This Is Your Country On Cannabis

In This Is Your Country On Drugs, journalist Ryan Grim traces the evolution of the United States's long and twisted relationship with drugs including alcohol, heroin and LSD. In the later chapters of the book, Grim turns his attention to cannabis, a chapter in history that is still being written. Medical and recreational cannabis use is being legalized in states across the country. Many other states are preparing for votes in the coming year. Grim is now the Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post. Civilized editor Mark Leger spoke with Grim by phone last week. You can listen to part of their interview on a podcast. You can also read an edited and condensed excerpt below.

You call cannabis the definitive American drug. Why is that?

A couple of different reasons. One, use of it is higher here. It hasn't really caught on in other parts of the world anywhere near the way it has here. And that's somewhat unusual. Often, there are some differences in appetites. Some cultures like tea, others like coffee, some like wine, some like gin, some like beer. And we happen to be a culture that likes weed, and have been since the middle of the last century.

At the same time, one of the theories I put forward in the book is that as Americans work so much harder than anywhere else in the world. If you compare the amount of time we put in, there's really nobody else in our class. Certainly not in Europe. We end up working weeks longer over the course of a year than they do. And so with all of that working, there's less time to unwind, so you really have to unwind fast and hard. We don't take [off] four weeks in August, but smoking a joint can be that, kind of, instant staycation for some people.

Why the push now for legalization, and why is it, so apparently successful so far?

I think a couple of things are happening. One is that it's the first drug that has been a part of our consciousness - our kind of cultural consciousness - all of our lives. If you're 65, by the time you were mature enough to be aware of things, marijuana was part of your life. And so the propaganda that might have worked 10 years ago doesn't work on people who have been seeing pot since they were 10 or 12 years old. They know it's just not that huge of a deal.

You know, it may not be their thing. For most people, it actually isn't. More than half don't smoke. Lots of people age out. They smoke a lot in their late teens and twenties and then kind of grow out of it. Other people don't, and make it a lifetime thing. But nobody really sees it as destroying someone's life. You may know people about whom you say, 'Boy, they smoke too much pot,' but it has nowhere near the destructive capacity of alcohol or cocaine or heroin. And so, for that reason, people make their own decisions. They're not as susceptible to the propaganda, and the polling really bears that out. People over a certain age are strongly against it, and people under that age are not.

The other element that plays into this, I think, is dropping crime rates over the last 25 years. That has opened up a window to discuss criminal justice reform in a way that didn't exist in the 1990s when every politician, on both sides of the aisle, was competing for who could be tougher on crime. When they said 'tough on crime' they were gonna be tough on gangs, and when they were gonna be tough on gangs they were gonna be tough on drug dealers. And tough on drug dealers that meant drugs. So pot got caught up in that as a proxy for crime rates. So, the reduction in the crime rate has also been significant in allowing for this kind of loosening of laws.

As we've prepared to launch Civilized into the market, we've had a lot of early discussions about elevating the conversation around cannabis and destigmatising cannabis consumers. It's so familiar to a lot of Americans, whether they've done it or whether they've not. Does that have something to do with that process just taking place naturally?

I think so. We've gotten to a place where even in the Republican debate [last week], somebody like Jeb Bush, who has been a strident anti-drug warrior his entire life, said, 'Hey, Colorado can do whatever it wants. It's good for Colorado to experiment.' Even a couple of years ago, the idea of somebody like Jeb Bush endorsing Colorado legalizing pot would've been unthinkable. And then he added, 'And, by the way, 40 years ago I smoked weed myself.' And that didn't even make any news. Giant shrugs across the country. Nobody cared. Of course he did. Everybody did 40 years ago.

I think part of it is just the sheer number of people who have been around it, but more importantly the length of time that it's been part of the culture. If you think back to the 1980s, it had really only been a part of culture since the late 1960s. It had been part of America broadly, in some pockets, for maybe 50 years at that point. But only for 20 years has it been really a central part of the mainstream culture.

If you had a crystal ball, where would you anticipate you'd be in 20 years on this?

You know, it's hard to say. Because, as I write in the book, drug policy is not linear. We like to think of human evolution and history as one long arc that bends towards justice, or as a line that is steadily going up towards enlightenment. In a lot of cases, that's just not true. You move forward and then you move backward. And so, a lot of it will depend on how the country handles legalization, and how people respond to it. If it moves too fast and gets out of control, there's a possibility of a backlash. I think that Colorado, though, suggests that it's possible that you can integrate this pretty smoothly into the culture. You have a lot of people out in Colorado who were opponents and have now become believers and said, 'Okay, the sky has not fallen.' So, if I had to gamble I would say that, as Colorado has gone the rest of the country will have gone...in 20 years.

That was Civilized editor Mark Leger in conversation with Ryan Grim, author of This Is Your Country On Drugs. He is also the Washington bureau chief at The Huffington Post.

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John Sinclair is one of the lesser-known people in cannabis culture, but he’s a very important figure, particularly for anti-prohibition activists. Sinclair is a native of Flint, Michigan, far from the hippie epicenters in California or the Warhol scene of the Big Apple. The scene in Michigan was grittier and more blue collar.