can be routed to a local restaurant or shopping mall. No more loitering toward the back end of the alternative weekly. Marijuana and Madison Avenue are just beginning what reckons to be a beautiful friendship.

Will we see a retreat back into the shadows for all the jobs, advertisements and money ginned up by the medical marijuana industry? Or a rapidly growing ascent back to taxability and perhaps even social legitimacy in the eyes of America's mainstreamers? Of course it's the latter, because there is a ton of money to be made in legalized pot. Financial America knows it; get your farm stocks now! Young America knows it. (What are you doing today at 4:20 p.m.?) Advertising America is drooling at the opportunity to market where no marketers have gone before.

Judicial America is evidently quite indifferent to it. Law and Order America is against it, but candid prosecutors and police will tell you they don't like to waste resources on simple pot possession or use charges. And now Legislative America sees all that taxable revenue just waiting to leave the pockets of otherwise law-abiding consumer-citizens. Blue Collar America seems pretty OK with it, too, according to the polls. So do the soccer moms. Does Religious America thus stand alone? We'll know more about that by next April 20.

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