Going to pot
Conflicting U.S. marijuana laws a simmering volcano
February 26, 2008
If Jean Chrétien is still thinking about that post-retirement doobie he famously contemplated during his last days in power, he might want to come down here and smoke it in California.
Or, for that matter, in Nevada. Or Colorado or Mississippi.
If he decides to go for it, the former prime minister's pot experimentation could proceed unmolested in a whole list of American jurisdictions.
In fact, while Washington continues to lecture the rest of the world about recreational drug use — and bares its teeth when countries like Canada even consider relaxing their drug laws — millions of Americans are creating some of the most pot-friendly communities in the world.
"One out of three of us, 100 million people, now live in a state or municipality where marijuana is effectively decriminalized," says Allen St. Pierre, director of NORML, the largest marijuana advocacy group in the U.S. "That's a lot of debauchery. It's also par for the course."
West coast buzz
California's gone further than anyone else.
Here in Los Angeles, pot is a pastime. Californians not only smoke it rather carelessly, they use their cultural bullhorn, Hollywood, to make sure the rest of the world knows they do.
Movies and TV shows generally convey the California view of pot smoking — an enjoyable, hip, group pursuit.
The state's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was actually filmed smoking dope during his muscleman days.
Vince and the young L.A. hedonists on HBO's Entourage are always getting blasted by the pool, or lighting one up after dinner. Even 25 years ago, The Big Chill used marijuana to evoke a sense of nostalgia and rekindled friendship.
If you can get your hands on a prescription, and it's not terribly difficult to do so here, you can join California's 200,000 state-sanctioned users of medical marijuana, and getting high gets even easier. (That's not to say cancer or glaucoma patients don't need it. They clearly do. But everyone knows some of the card-carrying users are just happy, happy stoners.)
There are medical marijuana dispensaries all over the state, offering high-grade pot just dripping with resin for a reasonable price. There are even dispensing machines here. Just let them scan your fingerprint, and swipe your pre-paid card, and a quarter-ounce of weed in a brightly colored envelope rustles down the pipe and into your waiting hand.
In fact, the only objection Californians have to smoking pot is the actual smoking part. West coasters regard smoking anything as not just unhealthy, but disgusting, some sort of anti-progressive habit from the industrial East.
Pass the Volcano
I was invited to a little get-together here this month at a home in one of L.A.'s tonier neighbourhoods, not too far, actually, from the mansion used in The Beverly Hillbillies.
The host cooked up batches of homemade pizza and as I savoured a glass of his Stag's Leap Cellars cabernet, surely one of California's loveliest exports, I noticed something like a stainless-steel blender humming away on his kitchen counter. Sitting limply atop its base, rather than a mixing bowl, was a long cellophane sleeve, perhaps the diameter of a man's leg.
"That's the Volcano," explained my host. "It's an aromatizer. It works on more or less the same principle as aromatherapy, if you're familiar with that. Except it's for marijuana, actually."
The Volcano, I would learn later on the internet, was effectively melting the herb inside its chamber with a jet of superheated air, avoiding combustion, and all the nasty, carcinogenic chemicals involved with actual smoke.
As my host and I watched, the sleeve slowly inflated to full upright position, filled with a mist of tetrahydrocannabinol, marijuana's active ingredient. No one in the room would have ever considered lighting anything up, but everyone seemed to enjoy passing around a mist-filled bag with an inhaler valve on the end. In the pot community, it's known as bag capturing.
"Bag capture delivers about 98 per cent of what the user is seeking," says NORML's St. Pierre. "And two per cent of what none of us wants to put in our bodies. It's by far the least harmful, most healthful way, if you will, of consuming cannabis in a 'smoked' way."
Mapping the change
Washington, especially under the Bush administration, objects to all this casual hedonism, and the feds have been throwing their weight around here lately.
The owners of buildings that house California's medical marijuana dispensaries have begun receiving letters from the federal government informing them they are violating federal law, state law be damned, and that their property might be seized. Federal agents have even raided a few.
So far, the Supreme Court has backed Washington, ruling that the federal government is entitled to enforce its ban on marijuana anywhere in the country. Tellingly, though, the court has not struck down the state's permissive laws.
States here have wide latitude to govern themselves according to the moral views of their respective societies, and, for the past 35 years, voters in state after state have made it clear through ballot initiatives that marijuana doesn't overly offend them.
Marijuana is now effectively decriminalized in 11 states, plus the District of Columbia.
If, for example, a traffic cop in Ohio catches you with less than three ounces of marijuana, he will most likely ticket you with a small fine, and may seize the dope. There's no criminal conviction. The threshold amounts and fines change, but it's more or less the same story in Alaska, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Nebraska, Mississippi, New York, Maine and North Carolina.
Police in some of those states won't even issue the ticket.
And even in states that have not relaxed their laws, municipalities have gone ahead and done it themselves. Places like Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Cambridge, and Columbia, Mo., have either instructed their police departments not to make possession arrests, or made enforcement of marijuana laws their lowest priority.
Canada's home-grown approach
Chrétien could enjoy that retirement joint in any one of these places without fear. At home, though, he'd have to be a lot more careful, despite the enduring American image of Canada as a paradise for left-wing dope-smokers.
Chrétien's late-career efforts to relax Canadian marijuana laws died on the order paper with his government, and Stephen Harper's view on the matter is closer to that of George W. Bush.
Canadian police can and do charge people with simple possession, and conviction can mean a criminal record, which in turn means a lifetime of headaches, including a ban on travel to the United States.
If that sounds ironic, it is.
American conservatives take note: your country has pushed the pro-pot envelope much further than Canada has. Americans grow far more pot than Canadians do. There are no commercial pot dispensaries in Canada. And Volcanoes erupt mostly in California.