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Some of the biggest concerns about Initiative 502 are coming from drug policy activists and participants in the medical marijuana industry, who are concerned about (among other things) the proposition’s provisions regarding driving under the influence of marijuana. Embedded in some of those complaints are the tensions and growing pains of a subculture going mainstream and a black market becoming legit.
Paranoia and Political Babble
It wouldn’t be a mass gathering of stoners without some paranoia and political babble scattered amid the celebrations. One of our first conversations backstage was with a man who, after learning that reason has been fighting against the drug war for more than four decades, averred that prohibition was “the least of our problems” and proceeded to inform us how various gas and oil pipeline experiments in Alaska were threatening to cause a cataclysmic event in October along the New Madrid fault line in the middle of the country, potentially submerging tens of millions of people under God knows what. After that deliberate act of ultra-violence, there might not be any country left to save. “It will be even worse than the spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. And yes, that “accident” was part of a much bigger plan.
By and large, the politics of Hempfest speakers was much less nuts, although not much more inspired. The common perception was that when it comes to pot and drugs more generally, Republicans are pure evil and Democrats are reformers. At times, there seemed to be a general ignorance of just who is currently serving as the top law enforcement official in the country, as when one speaker warned that if you thought George W. Bush was bad, “just wait till you get a load of President Rick Perry.” Strangely, the speaker ignored Barack Obama, whose administration has overseen more-frequent raids on medical marijuana dispensaries than Bush’s. The bustling commerce on display at the hundreds of stalls came larded with generous helpings of anti-corporate animus, including a “Just Say No to Imports” sign atop a booth selling “Northwest Glass.” There was much more love in evidence for Dennis Kucinich than for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), co-sponsor of a bill that would lift the federal ban on marijuana. Kucinich himself bookended his inspiring rap about becoming visible with angry non sequiturs about campaign finance reform. There is plenty of libertarianism within drug policy circles, but it is far from a libertarian movement.
But at its core, Hempfest is not about enacting policy reform or even changing the political process. Rather, its meaning and power are as a proof of concept. Here is what an America filled with open rather than closeted pot smokers might look like: a peaceful commons in which people get along despite disagreeing on all sorts of topics, a world in which folks look out for each other even as they have a good time. Hempfest and related festivals are stirring reminders that millions of Americans smoke pot and manage just fine. Judging from the government’s own survey data (which are based on self-reports and therefore probably understate the prevalence of drug use), more than half of adult Americans born after World War II have tried pot. The government estimates about 23 million people use it monthly, willing to live illegally rather than obey unjust laws. By becoming increasingly visible and outspoken, marijuana activists have pushed repeal much further than the most baked reformer would have thought possible in 1991. And they’ve done so largely by avoiding politicians and the two-party system, taking their message directly to voters. Along the way, they have provided a blueprint for any bloc of citizens who understand, at some deep and personal level, that the two major parties in this country are worse than useless when it comes to many essential questions of freedom.
Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch are co-authors of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (Public Affairs).