The politics of pot

Yodeling For a Revolution

Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the belief that smoking pot would lead to heroin addiction and the like was pretty much debunked. Sure, parents everywhere still warned their kids, and others stubbornly believed the myths that has been passed down from the days of “Reefer Madness.”

More important, the long-haired, dope-smoking hippies had graduated from a curiosity into players in the political arena. They were “obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent, and young.” They had to be minimized.

The more insidious types, like the members of the Jefferson Airplane, who wrote the above lyric, openly campaigned for rebellion. Stereotypes about marijuana smokers made it easier to deal with the more immediate problem of getting these political opponents off the street where they couldn’t influence more would-be voters.

As the ’70s rolled in, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (somewhat of a dullard as I recall him) had political aspirations harmed by his inability to, as we used to say, keep it in his pants. He had previously backed drug rehabilitation, job training, and housing as strategies, having seen drugs as a social problem rather a criminal one: his instincts in this case, or at least his advisors’, were impeccable. But Rockefeller, his chances for the presidency slipping away and his popularity on the wane, did an about-face during a period of mounting national anxiety about drug use and crime.

Rockefeller decided to raise his national posture by being tough on crime: If this strategy worked, he would no longer be seen as too liberal to be elected.

Under the Rockefeller drug laws, the penalty for selling two ounces (57 g) or more of heroin, morphine, “raw or prepared opium,” cocaine, or cannabis or possessing four ounces (113 g) or more of the same substances, was a minimum of 15 years to life in prison, and a maximum of 25 years to life in prison. Note the word minimum.

It wasn’t just sellers who paid the price: If you were in a car and someone had a few grams, everyone was accused of being a dealer. Imagine a middle-class college kid getting tossed in state prison with no chance of reasonable parole. Imagine our god-fearing parents hearing the news.

Smoking pot became an act of defiance; it became a political statement. It showed the world that we would fight back, that if peace couldn’t prevail, we would take it up a notch and tear down the walls.

Who woulda thunk that would end up making marijuana legal in this or any other state? Sure, it makes perfect sense, not only from the business standpoint but because there are medicinal benefits.

People assume I’m for legalization. Having spent ample time with my freak flag flying, I’m advising against it.

We turned to pot because we had to. Dinah Shore records were on the radio so we needed our own crappy songs. We no longer needed to join the navy to wear ugly bell-bottoms. People paid more for an ugly poncho than they did for a wool coat. We convinced ourselves the VW Bug, a death trap, was one of the world’s safest vehicles.

One girl from our Brooklyn neighborhood, Joanna, sold a piece of hash she brought home from Turkey, the size of a thimble to an undercover cop. She was convicted and given 15 years in jail, nine years into her sentence she took a toke from a joint in the prison courtyard and a guard spotted her. Another three years were tacked on. Although subsequent governors after Rockefeller gradually reduced penalties and moved to release some of those caught in the insane web of the Rockefeller laws, she slipped through the cracks.

She was allowed home to Brooklyn on a one-day leave to bury her mother. She looked like Papillon after two years in solitary confinement. We can’t bring her back. The insanity that Rockefeller wrought was repealed, tragically much too late. Let the punishment fit the crime — a traffic ticket.

I will say this about making pot legal: Someone is kidding someone. Some of the weed I smoked could knock the wheels off a GTO. We’re talking seriously high. The kind where people are stupid-crazy, twirling rhythm-less masses of mindless funk who think twitching is dancing and yodeling is singing. Is that what we want for our young-uns? Be careful what you wish for, folks. There must be better ways for junior to spend his time.

Just out of curiosity, though . . . how much does a lid cost these days?

rmurphy@indyeastend.com