Potheads, Puritans, and Pragmatists

Two marijuana initiatives put drug warriors on the defensive.


Nevada is known for gambling, 24-hour liquor sales, and legal prostitution. Yet the main group opposing Question 7, an initiative on the state's ballot next month that would allow the sale and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 or older, is called the Committee to Keep Nevada Respectable.

In Colorado, opponents of Amendment 44, which would eliminate penalties for adults possessing an ounce or less of marijuana, are equally certain of their own rectitude. "Those who want to legalize drugs weaken our collective struggle against this scourge," declares the Colorado Drug Investigators Association. "Like a cancer, proponents for legalization eat away at society's resolve and moral fiber."

To sum up, smoking pot is less respectable than a drunken gambling spree followed by a visit to a hooker, while people who think adults shouldn't be punished for their choice of recreational intoxicants are like a tumor that will kill you unless it's eradicated. In the face of such self-righteous posturing, the marijuana initiatives' backers have refused to cede the moral high ground, a strategy from which other activists can learn.

The Nevada campaign, which calls itself the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana, emphasizes the advantages of removing marijuana from the black market, where regulation and control are impossible, and allowing adults to obtain the drug from licensed, accountable merchants. To signal that a legal market does not mean anything goes, the initiative increases penalties for injuring people while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The "regulate and control" message has attracted public support from more than 30 Nevada religious leaders. The list includes not just the usual suspects–Unitarian Universalist ministers and Reform rabbis–but also representatives of more conservative groups, such as Lutherans and Southern Baptists.

"I don't think using marijuana is a wise choice for anyone," says the Rev. William C. Webb, senior pastor of Reno's Second Baptist Church. "Drugs ruin enough lives. But we don't need our laws ruining more lives. If there has to be a market for marijuana, I'd rather it be regulated with sensible safeguards than run by violent gangs and dangerous drug dealers."

Troy Dayton of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative, who was largely responsible for persuading Webb and the other religious leaders to back Question 7, notes that support from members of the clergy, which was important in repealing alcohol prohibition, "forces a reframing of the issue." It's no longer a contest between potheads and puritans.

The Colorado campaign, which goes by the name SAFER (Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation), emphasizes that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and asks, "Should adults be punished for making the rational choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol?" This approach puts prohibitionists on the defensive by asking them to justify the disparate legal treatment of the two drugs.

So far they have not been up to the task. Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger has implicitly conceded marijuana itself is not so bad by implausibly linking it to methamphetamine. In a televised debate with SAFER's Mason Tvert, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers insisted "the only acceptable alternative to intoxication is sobriety."

That's fine for those who avoid all psychoactive substances as a matter of principle. But since most people—including Suthers, who acknowledges drinking—like using chemicals to alter their moods and minds, it's reasonable to ask for some consistency in the law's treatment of those chemicals, especially at a time when police are arresting a record number of Americans (nearly 787,000 last year) for marijuana offenses.

Despite a hard push by federal, state, and local drug warriors who have been telling voters in Nevada and Colorado that failing to punish adults for smoking pot will "send the wrong message" to children, the latest polls indicate most are unpersuaded. Perhaps they worry about the message sent by the current policy of mindless intolerance.