When does it happen?
That was the questions posed to Dr. Norman Zinberg by observers of a groundbreaking research study about cannabis use he conducted at Harvard University with Dr. Andrew Weil. Zinberg and Weil were observing people under the influence of marijuana, something at the time (decades ago) that had never been done before in a scientific setting.
Zinberg invited a few guests interested in the study to observe his research subjects while they used marijuana. That’s when the question came up. When does it happen? “When does what happen?” Zinberg replied. When do they go berserk?
Zinberg told this story often over the years to make a point about public perceptions about marijuana use, a point about how much the public misunderstood the drug and its effects. Some of the crazy scenes in the old propaganda movie Reefer Madness had a persistent influence on public opinion about marijuana. That movie, and the anti-marijuana propaganda campaigns that followed it for decades, gave people the idea that marijuana turns people into maniacs.
This odd little notion remains popular today in many subtle and no-so-subtle forms. For example, there are many people who don’t use marijuana, don’t know people who use marijuana, but have come around to supporting marijuana’s legalization because, as it is often explained, they “don’t really care what people do in the privacy of their own home.”
That seems fair. But there is a subtext that remains unspoken, which is that people who use cannabis ought to do so at home, which is okay, but they better not leave home, because we don’t want these maniacs out in public where they might threaten public safety.
This issue comes to mind with respect to a new ballot initiative approved for placement before the voters of Denver, which seeks to approve the use of marijuana in clubs, specifically authorizing indoor and outdoor consumption areas. The issue here is that while marijuana is legal now in Colorado, it’s really only legal to use marijuana at home.
It is specifically illegal to use marijuana in public, and use is also banned in most hotels. So, for example, the state is making money off of marijuana tourism, as people come visit the state in order to buy marijuana legally. However, most of these tourists have no place to use marijuana legally, and as noted, they can’t do so in most of the hotels in which they stay. The good citizens of Denver will sort his out, and this initiative will be closely watched as a case study in how legal marijuana regulations evolve over time, as communities get more familiar with legal marijuana use.
However, this issue highlights an overall challenge facing marijuana legalization advocates—getting the public to understand that marijuana users don’t go berserk.
That may be overstating the problem. But a great deal of discussion about marijuana legalization is based on the assumption that it is a dangerous drug, or a drug with very serious, even melodramatic effects, that has to be carefully and meticulously controlled.
Imagine the worst examples of alcohol consumption—people who are drunk, belligerent and/or driving while impaired. What if all social policy about alcohol was based on this image of people who drink beer, wine and/or liquor? It could result in very little toleration of legal use, in which people were limited to purchasing small quantities exclusively for home consumption. In other words, if alcohol policy was based on the most obvious cases of alcohol misuse and abuse, it would look a lot like contemporary cannabis policy under the limited legalization regimens in place now.
Don’t misunderstand, the current forms of legalization being tried out in the states and Washington, D.C. are great steps forward and a vast improvement over prohibition. They are, however, the beginning of the process of crafting laws to regulate marijuana not the end. But that doesn’t mean that the flaws in these regulatory programs should be overlooked.
In fact, it means just the opposite. The flaws need to be identified and addressed—exactly what the Denver social use ballot measure accomplishes.
The larger question of what the public knows, or thinks they know, about marijuana use remains important and vital to future marijuana laws. Ultimately, the public will learn that marijuana use is, in some respects, like alcohol use. Most people use cannabis in moderation and are both responsible and civil with respect to their conduct, in private and public settings.
So, to return to the original question: when does it happen?
Not “when do marijuana users go berserk… ?” because, obviously, that’s a ridiculous notion, long disproven by both research and conduct.
“When does it happen?” has a new meaning. When will marijuana laws make sense, based on a realistic appraisal of marijuana and its use? When can people use marijuana in public social environments, for example, just the way the moderate consumption of alcohol is allowed today.
Answering that question remains a work in progress. Thanks to the citizens of Denver, though, it’s happening.
Last week’s Pot Matters: Finally, People Are Choosing Sides