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But it's also a source of carcinogens. According to the federal National Institutes of Health, "Marijuana smoke contains some of the same, and sometimes even more, of the cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke. Studies show that someone who smokes five joints per day may be taking in as many cancer-causing chemicals as someone who smokes a full pack of cigarettes every day." (On the other hand, someone smoking five joints a day probably has bigger problems than the risk of cancer.)
The multimillion-dollar pot lobby has used the drug's analgesic properties to press a more challenging agenda: to remove the barriers to recreational use, either through outright legalization or, at minimum, decriminalization, which, in most cases, means that being caught with less than an ounce is only a legal infraction comparable to a parking ticket.
On maps where activists track their progress nationally, they can already block out ten states — among them, California, Colorado, Massachusetts and New York — where the first offense involving simple possession no longer carries jail time.
Texas isn't one of them.
There was a brief burst of optimism in 2007 when a law was passed allowing Texas police to issue tickets in lieu of arrests for possession of four ounces of marijuana or less. That law remains on the books. According to Houston-based reform activist Dean Becker, outside of Dallas and Travis counties, the cuffs have been clicking at their usual clip.
"There are only one or two district attorneys in the state that take advantage of that," Becker says. "The rest of them think: 'We can't not arrest these people. What if they go on a murderous rampage? We'll be held responsible.'"
Becker, a reporter and host for Pacifica radio and the Drug Truth Network, calls Houston "the leader of the jihad against drug users," citing, among other issues, its disproportionate arrest numbers. But he says there is a very small spark of hope. New Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, for instance, has embraced the ticketing rule on the smallest possible scale. As of January 1, prosecutors will no longer be able to file felony charges for drug possession of less than a hundredth of a gram.
"That shows the willingness to at least examine the hypocrisy of drug prohibition," he says.
For about a year, Becker visited Houston city council meetings once a month to spend three minutes filling Mayor Bill White in on the evils of marijuana prohibition.
"The best I ever got out of him was, 'Thank you, Mr. Becker,'" Becker says. "They just don't want to talk about it. They still don't want to talk about it."
Becker says incoming mayor Annise Parker could be better. So does Steve Nolin, a past president of the Houston NORML chapter who produces Houston MediaSource show Drugs, Crime and Politics. He reached out to Parker and the other candidates during the recent campaign and asked for their positions.
"None of them returned my inquiries," he said. Contacted by the Press, a Parker spokeswoman said the new mayor had no comment for this article.
Nationally, the image makeover is but one of the important factors now propelling the movement. Another: the violence and obscene profits of the drug cartels. Those problems have given rise to the Al Capone argument, that if you make it legal, criminal dealers can't command exorbitant sums from customers desperate for a high — cash that would later be spent on bribes, machine guns and smuggling. Licensed, fully vetted growers, operating just down the street, would render the bloody drug kingpin as irrelevant as the Chicago bootlegger.
In the words of Mirken, "You don't need Al Capone to ship alcohol when you have Anheuser-Busch."
As with things in the United States, a good idea can become a great one if it involves making money — and doubly so if it generates new forms of tax revenue. Thus at a time of housing foreclosures and bank failures, when California's state government faces a whopping $21 billion projected budget deficit and the city of Los Angeles is sinking under $983 million in red ink, licensing and taxing marijuana suddenly make sense even to some who might have abhorred the idea.
Lawful growers and retailers could cough up, say, $50 an ounce in taxes or fees and still charge less to consumers than the $150-an-ounce prices common on the black market. Governments would rake it in — and also save a fantastic amount on arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning pot offenders.
Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron, author of the 2004 book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, makes a case that legalizing all banned drugs would benefit taxpayers nationwide by $77 billion a year, in both generating new tax income and eliminating the costs of arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning offenders. Since marijuana represents about a third of the illicit drug economy, legalizing pot would make a difference of roughly $25 billion, he says.
Miron's estimate is generally in line with figures compiled by pot-advocacy organizations, although getting firm numbers is notoriously difficult given the vastly different ways in which law-enforcement agencies catalog arrests and report marijuana data.