Friday, January 11, 2013

Moderation Is the Key

Seems like lots of people are talking about the downside of marijuana prohibition these days.  It's not surprising in our more polticially progressive atmosphere since the November 2012 election.  Open, honest communication is the best way to raise awareness of unjust laws that ruin people's lives.  Gay people no longer feel compelled to stay inside the closet.  Neither should pot smokers.  Come out!  It's a breath of fresh air.

I wrote this blog after seeing the phenomenal video Breaking the Taboo a month ago when Mayor Cory Booker shared it on his Facebook page.  The film argues that ending the global drug war is a humanitarian issue.


To Ban Ki-moon and all Heads of State:

We call on you to end the war on drugs and the prohibition regime, and move towards a system based on decriminalisation, regulation, public health and education. This 50 year old policy has failed, fuels violent organised crime, devastates lives and is costing billions. It is time for a humane and effective approach.

Mayor Booker was at it again yesterday.  I awoke to find he'd shared this provocative video from one of my favorite writers on the planet, Dan Savage:

And now liberals Cory Booker and Dan Savage have been joined by a conservative.  Leave it to pot to bring feuding people together in an a political Kumbaya.  Four days ago on CNN conservative writer David Frum jumped on the decriminalization band wagon, despite his opposition to legalizing the plant.  Frum joined the board of the organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana which "rejects the 'war on drugs' model."

It agrees that we don't want to lock people up for casual marijuana use --or even stigmatize them with an arrest record.

Frum goes on to argue, however, that just because he thinks we should quit locking up users, marijuana should not be legalized because it is harmful.  Two days later CNN ran another op-ed piece, this one from psychiatrist David L. Nathan, laying out his reasons why we should not just decriminalize possession for nonviolent offenders, but legalize the plant for recreational use by adults over twenty-one, like we do with alcohol.

Nathan writes,

I agree with much of what he says about pot's potential harm, especially for the young and the psychiatrically ill. Like Frum, I am a father who worries about my kids getting sidetracked by cannabis before their brains have a chance to develop. But I am also a physician who understands that the negative legal consequences of marijuana use are far worse than the medical consequences.

That reminds me of a great quote from President Jimmy Carter to Congress on August 2, 1977:

Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are they should be changed.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use.

That was in 1977.  In 2011 the spry President Carter wrote this op-ed piece for the New York Times arguing to call off the global drug war:

At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole — more than 3 percent of all American adults!
Some of this increase has been caused by mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes you’re out” laws. But about three-quarters of new admissions to state prisons are for nonviolent crimes. And the single greatest cause of prison population growth has been the war on drugs, with the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increasing more than twelvefold since 1980. 

My friends who support pot prohibition say they do it for the kids.  They want to keep kids away from marijuana.  They argue the easiest way to do that is to point out using marijuana is a crime.  As Frum says:

Yet as a parent of three, two exiting adolescence and one entering, I've found that the argument that makes the biggest impression is: "Marijuana is illegal.  Stay away."  I think many other parents have found the same thing.

To me, that's lazy parenting and it turns marijuana into forbidden fruit.  Kids are way more capable of understand complexity than we give them credit.  Our species bit into the tree of knowledge of good and evil long ago.  Let's forgive ourselves already.  It's now up to humanity to learn how to do the right thing not because we've been told to by The Supreme Being, or by Congress, but because we know inside it's the right thing to do.  Similarly, I want my child to make decisions about her health not because she'll get punished by an outside authority figure if she chooses unhealthy habits, but because she pays attention to her body and treats herself well.

I do not allow my six-year-old to consume caffeine, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, cigarettes, and most pharmaceuticals.  When she sees me drinking a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or popping an aspirin, I talk to her about why she can't have these substances but I can.  When she asks questions about the grownups she loves in our extended family drinking diet pop or smoking cigarettes, I talk to her about why these substances aren't healthy in excess for even adults, but that they're very unhealthy for children with their immature bodies.  She understands that there is a difference between what adults and kids can consume without getting sick.  And she understands that most grownups are capable of making educated decisions about what they put into their bodies.

If Katie asks why people she loves drink coffee, pop, and booze, and smoke and pop pills that can make us sick, I ask her why she eats cookies and jumps on the bed even though she could get cavities or fall on her head.  It's not nice to judge other people's bad habits until you've eliminated all of your own.  And good luck with that.  Katie understands that moderation seems to be the key to health.  She watched Will and me continue to drink moderately while my brother drank himself to death.  She knows if she eats five cookies she'll get a tummy ache, but one cookie makes her feel just fine.  She listens to me when I say, "Whew, that's enough coffee for me today!" when I'm running around the house like a crazy person as well as when I say, first thing in the morning, "Honey, slow down with the questions until I've had a cup of coffee."   

I don't think the threat of our government locking her up in jail is what's going to keep my kid from consuming unhealthy things, Mr. Frum.  To me, the most effective way to raise a healthy kid is to talk talk talk, openly, about all kinds of issues, and to set an example of healthy living through moderation.  Especially when it comes to parenting.

When Katie's a teenager, when it's developmentally common, I expect her to become curious about partaking of substances our society has deemed appropriate for adults only.  I hope to handle her experimentation as even-handedly as my parents did with me.  Mom believed in laissez-faire parenting.  I could pretty much do as I pleased.  As long as I was in the safety of our home, she didn't mind if I had a glass of wine or a beer, although I hated the taste of beer back then.  

For my 14th birthday I asked if we could eat at my favorite Chinese restaurant.  I felt very cosmopolitan.  Back then Chinese was still considered an ethnic food so when you went into a Chinese restaurant you sat down and ordered something you'd never heard of and ate with chopsticks and it was a big ta-do.  Unlike when you choose macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets and self-serve ice cream off the buffet at most Chinese restaurants in the 'burbs today.  

For my 14th birthday I also asked for a bottle of pink champagne.  After our exotic meal out, we came home and Mom and Dad and I raised our glasses of bubbly to toast my existence.  It was one of the happiest moments of my life.  Maybe from the tipsy feeling I got drinking champagne at such a young age, but also from the warm feeling of my parents trusting me to figure out ways not to fuck up my fragile life too much.  

It wasn't just Mom, although she was the leader of the hands-off approach to raising us kids.  I talk pretty openly about what an asshole my dad was when I was a teenager, but he was also incredibly enlightened in two ways.  When our family first moved to affluent Johnson County, KS when I was twelve, my mom suggested we drive through Mission Hills where the richest of the rich live so I could see the mansions.  Dad said no.

"I'd rather drive Becky through the ghetto to show her how well-off we are by comparison."  As it is when someone who normally shouts starts whispering and it makes you pay closer attention to them, rare moments of empathy like this from my normally self-centered, crotchety old dad stuck with me and I'm thankful for them.

The other wonderful thing my dad did for me was this.  In the prehistoric days before cell phones, when I was about fifteen and began going out with my friends at night, my dad handed me a quarter and told me to hold on to it and use it to call home from a payphone if I ever got stuck somewhere and everyone was too drunk to drive home.  

"Your mother and I don't want you to drink when you're out, but if you do, don't drive.  Call us."

This was a pretty powerful statement coming from the guy who yelled at me if I got caught sitting in his chair in front of the TV.  I didn't miss much, not getting to watch the entire episode of an All In the Family rerun, since it was my own private Archie Bunker who was kicking me off his throne.  Our living room was All In the Family all the time, not because that was what was on TV.  Dad was Archie.  Mom was Edith.  When I was young I was whiny Gloria for sure, but in my teenage years I evolved into Meathead.

And just like Archie Bunker, just when you'd start to think he was a complete and total asshole, my dad would go and open his mind for a bit.

Dad wasn't all bad.  For the most part he was terrible with kids, but he understood that kids like to party with their friends.  He told stories about his crazy teenage days of literally falling out of moving cars and taking over the wheel of his drunk buddy who passed out while driving along the highway.  His own father was an alcoholic who, before he died at age 48, when my dad was just 22, used to have the bartender call home regularly to have my dad come pick him up when he was too drunk to stumble home unassisted.  Dad kept a six pack of Hamms beer in our fridge, but I never saw him drink any.  Some days, hot-headed and home from a grueling day at work, I wished he would drink one.  In moderation.

Alcoholics for the most part annoy me, not because I can't empathize with them, but because I feel helpless around them.  I want to help them and there's not a lot you can do other than live your own life as well as you can and hope they learn from your example.  But that kind of a holier-than-thou attitude makes me uncomfortable too.  Who am I to judge someone when I have so much work to do on myself?  So I just feel helpless around drunks.  I am reminded too much of my brother who drank himself to death two years ago.  The anniversary is in a couple of days.  He's been on my mind a lot lately.  I look at his beer stein our family picked out for his ashes.  I pour myself one glass of wine for the night.  I thank God I can get by on just one.

Some days I don't, though, and I have more, and the next day I don't feel so well, so I keep that feeling in mind the next time I feel like tipping back one too many.  

When Pat was dying of alcohol induced liver failure, I asked him why he gave up smoking pot.  I have few memories from childhood of my brother where he is not surrounded by smoke.  As he lay there dying, he was still surrounded by smoke, but not the skunky kind of my youth.  He took a drag off his Camel non-filter and explained that he had to give up pot to pass the drug tests they made him take to get his carpentry jobs.  They didn't mind if he drank every night, as long as he'd show up at work the next day sober enough to do his job.  

When Pat found out he was dying, he called in sick.  I was there when the head of the company came by the house to say goodbye.  All the bosses and his co-workers chipped in to buy Pat gifts and cards that wished him well and told him how much it meant to them that they got to work with him.  Never again.  Now Pat's dead.

We're all going to die.  For me, that's reason enough to make each living day the fullest, healthiest, most satisfying day I can, the way I see fit.

Why do people drink coffee, pop, and booze, and smoke and pop pills that can make us sick?  Who knows?  The same question could be asked about why people become addicted to legal prescription medication despite bad side-effects like Health Ledger, Michael Jackson, and other celebrities who died of overdoses to medication their doctors prescribed to them experienced.  We don't have answers to all the questions about human health and wellness.  We don't know why some people become addicted to things and some people don't, or why some people become addicted to one thing but not another.  But keeping pot in the shadows of the black market doesn't help us study it.  The war against pot is not working so it's time to try something new.  Keeping it on the black market is causing more harm than good.