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Are Marijuana Laws Changing to Keep Up with Public Opinion?

A Shepherd Q&A with High Times editor David Bienenstock

Dec. 3, 2008
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People have been smoking pot ever since they discovered that sparking one was good clean fun. So why do we need The Official High Times Pot Smoker's Handbook, published just in time for the holidays? Editor David Bienenstock explains that even an experienced stoner could learn a few things-as well as get involved in the larger marijuana movement to make pot smoking legal, especially for those who are chronically ill.

In this Shepherd Q&A, Bienenstock also discusses President-elect Barack Obama's proposed drug policy changes, why Wisconsin should join the 13 states that have legalized medical marijuana, and some of the best things to do when you're stoned.

Shepherd: Why did you decide to write an official High Times pot smoker's handbook? Are you saying that we've been doing it wrong all of these years?

Bienenstock: The best answer I can give you is that Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar, a student at Oxford University, and he didn't even know he should inhale. So I think even the most well-seasoned smoker could stand to learn something new.

Shepherd: The war on drugs wasn't discussed much during this presidential campaign. But will Obama's drug policy differ from Bush's?

Bienenstock: Yes. Short answer, yes. Whether or not it's going to be "change you can breathe in" is yet to be determined. But we've gone from one of the worst administrations on everything you can imagine, including drug policy, to at least a chance to go in a new direction. I can't say what Obama is going to do. But what he's promised to do already in the short term is to have the federal government get off the backs of the states that have approved medical marijuana. And that in and of itself would be a huge change in our policy.

Shepherd: You're referring to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said that the federal government has a right to prohibit state-level medical marijuana programs because they interfere with interstate commerce. But that decision doesn't make any sense to me. Does it make sense to you?

Bienenstock: It made sense to me in that you have a Supreme Court that decided what they wanted their decision to be and then they tortured logic until they found a way to get there. The court admitted that this woman [Angel Raich] was chronically ill. They admitted that marijuana may help her. And they decided that one woman growing a plant on her own property and consuming it herself constitutes interstate traffic and that the federal government has jurisdiction.

The government's justification for that is to say that if she hadn't grown it herself in her own back yard, she might have decided to buy some marijuana on the open market. And even if she bought it in California from someone who grew it in California, there's a national market in it, and therefore that's going to reduce the overall market-you can see where this is going. It makes no sense. They're saying, "Even though we don't want this market to exist, we're going to regulate it."

It's just an excuse for the federal government to thwart the will of the people of California. That should end on Jan. 20. Obama has been unequivocal in saying that. He's said that many times and he hasn't gone back on that promise. It's something that will be easier for him to do. It's easier to create inaction than to really roll up your sleeves and fundamentally change the system. But it'll be a huge start.

Shepherd: That was a Supreme Court decision, so doesn't the president have to abide by it?

Bienenstock: He is appointing the attorney general, who is the top law enforcement agent in the United States. It is about priorities. Now, 13 states have medical marijuana laws, with Michigan being the most recent. But Obama is not allowing California to be a lawless state. He's saying the federal government is going to respect a state's laws. This is a states' rights issue. This is where you see the hypocrisy of-I don't want to say just Republicans, because there's enough hypocrisy to go around when it comes to our pot laws-but to have a party that wants to talk about states' rights and the freedom of individuals as their core beliefs and then to say that we want the big bad federal government to bust a chronically ill woman because she grew a plant on her property, it's frankly bullshit.

Obama doesn't need a new law to do this. He needs to give the federal government a new set of priorities. One of those priorities is to respect California law. That doesn't mean that the DEA wouldn't get involved if you were growing non-medical marijuana and thousands of pounds of it. It just means that if it's OK with California, then the federal government is not going to get involved. That's something you can do without a new law and going to Congress. You just give your attorney general new priorities and new instructions.

Shepherd: You just mentioned Michigan, where voters approved a medical marijuana program on Nov. 4. How were they able to pass it?

Bienenstock: Through the ballot initiative process, which is the same way that Prop 215 passed in California [in 1996]. There have been other states where the state legislature has taken up this issue. This is an issue where the government has not been enacting the will of the people, which is why this initiative process has been created in states. This passed with 63% of the vote in Michigan. Obviously if something is that popular, then the question is, "Why isn't the state legislature taking up this measure?" And that's where you see people saying that this is what they want and then putting it on the ballot. There was plenty of spirited opposition. But in the end, people know what they want. And people in America recognize that medical marijuana really does help people and they're willing to push their government in the right direction, which is a great sign.

Shepherd: Wisconsin legislators have introduced medical marijuana bills in the past, but they've always been blocked by Republican legislators. Now Democrats control the Legislature. What can you say to these Democrats to get them to act?

Bienenstock: The best thing I could say to them is that I can understand why state legislators would be hesitant to get involved in this because we had a federal government that said we don't care what law you make, we're going to come in to bust anybody at any time because we don't recognize medical marijuana. Your law doesn't mean shit. So it's difficult for a legislature to take up this issue and say we're going to make a law anyway. And it's a testament to how strongly people feel about this that it's happening anyway. But now that you have a federal government that is going to respect your laws I think that should give a lot of momentum to these states. I think it's going to get a lot easier to work across the aisle with people, when you can say that whatever we come up with, that's going to be the law of the land.

Shepherd: Popular opinion definitely favors approving medical marijuana. In Wisconsin, reliable polling shows that as many as 80% of people in Wisconsin want a program.

Bienenstock: Let's be honest about this. The opponents of medical marijuana are scared to give any ground on this issue because it's propping up a larger war on drugs that is the elephant in the room. The war on drugs is a tremendous failure. It's a tremendous waste of resources. And it has unintended consequences that are worse than the problem it's meant to address. [Opponents of medical marijuana are] less concerned with whether chronically ill people are getting their medicine than they are with continuing to prop up this huge war of drugs.

Shepherd: What has been the impact of the war on drugs on people who smoke pot?

Bienenstock: It's been incredibly punitive. You have students who can't get financial aid because they have one small marijuana possession arrest on their record, yet people who are murderers are still eligible. You have also taken a huge percentage of the American public who are good people and contribute to society and have made them live in fear. It's difficult for them to form a community. You have children afraid of their parents and parents who are afraid of their children.

And I think in a larger sense you have to look into the economics of it. If you add up what we spend on enforcement and then what the government would take in under a reasonable tax and regulation system, it comes out to about $15 billion a year. That was always ridiculous, but to use our resources so foolishly now, it makes no sense. To be fighting two wars and have a crashing economy, with people out of work and losing their jobs and homes and 401(k)s, for the government to come to them and say we need $7 billion to hassle people who enjoy a harmless plant-that's the bottom line.

Shepherd: Has Obama said anything about the student loan situation?

Bienenstock: I don't know if it's something he has to address specifically. I was just at the 10th anniversary conference of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), which is a group that literally was founded a year after that penalty went into effect to address it. It's become one of the fastest-growing student organizations in the country. It's been a tremendously effective one. Even before this election, which obviously is making their job a lot easier, they were able to pull it back to [denying financial aid] only if you have a drug conviction while you're receiving aid. It used to be any drug conviction. If something happened when you were 16, you were denied aid.

And I have to say that Bill Clinton signed that law. And Bill Clinton arrested as many pot smokers as anyone else. And Bill Clinton sent the DEA into California after Prop 215 passed.

What pot smokers are looking for is a completely new direction. We're not looking for a return to the good old days, because we've never had them. But as far as what Obama may or may not do about student loans, I can't speak about that specifically, but coming back from that SSDP conference, I feel a lot of optimism that this policy is something that can be changed pretty quickly.

Shepherd: Has High Times' publication ever been threatened over the years?

Bienenstock: Even in Bush's America we still have the First Amendment to protect us. And we have lawyers. I don't think any of us have the attitude that we could never be hassled. We're not engaged in criminal activity. We're engaged in running a publication. But will I be breathing a little bit easier on Jan. 20 to know that the president and his administration, even if they don't agree with me, probably don't see me as a threat that needs to be destroyed? Yes. I will feel better. But I haven't had any problems, and the magazine hasn't had many problems.

Shepherd: In the book there's a list of 420 things to do when you're high. What are some of your personal favorites?

Bienenstock: Playing ping-pong. It's a huge passion of mine and of some people on the staff here. The two activities definitely go well together. I do play better after a couple of puffs. There's another item on the list that says, "Invent a milkshake." And I've certainly been known to enjoy that.

And I really liked what Redman said, which was, "work." It's definitely true for me, too. I try to make the point that people think pot makes you lazy, but it's really that lazy people love to smoke pot. And part of having to be in the closet is that the people who are the most successful who smoke pot have the most to lose by admitting it. I think that's something that's beginning to change.

But the No. 1 thing you should do when you're stoned is to join NORML [the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] or an organization like it that's right for you. One of the best things you can do when you get stoned is to get involved in changing these laws. Because it does feel good to get stoned and it does feel really good to work toward bringing that freedom to everyone.

I really do feel that people are starting to drop some of these old stereotypes of what a pot smoker is. Part of that is that people are just tired of pretending. There's a lot of talk in the marijuana movement that we need to take inspiration from the gay rights movement, where people finally said, "This is who I am and it's up to you to deal with it." It's very difficult. It's illegal to smoke pot. So it's this slow process of change. If we all woke up tomorrow and everybody knew who smoked pot and who didn't, it would be legal the day after that. And that would be a glorious day, because it would be your doctor or your stockbroker or your butcher and baker and candlestick maker. I can't tell you how many construction sites I walk by at lunchtime and catch a nice whiff. Pot smokers come from all ethnicities, all socioeconomic areas, all generations. I've been involved in this for a long time and it's good to be at such an optimistic moment, coming back from that SSDP conference. There's just so much optimism right now that we really can pass sensible drug policies.

Shepherd: Here's the part of the interview where you can crassly plug your book. Why should it be under everyone's Christmas tree this year?

Bienenstock: Even if you do smoke pot, I hope that you would find a lot to learn from reading it, and have a lot of fun. And it does make a great gift, because everybody-everybody, everybody-knows somebody who smokes pot and enjoys it. And they'll think you're cool and they'll know that you respect them and their lifestyle. You can buy the book for them and read it first and learn a little something about your friends and neighbors.

I want pot smokers to be knowledgeable about what we're doing, and to be proud of what we're doing and to be well versed in it and to feel that we're part of a large community full of good people.

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