The pot wars go on

Posted: Oct 19, 2000 12:00 AM
Tony Knowles is the young, dashing Democratic governor of Alaska, and he cannot like it to be treated as an old fogey, which is what is happening. One aggressor writes in the Anchorage Daily News on Monday asking the governor to grow up on the question of Proposition 5. If the proposition is carried, marijuana would be legal in Alaska, as it is in the Netherlands and (de facto) in France, and prospectively in Switzerland.

The writer titled his message to the governor, "Alaska adults can decide if pot is good for them." Now that formulation is unsafe. Alaska adults can't decide whether pot is good for them; they can decide whether to take pot, never mind whether it's good for them or isn't. The position of the Anchorage Daily News article is, quite simply, that if you want to smoke pot in Alaska, all you have to do is buy it on the black market, where it is readily available. The alternative, under Proposition 5, would be to buy it from licensed sellers, paying a royalty to the state exchequer, which would oversee questions of quality and, of course, distribution. Kids could always buy it even if it were proscribed, but then kids can do anything, including smoke tobacco, consume liquor and procreate.

And now hear this: Proposition 5 goes further, creating a commission to examine reparations for people whose assets have been seized in the ongoing travesty on civil rights, which authorizes confiscation of property, and often encourages it by permitting such property to meander over into police treasuries.

In Utah, there is a similar plebiscite before the voters, called Initiative B, the Utah Property Protection Act. There is high dudgeon in Utah protesting the long arm of George Soros, the billionaire who has made an alleviation of the drug-penalty laws a cause. His motives in doing so are, not persuasively, explained by an associate, Ethan Nadelmann, who heads up the Lindesmith Center, a drug-policy research institute in New York. It's as simple as this, says Nadelman: Soros' father was a Jewish lawyer in Naziland. He shielded his 14-year-old son by changing his name and having him pose as a godson of a government official. The boy had then to accompany his guardian, who went about confiscating the homes of Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz. This (we are told) permanently sensitized Soros to the dangers of statist usurpations.

Many Utah lawmakers acknowledge the extremity of the state's law-enforcement establishment, but insist that moderated behavior should be an instrument of the legislature, not plebiscitary eruptions financed by a billionaire on the loose. Local supporters of Initiative B comment that human rights are not of mere parochial concern. They point out that the Mormon community in Utah felt no compunction about lobbying against gay marriages in Hawaii.

What's inching along, with tortured slowness, is a reaction against the excesses of the marijuana laws. Critics of moderation correctly point out that there is a difference between a reform of the marijuana laws designed to permit patients to get relief from marijuana, and flat-out legalization. Dr. Herbert Kleber, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and medical director of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, makes the point that there is less reason to put medical marijuana on the ballot than the legalization of it. "They reallly are two totally different issues. One is in many ways a political issue, but the other is a scientific issue. Marijuana for medicinal purposes should not be decided by referendum. Would you have had a referendum on penicillin for pneumonia?"

But that license, acknowledged and approved in California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Alaska, Maine and D.C., is being used to propel the more general sanctions, as under Proposition 5 in Alaska. California's Mendocino County, upholding the tradition that Californians will always -- somewhere, somehow -- identify themselves with extremes, has scheduled a county initiative that would permit anyone to grow marijuana anywhere in Mendocino. There is cultural attraction to the idea, in part because Mendocino is a fertile area for the best pot -- or so, I hasten to comment, I have heard.

Although the subject comes up, it certainly will not appear on the agenda of either of the political parties. A politician running for national office might as well acclaim Arafat as sanction the legalization of pot. In little enclaves of intelligence and courage one spots the exceptions: Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, and (former) Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore. But all that can be said with absolute confidence about them is that they will never run for national office. Even with George Soros behind them.