I teach English and journalism at Newport High School on the Central Oregon Coast and know firsthand the budget crisis in this state is for real. Next year, my building will lose art, drama and quite possibly music.
As I write this, the Oregon Legislature convenes to address the school funding crisis and other steep cuts in important social services. No amount of borrowed federal stimulus money or increasing the ridiculously low taxes on beer can plug the gap. Oregon needs a new major source of revenue and it needs one by the end of this session.
I know who he is. We all do. He's so obvious. He's the green elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge, although I can't imagine why because he's so laid back and relaxing to be around.
His name is marijuana.
The question is not whether marijuana should be legalized in Oregon; it's how it should be legalized. Doubtless, Powell's carries dozens of books on why the various federal and state prohibitions on marijuana are totally insane and cost lives and money while the pharmaceutical companies and cops get rich on the phony drug war. I'll let those tomes speak for themselves, but add this observation from the Oregon hinterlands: legalizing marijuana (or at least hemp) would save rural Oregon from extinction. Why rural lawmakers aren't introducing bill after bill to address this very issue is also totally insane. When I get around to running for the Legislature, I'll make it my top priority.
And no, I don't smoke pot. I do use, however, more powerful legal drugs.
As an Oregon writer who specializes in modern history, what intrigues me about the marijuana issue is the state's unique role in the battle to legalize a weed. We once led the nation in progressive thinking about marijuana, and in 1973 Oregon became the first state in the nation to decriminalize it, making the sentence for possession of less than an ounce akin to receiving a traffic ticket.
But even more impressive, was a statement delivered in 1971 by then-Oregon Governor Tom McCall before the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, which had convened in San Francisco, California. Below is an excerpt from his 4500-word testimony:
Chairman Shafer, Members of the Commission, and Ladies and Gentlemen:
We stand in danger of drowning in a sea of old testimony and strangling on the meager gruel of bland cliché.
We cannot go on saying the same things in the same way.
It is not possible to talk about the drug scene with experienced young people, as self-proclaimed, omnisciently aware diagnosticians.
One might as well assure a terminal cancer patient, during a hospital visit, that "we're working on it right now, and you'll be out of here in no time."
We can, perhaps, extend this analogy.
For years, a single cure for cancer was sought in vain. Now headway is being made, because we have conceded there are many varieties of the ailment and many possible cures.
There is, to complete the analogy, no one "drug abuse problem" and no one cure for it.
I say this not as a specialist — or a scientist — or a wizard.
I am here as a father who has personally faced the problem — and as a governor who has been an anguished audience to a parade of despair, witness to eyes and voices of those who with diminishing energy cry for help — those who have been called "the living dead."
Will this Commission be able to be completely definitive, within two years, in its recommendations to Congress on the status of marijuana?
You could be, if research would let you — but is there enough zip behind the various examinations into finding the when, and the how, and the if of re-legalizing marijuana?
In my Open House rapping with thousands of young people at the Oregon State Capitol, I encountered many delegations urging reduction or elimination of legal controls of marijuana.
The burden of their argument ran that "pot" is a safer, more joyful relaxant than alcohol; the prohibition against it invokes unduly harsh legal penalties, raises prices a hundred-fold, and reduces quality; and has produced alienation between peer-group friends.
Several families contended that the mere presence of pot in their apartments caused embarrassing ruptures in relationships with intimates. One cheery little wife suggested that it was as disruptive as if "we had an alligator under the sofa."
Let me, to conclude this opportunity to enjoy an important forum, express my view that we should not with light consideration, or in haste, legalize the use of marijuana.
We just aren't ready for that drastic move, not on the information so far available to us.
It may be true that it is no more harmful than the drug alcohol — or it may even be not as dangerous.
We don't know — and it depends on what strength of marijuana we're talking about — Acapulco Gold or Topeka Trash.
Alcohol, most assuredly, is an extremely dangerous drug. But that does not mean we are bound to admit into legal another dangerous drug?
To balance this, our lack of information on the long-term effects of marijuana also does not excuse those who would, in simplistic stubbornness, dismiss any future thought of legalization. Both positions are based on ignorance.
Those whose minds are made up, and who will accept no facts and no discussion on legalization remind me of the scholars who refused to look into Galileo's telescope, fearing the Devil might lead them into the error of believing the earth was round.
And those who would rush headlong into legalization immediately cannot claim to be any better informed.
The studies we need now should have begun in 1938 when marijuana was first banned. We suffer from that long and trouble-breeding gap. Let us suffer no longer. Let us study.
Just as methadone has taken heroin addiction into the laboratories and minds of scientific study, discovering there are roads back through medical means from hopelessness to usefulness, so may we find such roads in the question of marijuana.
Let's get the best scientific and medical heads in America into this issue.
Let's find out what the facts are.
Let's reason with this question.
Let's act from wisdom and examination — not from prejudice or panic.
And, gentlemen, make no mistake about this aspect of the problem: the legalization of marijuana, as a thesis, is and must remain a political issue. It will have to involve a political decision when and if that time of change comes.
As of June 14, 1971, I have yet to hear one political leader who is willing to stand and say to his local or national constituency: "Let's legalize marijuana."
The sum of it all is that...
We need to unite our concerns but "keep our cool."
We need to educate the older citizens.
We need to readjust the national character and sense of honor.
We need to put our action where our words are.
We need to rely a lot less on decals, and a lot more on deeds.
If this sounds like we need a super-human, all-out, doomsday effort — then I have made my point.
Incredible, wasn't it? That was almost 40 years ago! From a Republican Governor who drank a lot! Where has the GOP's elephant gone, Joe DiMaggio, a lonely nation turns its eyes to... Newt Gingrich.
What also intrigues me is the idea of a novel I dearly want to read but will never write because I don't smoke pot. This novel would unfold an alternative history of the United States had marijuana been the main legal drug of choice instead of alcohol. Please, someone, write that novel. Here are two possible titles: Red, White, and Green or The Unites States of Marijuana.
A final thought: if we'd grown up on pot instead of booze, I guarantee you today we wouldn't be fighting two undeclared wars in Asia and nearly a third on our southern border.