Jewish World Review April 19, 2002 /8 Iyar 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

It's high time to open up pot-law debate | My thanks go out to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for clearing away some of the smoke surrounding the marijuana debate.

It was not his idea. He was involuntarily drawn into it by a $500,000 print, broadcast and bus ad campaign by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Foundation.

As part of NORML's campaign against the city's policy of arresting and jailing public pot smokers, the ads feature a blown-up photo of Bloomberg next to a quote he gave last summer as a mayoral candidate.

A New York magazine writer asked whether Bloomberg had ever smoked pot and he responded cheerfully, "You bet I did. And I liked it."

NORML's ad praises Bloomberg's candor. "At last, an honest politician," it says.

With that, Bloomberg joins such other political notables as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich and Bill Bradley who have admitted to partaking of the demon weed in their youth. Some others, like President Bush, have simply refused to answer questions about such possible youthful indiscretions.

Bloomberg did not back away from his now-famous pot quote, although he told reporters that he wishes he had not answered it in a way that has come back to bite him.

He says he's not going to sue over the use of his likeness. ("Number one, I don't know that it would help," he says. "And number two, I think my ego probably would keep me from doing that.")

But he's not going to change the city's pot policy, either. Some 52,000 people were arrested and jailed for smoking marijuana in public last year, up from 720 in 1992.

Yes, a lot of seemingly knowledgeable folks will tell you, "Oh, nobody gets busted for pot anymore." But, quite a few people do.

Nationwide, the number of arrests and incarcerations has climbed from the hippie 1960s right through the eras of President Ronald Reagan who advised "Just Say No" and President Bill Clinton who "didn't inhale."

In 1970, when the marijuana legalization issue was just taking hold, there were 188,903 arrests, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports. In 2000, the number climbed to a record 734,498, of which 88 percent were for simple possession, not sale or manufacture.

More than 59,000 inmates are in federal, state or local prison for marijuana offenses, including more than 15,000 for possession, not trafficking, according to Marijuana Policy Project estimates based on Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.

So, while late-night comedians have a high time at Bloomberg's expense, among those who are not laughing so hard are the thousands who have been busted for doing what the mayor and numerous other prominent oldsters can shrug off as a youthful indiscretion.

That's why I thank Mayor Bloomberg for exposing, if involuntarily, how our national hypocrisy over marijuana works. The same lawmakers who treat their own pot smoking lightly often turn amazingly self-righteous about enforcing pot laws on everyone else.

Even more sinister is the unequal way the laws are enforced. When the children of the big shots have a drug problem, there's a good chance that they will be sent to a clinic where their problem can be properly treated as the health problem that it is. When the children of the less fortunate have a drug problem, there's a better chance that they will be sent to jail.

I'm not ready to join NORML in calling for elimination of laws regarding public marijuana smoking. There are many places where it simply does not belong any more than public drinking or public smoking of tobacco does. But I am hardly alone among Americans who would like to see the debate opened up so that marijuana might be regulated like other legal drugs are.

Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have enacted laws legalizing possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes. But the Clinton and Bush administrations have overruled them. Voters in the District of Columbia overwhelmingly passed a similar local measure, which was overruled by Congress, where the District's "delegate" does not have a floor vote.

Polls indicate that most Americans (73 percent in a 1999 Gallup Poll) favor legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. But Washington's political leaders insist that their consciences should be our guides. I wonder what they've been smoking.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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