Marijuana’s legal, but still stigmatized

While marijuana enjoys new respectability, some are still pushing for a stigma on the plant.

While marijuana enjoys new respectability, some are still pushing for a stigma on the plant.

During alcohol prohibition, U.S. citizens had exactly the access to alcohol that pot smokers have to marijuana today in Nevada. They could drink at home.

Nevadans can now smoke marijuana—but only at home, or on private property with the owner’s permission.

Why can’t they smoke it anywhere tobacco smokers can? After all, tobacco is dangerous—people die from it. No one has ever died from marijuana. Why the stigma?

There’s a smoke shop within two blocks of Greenbrae Elementary School—but marijuana dispensaries must keep their distance from schools. Is this a message to children that the more lethal drug—tobacco—is acceptable?

The fact is that politicians are still tiptoeing around marijuana for fear of the political consequences. The effects of 80 years of government falsehoods about the plant cannot be dispelled by a few public votes. There are still a lot of people who believe those lies that kept the war on pot going. Officials may want the revenue—boy, do they want the revenue—but they still fear the consequences of being seen as too cozy with pot.

When the legislature’s head lawyer opined that local governments have the authority to license marijuana lounges, no one at the local level rushed to take advantage of it.

The Clark County Commission decided to wait and watch what happens in Denver on lounges before doing anything. Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani—normally a supporter of legal marijuana—conceded that she is nervous about the sword of Damocles the federal government holds over the states, keeping marijuana technically illegal under federal statutes. She doesn’t want to poke or prod federal officials. “I don’t want to invite the feds in any more than we need to,” she said.

And Gov. Brian Sandoval called the little-used Gaming Policy Commission to meet and decide what are the implications of legal gambling and legal marijuana in the same jurisdiction. He wants a look at rules on corporate gambling being financed by marijuana executives or firms or casinos investing in marijuana operations. He’s acting as skittish as college athletic associations used to act about having casinos donate money to universities with teams.

Sandoval also asked Attorney General Adam Laxalt—who, like Sandoval, opposed last year’s legal marijuana ballot measure—to offer a more authoritative opinion on whether local governments can allow marijuana lounges.

Some of the cautiousness around marijuana is laudable.

“In California, they have home grows that can donate to dispensaries in a donation program without any lab testing or third-party verification,” Sierra Cannabis Coalition owner Will Adler said at a marijuana forum in Carson City this month. “In Nevada, every step of the process is going to be regulated.” No one who recalls the Drug Enforcement Administration’s program to poison marijuana crops with the lung-toxic and Parkinson’s-generating herbicide paraquat wants tainted marijuana on the market.

But there are still those who would use any rationale to characterize marijuana as dangerous or use the mythology about the plant to slow its marketing.

Prohibitionist attorney Jim Hartman recently wrote, “In states outside of Nevada that ’legalized’ marijuana, local communities have been cautious or resisted marijuana commerce. While Colorado voters ’legalized’ marijuana statewide, the vast majority (73 percent) of the state’s cities and counties banned commercial recreational marijuana in their jurisdictions. Similarly, Oregon ’legalized’ marijuana statewide, but 89 cities and counties have banned all commercial marijuana activity. In Massachusetts, the 91 communities in the state that voted against legalization have been given authority by the state legislature to prohibit commercialization.”

Repeal and replace

Those “vast majority” percentages are the percents of the state’s communities, not the percentage of the state’s population. Moreover, the end result was not to reduce access to marijuana but just to make it more difficult for the elderly and disabled to obtain. What happened, according to John Aguilar of the Denver Post, is that some nearby communities became pot sources for those that banned it. For instance, Garden City, Colorado is mostly surrounded by Greeley and Evans.

“Garden City, which weighs in at less than one square mile, has four recreational pot businesses,” Aguilar writes. “On the other side of 25th Street lurks Greeley, with more than 96,000 residents. It has none. … Jerry Garner, Greeley’s chief of police, likens the situation in his city to what existed with liquor half a century ago, when Greeley established itself as a ’dry’ town and Garden City became the destination for those seeking a stiff drink. ’I see a parallel there,’ he said.”

Some communities like Marin County, California, and Vail, Colorado, have reputations either as tourist towns or free-living areas. So those local governments opted out of legal marijuana or restricted it for public relations reasons. But they are still places where marijuana is freely consumed. Marin allowed four dispensaries in unincorporated areas. Vail gets its pot from dispensaries in unincorporated sections of Eagle County.

Greeley’s Chief Garner feared marijuana sales would bring crime, but Aguilar reports “pot shops as a target for thieves and burglars hasn’t proved to be the problem many feared, according to several law enforcement officials interviewed for this story. Even Garner said he hasn’t seen any evidence that Garden City’s pot shops are nudging up Greeley’s crime stats. Inside Garden City’s tightly drawn borders, police aren’t any busier than they were before pot sales began in 2014, according to Weld County sheriff’s Cpl. Matthew Turner, whose agency provides the city with police services.”

What the local bans mainly do is maintain the stigma around marijuana. However, given the lure of the forbidden, that stigma may very well be aiding sales where the plant is legal and sold.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has introduced legislation to get the federal government out of the marijuana business altogether. It would repeal federal anti-marijuana laws and replace federal regulation with state regulation. While Booker’s measure is DOA in this Congress, if the Democrats score in the 2018 elections, his measure will be ready.