On Jan. 1, 2014, Colorado became the first state to authorize the sale of marijuana for pure fun. At least 18 pot shops were open for business in Denver that week, each permitted to sell an ounce of weed to Colorado residents older than 21; out-of-staters were limited to a quarter-ounce.
The state of Washington wasn’t far behind, and signatures were being collected to put the issue on the ballot in Alaska, Oregon and six other states.
Financially, the Colorado experiment was a success. In 2014, state officials anticipated annual sales of $200 million and tax revenue of $70 million. But in 2017 sales exceeded $1.5 billion, and the state’s Department of Revenue reported tax income of $250 million from pot sales.
Other states took notice. At present, 33 states permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and 10 have legalized recreational use.
In October, Canada began permitting sales of recreational marijuana, and Mexico’s Supreme Justice Court ruled that Mexican citizens have a right to possess pot for personal use. These two events prompted Houston Chronicle reporter Olivia Tallet to note in December that Texas is now surrounded by states and a large country that permit some form of marijuana use.
And even in Texas, she reports, fewer than 20 percent of registered voters object to the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.
The trend is clear, and it’s easy to see why. Certainly, governments are attracted to the tax revenue from marijuana sales. Further, marijuana decriminalization expresses a sensible desire to reduce the discrepancy between how we treat it and how we treat other addictive and probably more harmful substances, such as alcohol and tobacco.
In Mexico the party of the new president introduced in November a bill that would legalize the commercial cultivation of marijuana, a measure supported, according to reporter Tallet, because of its potential “to decimate the power of drug cartels and their violent criminal enterprises.”
And in Texas, one rationalization for decriminalization is expressed by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who says that the $25 million that the county spends prosecuting and incarcerating low-level pot offenders reflects wasteful policy. The money could be better spent fighting other crimes and protecting public safety.
So what’s not to like about marijuana legalization? Last week in the New York Times Alex Berenson argued that much of the “unstoppable march” toward legalization is driven by persistent lobbying by for-profit cannabis interests, who have managed to “recast marijuana as a medicine rather than an intoxicant.”
Part of their strategy is to minimize marijuana’s negative health effects, ignoring, for example, a 2017 study by the National Academy of Medicine that concludes that “Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses.”
So the jury may still be out on the health effects of marijuana use, though, negative effects alone do not necessarily undercut the reasons for legalization.
One more caveat: I wrote a column on this subject five years ago, just as Colorado’s pot shops were opening their doors. I raised the question of “stupefaction,” a quaint term that I borrow from Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer known for his enormous novels such as “War and Peace.” He also wrote a short essay in 1890 entitled “Why Does Man Stupefy Himself?”
Tolstoy opposed all sources of stupefaction, which he defined as anything that causes a man to lose touch with his conscience. He deeply lamented the excessive use of drugs and alcohol and even tobacco in 19th-century Russia. His answer was total abstinence.
One wonders what Tolstoy would think of our culture’s unrelenting attraction to stupefaction, which we find in alcohol and drugs, legal and illegal, but also in social media, videogames, food, sports and video, which often reach all-consuming, addictive levels. There’s a reason we call it binge-watching.
In this unrelenting mix of diversion and distraction, the conscience that Tolstoy is concerned about has to struggle for attention. Of course, stupefaction in moderation is fun—it feels good! Unfortunately, Americans’ aptitude for moderation is, well, limited.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.