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October 1, 2007 - Harvard Crimson (MA Edu)

OpEd: The Stoner's Dilemma

By Garrett G.D. Nelson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Paint out an exaggerated caricature of the Left and you are likely to find among "Bible-burning," "latte-drinking," and "tax-raising" the common epithet "pot-smoking." A well-stuffed joint is, apparently, a familiar staple in the progressive's quiver alongside a Che shirt and a burning American flag. Unfortunately, marijuana as political issue goes better to the tune of "Puttin' on the Ritz" than "The Internationale," for drug consumption, even if it frees minds, shackles the lower class into economic bondsmanship.

It is disingenuous and regressive to attack the "degenerate habit" of marijuana from a cultural stand, as conservatives frequently do. It is hard to argue that the puffs of pot that waft out of college dormitories are inculcating slothfulness or Marxism among developing generations. It is even harder to attack pot from a cultural standpoint when it is hardly the exclusive domain of young people; when presidential candidates can openly admit their use of the drug without consequence, it is clear enough that the mainstreaming of pot is complete.

While the aesthetic horror of a lazy smoking hippie may still be an effective bogeyman for the farthest-right conservatives, most Americans correctly realize that marijuana is a fairly innocent drug.

What most of them don't realize, though, is how utterly irresponsible pot is when viewed from a broader social perspective. We live in an age where the Left has wisely and effectively turned their efforts toward influencing society through the marketplace. There are few consumer goods left which do not have some sort of socially-responsible alternatives.

Bananas are sold with the promise that their pickers were paid and housed decently, automobiles are sold with the promise that they will sip gingerly on gas, retailers market their community activism, and even mutual funds tout their responsible investments. Our accouterments are now accountable from the point where they were dug out of the earth to the point that they arrive at our table.

Yet most of the same people who insist that their apples are local, their bankers tolerant, their handbags messianic, and their maids affluent seem perfectly comfortable propping up the demand side of a trade which forces thousands of Americans into a life at the margins of society. Between all of their insistences that pot doesn't hurt people, they seem to have forgotten that the stuff has to come from somewhere. And this is quite a large omission to make.

The legal differential between consumers and suppliers of marijuana is enormous. Middle- and upper-class users of pot face essentially no consequences for their actions. Law enforcement across the country generally looks in the other direction when teenagers listening to the Flaming Lips (or their parents listening to Big Brother & The Holding Company) toke up in the evenings.

When they do run into trouble, legal help is easy and effective. Nobody worries too much about serving hard time for smoking pot at home, and even hard-nosed stalwarts of the law have given up on prosecuting every offense of petty possession. At Harvard, certainly, we're more likely to get into trouble for covering up our fire extinguisher to keep it from squawking at the smoke than we are from smoking the pot itself.

For growers and distributors, though, the situation is different entirely. They form the linemen of a vast American underclass of crime and poverty. Their entire lives are, by and large, extralegal. They do not donate to politicians and they do not vote. Their trade demands that they shed their citizenry, that they give up the privileges and protections of society for them and their families. The law does not demur to strip away their freedom, and they fill up the ranks of inmates in wild overproportion -- over 55 percent of the federal prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses.

And this legal differential mirrors a class differential. Most drug dealers are not recent economics graduates, and most freshly-minted MBAs do not consider a career in dealing alongside their offers from McKinsey & Co. and Goldman Sachs. They are made up mostly of desperately poor people -- people for whom the inflated demand of pot represents a rare economic opportunity in a world where jobs are scarce and education scarcer.

Yet we continue to smoke our pot, liberally, as it were, missing among its innocent curls of smoke the sinister economic system that it sets up. One cannot sneer at the social irresponsibility of a Hummer driver and then return home to relax over a joint whose procurement demanded the subjection of an impoverished underclass on the fringes of society.

This is, of course, not an argument against the legalization of marijuana. Perhaps there is a legitimate argument to be made that all of these problems could be easily dissolved by legal sanction for the drug trade. But until that point comes, we light up with the legal system we have, not the legal system we wish we had, and we cannot merely pretend that our actions have no consequences.

So perhaps a measure of consumer responsibility ought to make its way over to the liberal-minded drug users of our country. And perhaps we should insert into our caricature of the pot smoker the fat cigar of the plutocrat.

Garrett G. D. Nelson '09 is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House.

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