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The political aesthetics of marijuana legalization


As you’ve probably heard, Colorado has embraced reefer madness. Ironically, Denver was the site of the opening salvo in the federal government’s long war against the semi-innocuous substance:

Seventy-six years ago, a guy named Samuel Caldwell became the first person arrested and prosecuted under a federal charge of selling marijuana, after drug-enforcement agents busted him with 3 pounds of cannabis in his apartment at 17th and Lawrence streets. So historically significant was the moment that the nation’s leading anti-marijuana crusader, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger, came to Denver to watch the trial.

“These men,” Anslinger said of Denver authorities afterward, “have shown the way to other district attorneys throughout the nation.”

A key element in the politics of legalization has involved transforming the optics of the reform movement:

For decades after, [Isaac] Campos said, marijuana activists had little traction in debating prohibition. Cannabis users were a marginalized group numbering far fewer than the masses who agitated to overturn alcohol prohibition. The 1960s and ’70s placed marijuana within the nation’s counterculture, but Campos said that also spurred a backlash against pot when it became a symbol of the culture war.

But in the early 2000s, activist groups pulled themselves together and found several big-money funders, pushing marijuana into the mainstream in a way that is challenging prohibition across the country.

“Now you have these kind of buttoned-up guys in suits with short hair saying, ‘Look, these policies are irrational,’ ” Campos said.

Enter a guy in a suit with short hair in Colorado in 2005.

Five years before Mason Tvert arrived in Colorado, voters in the state had approved medical marijuana but little had yet come from it. Tvert’s goals, though always incremental, were much bigger: He was gunning for legalization. Starting with a campaign on college campuses comparing the harms of marijuana to alcohol, Tvert branched out to municipal campaigns in Denver and a failed statewide initiative before helping launch the successful legalization campaign in 2012.

His strategy was pretty basic. He wanted to get people to care less about marijuana, not more.

“The overall progression is that people care less and less about this issue,” Tvert said. “There might be more interest in it, but overall there’s less hysteria, and it’s becoming more of a normal, public policy issue. It’s become more boring.”

Nevertheless the legal status of the drug in Colorado remains in a gray zone. The drug’s sale for both medical and recreational purposes is still illegal under federal law, even as the current federal government gives assurances that it’s not going to really enforce its laws on the matter. Still, medical marijuana clinics find it’s very difficult to get financing from banks, or credit card companies, because the feds have let it be known that they’re not inclined to tolerate actually loaning money to a legal business if they don’t like that kind of business. It seems likely this attitude will be even more pronounced toward the recreational sale of the substance.

In addition, it’s not yet clear whether the state bar association will permit Colorado lawyers to provide useful legal advice to those in the newly legalized business.

Still, today marks important moment in the nation’s slow march toward more rational policies in regard to mind-altering substances.

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