Fear has this funny way of abstracting itself. Of getting passed down, hand to hand, generation to generation. Whispering mouth to shivering ear. All kinds of forms and all kinds of modes, we’re wrapped up in it, us brave, pant suit-wearing, cellphone-toting animals of our urban boondocks. The scariest thing of all is that we don’t know what we fear. Don’t know anything except how bad it feels. How nasty that stomach-clenching, gut gurgling sensation itself is. That fear-gremlin crouching in the meat of our instincts, clutching a needle of adrenaline ready to mainline its hosts and scream “Flee! Fight! Tell the others!”.
It comes in all varieties. In all stratums of degrees. I don’t know about you (maybe I do), but I like to pretend I know what I want and what I don’t. Make believe that I can differentiate those more animal of my instincts from the angst of modern bias. Yeah, right. I’m a biped with an over-stuffed brain wearing socks inside my sandals and, sure, I eat the weirdest forager’s diet from a well-lit fridge, but I’m kidding no one. I’m a beast who smears deodorant in her underarms, listens to the tribal thumps of progressive rock and smokes weed. These among many, many other, trifling habits that make us all so abnormal on this wild planet.
It’s not really news anymore. No shock, no awe. We’ve put our collective heads down, flipped up our collars and popped umbrellas to the rains of spicy sound bites, dodging the lightning bolts of gossip cum politico blather and life-rattling atmospheric mutations. Run fast; they fall hard. Sure, we talk, and we listen. We discuss it like we still feel things way deep down into the mellowed out pits of our souls. There’s so much though. So much happening. So, let me slip this in here like just another news flash to grind between our unimpressed molars: Congrats, Illinois! Surely, it’s not much of a surprise anymore. States have been knocking themselves slowly over, toppling like pins in the age of Cannabis Bowling. One after the next. Crash! Did you hear it? Come that first day of January in the year 2020, the parka-wearing denizens of Illinois will be shivering in lines, grinning at each other, thumbing out cash and buying state-taxed flower (21+ only, of course. Let’s not lose ourselves here. And it caps out at an ounce of bud and 500 mg of THC concentrate per head). But it’s not really news anymore – calm down. It’s history.
What is lasting is the war on the sidelines. And that’s Reagan’s word, not mine. What lasts is the public perception that isn’t split between one pole and its antipode but is rather a slide rule between the two. What lasts are the men and women passing hours, months, lives circulating the American criminal justice system. Say an eighteen year old kid (Yeah. Kid. What average late teen knows how one moment can snowball into a life of moments? The proverbial hill runs a multitude of ways, but that snowball, once it gets going, is pretty damn hard to stop. Let alone push back up.) in Chicago is picked up for possession. Let’s call him Tim. Tim is a black eighteen year old driving home in 2016. Tim is nearly six times more likely than his white-skinned counterpart (of equal drug-usage) to be incarcerated for a drug related crime. He has a couple ounces of flower in his glove box and just hit the gas through a yellow light, cutting it close, but he’s pretty sure he made it. But then, Tim gets pulled over and searched because – sniff, sniff – that bud is pretty dank. Tim gets arrested for underage possession and spends some time in prison. And then he’s out. He passed his birthday inside, and now he’s nineteen and looking for a job and oh yeah – now he’s got a record. That snowball is rolling. Tim isn’t alone. He’s not news. His name won’t make the pages of history. He’ll be one of the 576,000 people arrested in one year for simple possession.
So, it’s not the in-your-face, denotation blasting type of warfare (though diminished violence is part of this equation: One Washington state study found a post-legalization decrease in crime rates, this including “rape, assault, robbery, burglary and theft.”), but a sneaking, insidious, continuing conflict comprised of social prejudices and low-lying biases that until recently we hadn’t really cared to examine too closely. It’s silly. Ludicrous even. We’re made of them. Made of these decisions wrapped up in fear. I’m full of prejudice. Choking on it.
I grew up in a tiny little town in Maine. Here, the hot-shot lawyer would toke up to bond with his son and on Tuesday nights when the summer crickets were creaking along with the jam-band down by the Kennebec, the smell of weed smoke was just part of the evening ambience. Our parents at neighborhood barbecues – geologists, artists, pediatricians, attorneys – passed around a twisted up joint and relived the pre-diaper days. It was chill. I was lucky. I was so lucky. It’s a four-cop town (two on duty, two asleep). No stop lights, gas stations. Sleepy little place. But still, the first time one of the big kids asked fifth-grade me if I smoked, I asked “what’s weed?”. We were standing in a field at the top of my street, dirty and thorn scratched from playing in the woods. I vaguely remember looking at the milkweed in my hands, white tufted and silky, and wondered if that’s what he meant. A big sixth grader who was slightly more informed than me, whispered something like “just say no, Katie!”. His little-kid voice was full of fear. This stuck with me for a long time, through a chunk of high school, until I smoked with that same one-time scared sixth grader and found out: it’s no biggie. No way am I saying that elementary-aged children should have access to weed. Absolutely, no way. Nor really should middle schoolers or high schoolers. Living twenty-one years before you can waltz into a dispensary and stone yourself into oblivion is a perfectly wonderful law. What I am saying, however, is that that low level fear that you don’t even know about starts young. So young.
Passed down and across and staining the cloth of pure experience, prejudice started with Life. That’s life with a capital L. By the basis of our choices, we live in a reactionary sort of way, bouncing from one ambiguous feeling to the next. Granted, some sentiments are pretty explicit. You ate a rotten coconut once and spent a night barfing into the toilet. Now the even the smell of the raw stuff flips your stomach inside out. Or a leashed up dog bit you when you ran by on a tight trail, just a tad too close. You keep a wary distance now. Leash or no, those things still have teeth. We’re made to learn like this. Moldable lumps of sponge, we soak up knowledge through experience – our own and other’s. Like I said, I was lucky. I got to try out the fun little fringe things here and there as a kid, with the certainty that I wasn’t going to be persecuted and imprisoned and with a team of successful, mostly responsible adults whose lead I could (unconsciously) follow.
But I’m not talking about me. Nope, nor am I really all that concerned with the Jeff Sessions or LePages or the even the Willie Nelsons of the world. Their stances on legalization are pretty obvious. Hell, I’m not even really talking about our fictitious Tim. What interests me are the people not making history. Not really effected one way or another, but still scared. Not quite shivering in your loafers scared, but only experiencing that low-level, here’s-the-fork-in-the-road-of-legalization type of scared. The ones who smoke, who buy, who’ll be standing in those mid-Winter, numb-footed lines come January 1st, 2020, but harbor a mild discomfort about making this a public gesture. Sure, I get it. You don’t want to disrupt the status quo. Can’t give the kids the wrong idea. What’s that? Your boss follows you on social media? Alright. Okay. I get it. But it begins with you. It ends with you.
Stagnancy is the complication. A lack of comprehension. Legalization isn’t about the substance. It’s not about the pretty flower or the golden cartridges. It’s not about the dispensary that opened two blocks down the Ave with the Wax Wednesday special (even though that’s pretty neat). It’s a community issue. It’s about correcting the notion that cannabis use is an Us and Them dichotomy and erasing the antiquated racial implications. The unfavorable connotations of the word marijuana stretch back to the heated debates predating the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 in which the term was used to draw surreptitious parallels between non-native, non-white peoples and drug-usage. Perhaps the crafty, contentious employers of the term found it in Hubert Howe Bancroft’s 1873 publication, The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America, where the first known English usage was documented. We’ve come a long way since then. It is breathtaking. Thumb through a hundred years of our most recent history. What awesome leaps we have taken.
So, sure, that bowling ball is rolling fast, rolling hard and I so hope the momentum is sustainable. I hope that pendulum swings with force and knocks out those cobwebby preconceptions, cleans out the dustier corners of outdated persuasions. I believe it will. In fact, it already is, in a vaguely outrageous but by no means unprecedented fashion. On the tails of legality come drooling the hounds of capitalism. They have sniffed out the bone in the garden bed, and the scent is money. Companies like Canndescent market to the young professional; their advertisements show prosperous, attractive people in leisure wear, relaxing and somehow pulling off that thousand-year look that says: “I am intelligent, wealthy and fashionable… and you can be too.” Have some extra cash? Invest in cannabis-related stocks and expect promising returns. If that doesn’t scream ‘Future’, I’m not quite sure what does. If there is money to be made, you can bet your bottom (or top) dollar the mainstream will follow, and shortly thereafter forget there was anything radical about this at all. You mean this stuff was illegal? They must have been crazy! But my optimism is not spent so wildly in order for you to get your punch card stamped and get that pre-roll half-off. No, nor is it so you can skim a few thousand off the top of your yearly earnings to wager on that new company down in Colombia with exportation permits to Panama and Canada. Okay, don’t get me wrong. It’s a little about that. Relax, people. That stuff will come. That stuff can wait. You know who can’t wait? Tim. That’s who this is about. Letting Tim get a pass at pushing that ball back up the hill. That’s what this is about. The rest are details. Great details, fascinating, fun details. Details that will forge the way for the heart, the meat of the matter, but trivial facts that don’t make or break a person. Don’t lose sight of that.
Have the conversation. Understand the bones of this issue, not just the skin. Realize this is more than a movement of simple recreation. Realize this issue is not about you. Peel back the layers – there’s a lot there. This is a social matter. This is a class matter. Lucky little-kid me? How fortunate the public eye classifies my community’s social status as middle-class, suburban, border-line WASP, even. How perversely odd. How charmed am I that I can put these words together from behind the safety of a screen, struggling to feel the news. Because really, most of the time, it just doesn’t impact me. What an absurd luxury. So, go ahead, try to understand the history of prosecution, prohibition and the prejudices that create the widening aisle between our political parties, our social factions. You’re made of them. I am, too. Start digging. Don’t worry, you won’t have to go that deep. There they are, just below the surface.