It’s that time of the year: Four weeks until finals, the weather remains dismal and students just need a break. When tomorrow comes, more than a couple dozen students will lick their rolling papers and light their pipes to enjoy what SpongeBob calls the “Best Day Ever.” The annual tradition of consuming marijuana on April 20 is nothing new, especially to college students. But in recent years, the social climate 4/20 has improved dramatically.
During the last election, Washington and Colorado passed laws by popular vote legalizing the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. The wording in Colorado’s Amendment 64 – “regulate marijuana like alcohol” – allows people over 21 to carry up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants. Meanwhile, Massachusetts voters agreed to join the company of 18 other states that allow the distribution of marijuana for medical use.
All of this happened through the democratic process of the majority, however, is simultaneously illegal at the federal government perspective. As a result Americans no longer need to wonder if we have a drug problem. It’s been clear for a while from caffeine in our coffee or ritalin in our meds that mind altering chemicals are regular enhancements to daily life. Instead we should ask the question: Why do we have a drug problem?
Four decades ago, under the reign of president Nixon, cannabis became classified as a Schedule I drug, the same classification of heroin and cocaine. At the same time, the Drug Enforcement Administration DEA emerged to exterminate marijuana with extreme criminal punishments, something that continues into today.
Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a report revealing that half of the 1.5 million drug arrests made in 2011 were marijuana related, most being for possession. Only a handful of states have decriminalized weed. Minnesota law decrees that possession is not a criminal offense. If you are caught with under 1.5 ounces of weed, you’ll receive a maximum fine of $200. In Iowa, any amount will get you jail time in addition to a $1,000 reprimand. Clearly, not enough has been done for the marijuana movement.
Similar to the effect of temperance ralliers on prohibition, the DEA only contributes to an underground pot culture. Places abroad like Amsterdam and Vancouver became cannabis capitals, and like any enterprise, they started improving their product. Through seed selection and crossbreeding, growers developed hundreds of flavors and strains of cannabis. They also started looking for THC potency, the main chemical that gets people high. Before the 1980s, according to the DEA, pot had THC levels of only 5 percent, compared to present day levels averaging 15-20 percent.
Along with the growth in varieties of weed came the expansion of marijuana consumers. One of the largest problems the marijuana movement needed to overcome was its association with criminals and burnouts. First infiltrating itself through exploits of slapstick comedians and the essence of rap culture, emphasis on deviant pop icons overshadowed the actual plant.
Thankfully, in the 21st century, marijuana finally resonates with a mainstream audience. This is mostly due to the success of medical marijuana, a striking phenomenon that replaced the face of weed smokers. We went from envisioning 50 Cent to empathizing with our grandma sick with cancer.
Diminishing the stoner stereotype, weed smokers are ready leave the crutch of medical benefits to push for full recreational freedom. It’s something that needed to happen from the beginning. No matter the amount of sympathy for patients undergoing disease and cancer therapy, the hard facts on the advantages of medical marijuana still remained elusive.
In her book, “Truth, Lies, and Public Health,” Madelon Lubin Finkel notes that studies show the benefits of marijuana often use a small sample size or inconsistent control groups. Also, even after half a century since the discovery of THC as the main component in marijuana, it’s still not completely understood how THC interacts with the brain.
Due to all the testimonies of marijuana acting as a pain reliever, marijuana still needs to be treated like a drug. But why is it still classified with the likes of heroin instead of tobacco?
Consider that 45 million Americans smoke tobacco cigarettes, a highly addictive habit which, according to the Center for Disease Control, causes almost half a million deaths each year. Most studies concur that dependence on pot after repeated use is rare. It has also been found that marijuana tar has less tumor-promoting activity than tobacco.
The most recent National Survey of Drug Use and Health reported over 18 million Americans had used marijuana within the month of taking the survey. Concurrently, a Gallup poll showed 1 out of 3 Americans over 65 are in support of legalizing marijuana.
Legalizing marijuana will not make much of an impact in everyday life for most people. Just like tobacco, it can be controlled: banned from restaurants and within twenty feet of a business office door. But it could add a way to relieve daily stress or enjoy the hedonic aspects of life in a safer form than cigarettes and alcohol. It’s time to set aside old stereotypes and beliefs and give freedom back to the deciding people.
Even if we don’t find a solution, pot culture will continue to expand into the mainstream. And whether or not the federal government decides to act, 4/20 will remain a pungent tradition for years to come.