Got pot?

The RN&R takes a skeptical look at both sides of Question 9

Photo By Deidre Pike

The woman—we’ll call her June—hands me her pot pipe, and I’m impressed. This pipe has had so much marijuana smoked in it that the resin has impregnated the pipe’s very metal. Instead of shiny silver, the surface is a burnished gold.

Other than the color, the pipe’s fairly nondescript—about four inches long, small bowl, a screw-on receptacle in the middle of the stem in which a small amount of weed can be placed to serve as a filter and a supercharger.

I can see a charcoaled bud on the top, but the pipe is unlit.

We sit in a living room, joined by two other people. It’s quite warm, womblike; there are American Indian blankets on just about every chair. The TV in the corner is turned on but soundless; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation plays on Channel 2, violent crime images flickering surrealistically against a ‘70s décor backdrop with a fiberoptic lamp, crystals and feel-good artwork. A fountain burbles in the background.

The room, as my college dorm resident assistant would have said, reeks.

In practically one breath, the woman first tells me how she came down with pneumonia, and the doctor told her to quit smoking. She had to admit to her doctor that, while she’d try to quit smoking tobacco, she smoked something else that she wasn’t so sure she could give up.

“I said, ‘It’s confession time. I smoke pot, and I don’t know how I could function without it.’ … The doctor said, ‘I’m not going to say a word about the pot. Just don’t smoke any more cigarettes. I don’t care what you do with the pot.’ “

While this sounds like addiction to me, June then makes an assertion that really perks up my ears.

“I can put it down anytime,” she says. At age 51, she’s been smoking it for 30-odd years, since she came down with Crohn’s disease, a disorder of the bowels, when she was pregnant. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t keep anything inside long enough to digest it. She couldn’t sleep. She was prescribed an opium drug, but it didn’t work, and it made her unable to work. Her friend suggested marijuana; she put down the harsher prescription and picked up her pipe.

She’s not registered with the Department of Agriculture as a medicinal marijuana user. What’s the point? Marijuana is still against federal law, and all signing up for it does is tell the cops where you live.

“Medical marijuana [registration] isn’t safe,” she says. “It’s not real. The FBI could still come in and bust you. And here’s some guy who can’t eat because of radiation or chemo treatments or something, and he needs his marijuana, but the government just wiped him out. They said it was legal and medical, but it doesn’t make any difference, it’s still illegal. If they want to bust you, you will be busted.”

Of course, a card that prevents arrest would come in handy, but as long as she keeps her stash in the house, she feels safe.

She says that Question 9, a constitutional amendment to legalize three ounces of marijuana, is just what the doctor ordered. Nevada voters will get to choose on Nov. 5. Of course, if it passes on Election Day, it would require another vote in 2004, so don’t start ransacking the attic for that old Apogee bong just yet.

June believes it’s time to end the prohibition on marijuana. She isn’t quite sure what got it prohibited in the first place—maybe the government wasn’t making enough money from it—but she thinks it’s time that people recognize pot as the relatively non-menacing boon to mankind that it is.

“How many people have you ever heard of who smoke pot at home, go out and get a gun and go shoot somebody or rape somebody or go kidnap somebody?” she asks. “The worst thing they do is raid the icebox, fight over the remote and laugh at stupid things."There’s a lot of opinion in this story. That’s one purpose of a first-person narrative, the writer stands in for the reader and offers honest, subjective observations, hopefully to better get at the truth of something and to offer an eyewitness account. This is a story about the legalization of marijuana in Nevada, and as such it’s a story about public policy. But stories about public policy are generally boring, and there’s no way that a story about pot should make the reader’s eyes glaze over.

There are many characters in this drama. Taking the lead on one side of the conflict is law enforcement, led by Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick and assisted by such supporting actors as Deputy District Attorney Tom Gregory. On the other side is Billy Rogers, the spokesman for Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement, the group that spearheaded efforts to get Question 9 on the ballot. In the middle are the extras, the 150,000 Nevadans like June who say they smoke pot—if you believe Rogers’ numbers.

The problem is that the issue is so emotionally charged that I can’t swallow anyone’s numbers. I don’t really believe anybody. Everyone involved in this conflict has agenda layered on agenda layered on agenda. They’re skewing the statistics and the anecdotal evidence in order to support their own cases and undercut opponents'. Nobody lies, exactly, but nobody is telling the whole truth either.

Some numbers are indisputable. NRLE collected 109,048 signatures to put pot legalization on the ballot. Think about that. There are only 828,319 registered voters in the state today, though voter registration increases as elections approach. That means about one registered voter in seven signed the petition. Let’s throw another number into the pile, the 236,117 voters who turned out for the primary election.

Those 109,000 signatures represent a huge support base for a vote on marijuana. If it’s true that everyone who signed the petition wanted marijuana legalized for everyone 21 and over, it’s actually possible that people will be legally sparking up as soon as Jan. 1, 2005.

Photo By Deidre Pike

I was one of the 74,740 legitimate voters who signed the petition. The problem is, when I was approached outside of Kmart to sign the petition, I was told that the petition was to make it easier for people who needed medical pot to get it. I was misled; the signature gatherer told me only part of the truth. He didn’t lie, but I signed under false pretenses just the same. Get it?

At a recent staff meeting here at the paper, of the four people who’d been approached by people collecting signatures, all had been told the same thing. None had been told the whole truth. Yes, the text of the measure was on the ballot sheet. No, I didn’t check to see if the signature gatherer was lying. My bad.

As Rogers of the NRLE pointed out to me, anybody who wanted to have his signature removed could—all he’d have to do is call the Secretary of State’s Office and become the one person out of 109,048 who wanted his signature removed. Of course, his privacy would be a thing of the past, but that would be a tiny bit of collateral damage in this drug war.

Now here’s the fundamental conflict for me. I don’t smoke pot—haven’t for years—but I don’t think marijuana should be illegal for adults. But do I think marijuana’s status should change, when I (and others) were duped in order to get it on the ballot?Here’s the question that Nevadans will be voting on, so there’s no confusion about the issue (for full text, see the sidebar):

“Shall the Nevada Constitution be amended to allow the use and possession of three ounces or less of marijuana by persons aged 21 years or older, to require the Legislature to provide or maintain penalties for using, distributing, selling or possessing marijuana under certain circumstances, and to provide a system of regulation for the cultivation, taxation, sale and distribution of marijuana?”

Don’t let anyone bullshit you. Most recreational users don’t buy three ounces of marijuana, for a couple of reasons: It costs too much, and three ounces is far more than they need. The NRLE says three ounces of marijuana is equal to four packs of cigarettes. OK, 20 cigarettes to a pack would be 80 cigarettes. Joints are generally smaller than cigarettes, so I can accept the assertion made by the DA’s Office that three ounces of pot is 80-100 joints.

A joint of average weed would get four people buzzed. For high-quality sinsemilla, a joint will get six people stoned to the gills. But let’s go in the middle and say a joint will get five people high. Using averages, three ounces of pot is enough to get 450 people stoned. (Or more likely, enough to get a couple of people high several times per week for a long time. Whoever put out a joint just because they were already baked?)

Let’s talk prices now. These numbers came from Frontline, PBS’s public affairs series. Frontline says that during the first six months of 1996, commercial-grade marijuana ranged from $200 to $4,000 a pound, though it typically sold for $800 a pound. The price of sinsemilla ranged from $700 to $8,000 per pound, though the sale price typically did not fall below $1,300 per pound.

Just like buying tuna fish at Albertson’s, the cost per unit decreases as the amount purchased gets larger. Marijuana has a four-for-three rule of thumb; in other words, you buy three ounces, you get four. If someone is selling pot in order to get a personal stash, he or she can sell three ounces and keep the fourth.

But the bottom line is that, in the 21st century, many recreational users buy their pot by the eighth of the ounce. One user, whose marijuana comes from Humboldt County in California, says his “basic bud,” not ditch weed but not sinse, costs between $50 and $75. June, our local toker, says she gets hers for about $60 an eighth.

If that sounds preposterous, put down your pipe and pick up your calculator. Here’s a fun one. How much pot would it take to supply 150,000 pot smokers with three ounces of pot? About 28,000 pounds sounds about right. Now, for homework, figure out how much 14 tons works out to in real dollars.

Every single pot smoker I talked to for this story had the same inclination I did. The initiative’s amount of “three ounces or less” is intended to protect the friendly neighborhood dealers, those guys who buy an ounce, sell it in eighths and keep the profits for a personal stash.

Fine. Why doesn’t somebody just say so?I’ve talked to several law enforcement officers about this topic, most notably Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick and Deputy District Attorney Tom Gregory. There is a subtle but understandable underpinning to their arguments. Pot has been illegal for as long as they’ve been enforcing the law. That means it’s bad. It’s not going to become good just because it’s not illegal anymore. It’s the exact mirror to the argument on the bumper stickers you see hereabouts, “When guns are illegal, only criminals will have guns.” But nobody says that.

What they do say is pot should remain illegal for, essentially, seven reasons:

1. No one, not the American Medical Association or the courts, has scientifically proven pot has medicinal benefits.

2. Marijuana’s addictive.

3. It’s a gateway drug.

4. Marijuana use and possession would still be illegal on the federal level.

5. Three ounces is not a small amount of marijuana.

6. People aren’t being arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana anyway.

Photo By Deidre Pike

7. It would still cost law enforcement a lot of money for prosecution of such things as driving under the influence, public use, selling or giving to children and others.

“I’m not a doctor, and I’m not an expert, but we have experts that we can rely on who say that marijuana is a dangerous drug,” Gregory says. “I’d point specifically to the American Medical Association, which says it is a highly addictive drug and a dangerous drug. I’d also look to our state Board of Pharmacy, which sets the schedules for drugs. They have found that marijuana to be a Schedule 1 drug, which is the most serious.”

Gregory tells me that there was a recent survey of drug court offenders. The survey said a couple of things. First, 84 percent of the people who wind up in drug court started their illicit drug use with marijuana—it’s the gateway drug of choice. Of those, 85 percent experimented with marijuana when they were 18 and younger.

What bothered me about this assertion was my own experience. I know that far more people start their drug use with alcohol. In fact, I’d be willing to be bet that most had been drinking alcohol when they first tried marijuana. Gregory acknowledges my suspicion.

“The way the question was framed, they did not ask about alcohol,” he says. “The question was, ‘What was the first controlled substance that you experimented with?’ Actually, alcohol could be considered that, but my guess is that most people didn’t think of it. In all fairness, this statistic doesn’t include that.”

Gregory promises to fax over the results of the survey, but despite several calls, it never arrives.

Alcohol, to belabor the obvious, is a controlled substance, particularly for people 18 and younger. Again, it’s a question of public perception. Alcohol, since it’s legal for adults, is good. Marijuana, since it’s illegal, is bad.

Gregory also makes the point that few people are busted for having small amounts of marijuana in their homes, the very law that Question 9 seeks to change.

“Another big myth that [supporters of Question 9] put forward is that law enforcement is spending all of their time dealing with people who possess small amounts of marijuana in their home. That simply is not true.”

A person has to be arrested and prosecuted for a felony drug offense to get into drug court. Possession of a small amount of marijuana is not a felony offense in Nevada, and hasn’t been for a while. So the question becomes, if the DA’s Office isn’t enforcing and prosecuting the use of small amounts of marijuana in the home—and none of the main objections are enough to get the law enforced—why should it be illegal?

It shouldn’t, says Rogers of the NRLE.

“The Washoe County District Attorney’s Office has more myths than Greek mythology,” he says. “All this initiative does is protect responsible adults who possess small amounts of marijuana in the privacy of their own homes or under the care of a doctor.”

Rogers says that the DA’s Office is lying when it says that small amounts of marijuana aren’t prosecuted.

“What I can tell you is, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, 3,742 people in Nevada were arrested for simple possession of marijuana in the year 2000,” he says. “That’s a fact. That’s for possession of marijuana.”

The implication is that those 3,742 people weren’t busted for dealing, driving under the influence or other pot-related crimes. The problem is that possession of marijuana became a misdemeanor crime in Nevada in October 2001, so the numbers are misleading; all those people were arrested before the new law went into affect.

Finally, though, Rogers makes a point that seems to be irrefutable.

“There are 214 people in the medical-marijuana program right now,” he says. “You can’t go to the pharmacy to get your marijuana. If you are suffering from cancer, and you are going through chemotherapy, do you know what the state law says you have to do to get your medicine? You have to go into the criminal marketplace, you have to endanger your life, and you’ve got to go to a drug dealer.”

That’s a disgrace. A Nevada Department of Agriculture representative verified the truth of Rogers’ assertion. I simply can’t imagine my dad or grandma ever having to go to Nick Gotspeed to get medicine. This lack of government assistance goes against two votes of the Nevada people. If Nevada government had set up a program for medical-marijuana patients, NRLE never would have gotten a foot in the door here.

And now it’s confession time. Despite talking to many of the players involved, despite looking at more Web sites than I can count, despite the arguments made on either side of the issue, I still don’t know how I’m going to vote on Question 9.

When I regularly smoked pot two decades ago, I quit for a reason: It was making me stupid—affecting my short-term memory, blurring my attention to detail. These days, I certainly don’t want my children around the stuff. Still, I’ve seen far more damage done to friends, family and myself though alcohol and tobacco use. Just because alcohol and tobacco are legal doesn’t make them good. If a cancer patient needs to get high in order to feel better, he or she should be able to—Nevada voters say so.

I’ve got other fears. I’m afraid of what will happen if the state government is put in charge of providing “a system of regulation for the cultivation, taxation, sale and distribution of marijuana.” If there’s a weak point in the proposed constitutional amendment, it’s this. I also imagine that pot smokers will move to the state in droves if pot becomes legal. Pot-intoxicated drivers will undoubtedly increase. My children will come into contact with more children who have “responsible” parents (who possess small amounts of marijuana in the privacy of their own homes) and who have more access to dope. I don’t know. I look for answers, but I can’t see through the smoke of rhetoric.

I just wish someone would tell me the whole truth.