With the New Year comes my anniversary with Weed Between the Lines. When I first started writing the column two years ago, I approached marijuana professionally, to write an op-ed that also covered the bizarre time in-between federal prohibition and state legalization.
Exploring along these lines, it didn’t take long before my curiosity became more expansive and personal. I realized I needn’t look far for a big story and that the most momentous changes were happening on the most subtle and personal levels. It was as if legalization had spurred collective introspection, and my greatest opportunity was to cover the confrontation between what we thought we knew and what we had yet to learn.
What we thought we knew was imposed on us by a federal government that told us that drugs were bad, not just physically, but morally. They told us drug users belonged in jail, that pushers should be locked up for life and that traffickers, especially in other countries, deserved to die. And so the country waged its war on drugs, no matter the cost, so long as it eradicated the evils of pot.
And then suddenly, in 2012, there were finally enough people who collectively called bullshit on that narrative to legalize recreational marijuana use in two states. Now, with historical perspective, we can look back to those early days of recreational legalization in the Wild West and remark on the courage it took for citizens and states to legalize, despite the propaganda and without knowing what the federal response would be.
It was a fragile moment. It still is. A rare instance of state rebellion against national and international law, and one that was, surprisingly, tolerated by the U.S. government, evidenced by the issuance of the “Cole Memo” in 2012. Which is not to over-glorify “tolerance,” a mere recognition of a difference in practice, nothing more and nothing less. Perhaps naively, I hoped for something more resolute.
I remember watching, with no small degree of shame, as a representative for the U.S. stood at the podium at the U.N. Special Session on Drug Policy in New York in 2016 and said, well, nothing, insisting that federal prohibition remain while recognizing that its own states were breaking that very notion. It was an admission not just of hypocrisy, but of cowardice.
When Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971 it came with international repercussions, legitimizing U.S. military aid and intervention across the world. Marketed as a war, not only did criminalized prohibition endorse violence, but it gave permission to authoritarian regimes to kill and behead drug users, which continues even to this day.
Simultaneously, prohibition prevented countries like Jamaica from allowing its citizens to use marijuana for religious purposes, halted meaningful medical and scientific research in countries like Israel and threatened severe sanctions against any nation, like Mexico, that considered legalization or decriminalization as an alternative policy.
This past Thursday, Jan. 4, the nation was sent into confusion, shock and even uproar when Attorney General Jeff Sessions, long a vocal opponent of the legalization of marijuana, rescinded the Obama-era Cole Memo.
Sessions explained the revocation in a statement saying, “It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance (the Cole Memo) undermines the rule of law.”
Yes, removing the Cole Memo casts some serious confusion over the already confusing landscape of legal marijuana. But, in some ways, rescinding the Memo is, at least, honest in that it recognizes what’s actually on the books. Nice as it was to have the reassurance of the Department of Justice to stay out of the way, it was only a promise, which is to say it was not meaningful change.
There is the adage that a crisis is also an opportunity and in this case, it’s a multifaceted one. The recension of the Cole Memo is a chance to demand meaningful change in U.S. law; to hold our nation accountable to damaging fallacies; to insist, as a citizenry, that our government recognize and uphold our votes, the bedrock of our democracy; as individuals, to enact the freedom to define morality for ourselves, and as individuals, to be courageous enough to think independently and be openly honest about our conclusions, even as they shift and evolve.
After two years of writing this column I admit that cannabis has changed me, not just politically but personally. The plant has helped me see the world in a new way and has allowed me to confront deeply held prejudices so as to overcome them. With this, my last column for Weed Between the Lines, I leave with a deep sense of appreciation for what cannabis has taught me, that our greatest power as a human species lies in our individual capacity for humility and empathy. There is strength in yielding to the motion in a fall.