Reefer Gladness

dudeBy TIMOTHY EGAN.


It was early still, and daylight, so when I called up The Dude to get his take on new polls showing California on the verge of becoming the first state to legalize, tax and regulate recreational use of marijuana, I knew he wouldn’t be, um, distracted. Not just yet.


“I only smoke a little pot at night — never in the day — and I prefer brownies,” said Jeff Dowd, who is best known as the inspiration for the other Dude, the laconically mystical character played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers movie “The Big Lebowski.” I’ve known The Dude for years, and the Coens got him mostly right, except for the White Russians. Jack Daniels is his drink.


And before Hollywood-area enforcers get any ideas, let’s make it clear that Mr. Dowd has a legal right to his medical marijuana, though he complains about the prices (“more than $300 an ounce!”). If anyone is entitled to some whining about price gouging for prescription weed, it’s The Dude.


But before the Coen brothers applied the Los Angeles slacker-noir treatment to my old friend and made him a cult hero on college campuses, he was a man of often unintelligible but occasionally brilliant political insights.


And on Proposition 19, The Dude speaks truth to power. We talked about the opposition to legalizing pot — the alcohol industry and people currently making the most money off California’s nutty medicinal marijuana retail scheme.


“If you take out the special interests, the entrenched groups, with any of these issues — whether it’s energy, the financial sector, or legalized marijuana — it’s always very clear what the right thing to do is,” said The Dude.


He was echoing, in his way, an old truth of politics: that the best way to judge what’s really at stake in an election is to follow the money. And the source of the funds being used to dissuade Californians from legalizing pot says a lot about the end-stage hypocrisies of the arthritic war on drugs.


As a societal ground-shaker, a voter-imposed act to legalize the most popular illicit drug in the United States — with about 17 million current users — will hardly bring down any of the nation’s foundations. Like most tectonic shifts, Prop 19 is long in coming, and the actual slip of the earth will not be apocalyptic.


Cannabis became illegal in most states not long after alcohol was freed of the folly of Prohibition, the greatest crime-booster of the 20th century. The legalization movement, now 35 years and running, acknowledges the obvious: pot is a mildly mind-altering recreational diversion that is not worthy of having the weight, misery and money of the criminal-judicial-industrial complex against it.


Of course, too many people abuse marijuana. And too many young people escape in a cannabis cloud when they should be studying calculus or kicking a soccer ball. But these cautionary notes also go for sugar, trans fats, television, computer games and a big pair of destructive legal drugs — alcohol and nicotine.


And therein lies the first lesson in this potpourri: The real threat posed by Prop 19 is not from the “message” that society would send by allowing legal pot use. Talk about message: it’s impossible to escape the drugs pushed relentlessly on television — pills to help you sleep or have sex, or drinks to make you sociable. No, the threat is to the established order that controls profitable legal drugs, and to the criminal cartels who benefit from our absurd prohibition of pot.


So, it’s not a bit surprising that one of the biggest contributors to the campaign against legalization is the California Beer and Beverage Distributors. Having branded their products with nearly every major American recreational ritual, Big Alcohol does not want marijuana to get a piece of that large pie of legal money spent to distract ourselves from ourselves.


The other major opponents appear, at first glance, to be somewhat of a surprise. The California Cannabis Association, representing medical marijuana dispensaries, has come out against legalization, claiming it would be “a direct assault on medical marijuana patients.”


Prop 19, in fact, would be a direct assault on the profits made by those dispensaries. A Rand Drug Policy Research Center study this summer found that the price for an ounce of pot could drop 90 percent — before a hefty tax — if it’s legalized in California. This is in part because the law would allow people to grow a small plot of their own weed, further cutting into the cartels — legal and illegal.


And that’s really the crux of the issue. Most of the bad things associated with marijuana come from its criminalization. If legalization curbs the violence — of the Mexican drug lords, of the gangsters who still wage turf wars in parts of California, of the powerful and paranoid growers in the north — it will have done society a big favor.


Politicians have cowered in the wake of Prop 19’s appeal, as have most of California’s newspapers. It would bring chaos, they say, leaving it up to the counties to decide how to tax, sell and regulate. Oh, the chaos! And worse — “it would make California a laughing stock,” in the words of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.


He should know. Schwarzenegger runs a state that is bankrupt, broken and ungovernable. God forbid he should let common sense into California.


© 2010 TIMOTHY EGAN New York Times
Photograph © 2010 Matt Sayles.

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