Out of the Cannabis Closet, With a Bag Over Your Head


Andrew Sullivan has touched off a flurry of messages from unrepentant pot smokers (along with a few regretful ones) by posting this comment from one of his readers:

We need credible people to stand up and say "I contribute to society, I work hard, I love my family, and I smoke pot. This is the only way I break the law. The law is wrong." And we need a lot of them. There are a lot of people that could make this argument. Unfortunately, society being what it is, a lot of people, myself included, are (excuse the metaphor) in the closet.

This is a major theme of my book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, which concludes (rather hopefully) that "once the silent majority of illegal drug users begins to speak out, the stereotypes that drive the war on drugs will be impossible to sustain." Here's one of the stereotype-busting messages Sullivan has posted:

I'm 41 years old and a contract manager with a government agency. Treasurer for the PTA.  Father of two active boys. The funny thing is, I am only in the closet professionally and where the parenting thing makes it an issue. Most of my friends, who are also professionals, are in the same position as me. We work hard, handle our business, and see no logical reason why this particular drug should be not just illegal, but as heavily stigmatized as it currently is.

 Here's another:

I'm a middle-aged woman, college educated and married over 20 years to a public servant (who doesn't indulge) and we have two teenage kids. I volunteer for a host of community organizations, attend lots of local youth athletic events, and by all accounts I'm an engaged community member.

By day I run a local non-profit, but on the occasional Friday night after a long and tiresome work week, and only when the kids aren't home, I go in the bathroom, open the window a crack, and mom lights up a little pink, sparkly pipe and smokes the ganj, falling into the most blissful, relaxed state ever.

Notably, all the pot smokers talking about coming out of the cannabis closet (like almost all the drug users I interviewed for my book) chose to remain anonymous. It's a decision I certainly understand; although I have little to lose professionally or personally by talking about my own illegal drug use (the cat was pretty much out of the bag when I wrote Saying Yes), I still get nervous when someone asks me about it publicly (especially on national TV). At the same time, the fact that so few people openly talk about their marijuana use means that they seem freakier than they otherwise would. Aside from professional drug policy reformers and a few other brave souls, the pot smokers who come to the public's attention tend to do be conspicuous precisely because their marijuana use has caused problems. Either they get arrested, or their pot smoking is so excessive that it visibly disrupts their lives in other ways. Neither sort of pot smoker is a very good model of responsible, life-enhancing drug use.

Because of this self-perpetuating dynamic, I worry that another Sullivan reader may be right:

I fear it's a losing battle. Millions of responsible adults (parents and professionals) smoke, but we can't admit it even to one another. We play the game of telling our kids that "drugs are bad," meanwhile we've got a stash out in the garage that we move around to a different hiding place every week or so.

And Obama plays the same game. "Weed is bad. I did it before, but I was young and stupid and without direction. Now I'm smart and enlightened and have realized the error of my ways." Far as we know, he's down in the White House basement at night, getting high with Reggie Love and playing video games. White House cocktail parties; no problem. Just don't say you like to get high. On this issue, unfortunately, Obama shows no spine.

The situation is especially bizarre given that smoking marijuana is normal for Americans born after World War II: According to the government's survey data, most of us have tried it at least once. Perhaps the crucial dividing line is not between Americans who have smoked pot and Americans who haven't but between those who gave it up after college, or after having kids, and those who continue to indulge from time to time. Yet in a 2000 poll by Rasmussen Research that I cite in my book, 56 percent of respondents said that, morally speaking, smoking marijuana is no worse than having a drink. If anything, opinions regarding marijuana have become more favorable since then.  

Sullivan has other reader responses here, here, and here. Last year I suggested what Obama should have learned from his youthful drug use.