In the 10 years I’ve been working in marijuana law reform, there is one other movement that has also made incredible advances in just a decade – the fight for marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
When I first started in 2005, medical marijuana was legal in only 10 states and the Gallup poll showed national support for marijuana legalization at just 36 percent. The year prior, George W. Bush won re-election partially thanks to eleven successful anti-gay marriage initiatives on state ballots that drove social conservatives to the polls.
It wasn’t a very good time to be a gay pot smoker, I suppose.
Now marriage equality is the law of the land, even if a few judges in Alabama are reluctant to admit it. Now marijuana legalization exists in four states and there are at least twice that many ready to legalize in the next couple of elections.
To me, both issues are incredibly similar. Both deal with the rights we possess as citizens and human beings. Nobody has the right to tell you what to do with your body, be it acts of love or acts of consumption. Both the LGBT person and the cannabis consumer know what it is like to have to hide who you are from your employer.
Yes, there are critical differences. Pot smokers are not generally under the threat of random violence from those who hate them. Gay people are not generally under the threat of being jailed for who they are. Pot smokers make a choice to be pot smokers. Gay people are inherently gay. Pot smokers can quit being pot smokers to avoid detection. Gay people can’t be outed through a urine test. The point isn’t to measure who’s had the worst oppression; rather, to identify areas where our similar experiences of oppression has lessons for us to learn.
One area in which we’re still repressed is in public accommodation. Oregon’s legalization forbids the use of marijuana in a “public place,” which is defined as “a place to which the general public has access and includes, but is not limited to, hallways, lobbies, and other parts of apartment houses and hotels not constituting rooms or apartments designed for actual residence, and highways, streets, schools, places of amusement, parks, playgrounds and premises used in connection with public passenger transportation,” as well as “any establishment with a state liquor license… including patios or decks set aside for smokers.” Washington State just passed a bill that makes felonies any sort of cannabis club, liquor license or not, employees or not, smoked or not. Colorado clamped down on any sort of public pot bar, though activists in Denver are working an initiative to legalize them. Alaska’s cannabis board is already looking to shut down the few cannabis clubs that have sprung up that allow no liquor and are run by volunteers.
Imagine if the Supreme Court, in handing down their recent ruling legalizing gay marriage, had said that it was OK for two men or two women to marry, but they are forbidden from displaying affection for one another in any public place, as defined above.
It’s not a perfect analogy – you’re not going to inhale any “secondhand gay” if two dudes are kissing in a public place. But the basic idea is, “yeah, sure, you potheads are legal now, just so long as we don’t have to acknowledge your existence.” In other words, you’re legal, so long as you stay in the green closet.
We’re not looking for the right to puff away at the kids’ playground or near someone’s table in the restaurant. But it seems to me that marijuana is somewhat like alcohol – it alters your mood and perception – and marijuana is somewhat like cigars – it produces a smelly smoke that offends some people. So if there is a place where I’m legally allowed to drink scotch and smoke a Cuban, isn’t that a place set up to accommodate all smelly, mood-altered people?
I can even understand, somewhat, the reticence to mix alcohol and marijuana in a public setting, since the combination of the two leads to far greater odds-risk of motor vehicle crashes. But not allowing even a marijuana-only lounge for tokers to assemble peaceably seems to me a violation of our First Amendment rights. Science proves marijuana-only drivers are far less risk than alcohol drivers. So long as alcohol bars have parking lots, there’s no logical reason to ban marijuana bars.