This is part one of Arizona Public Media's five-part series, The Controversy over Cannabis, airing July 11-15 on NPR 89.1FM/1550AM.
Stores like the Hippie Gypsy on Fourth Avenue used to be called head shops. They stock rolling paper, bongs and pipes. You can walk in and buy a tie-dyed t-shirt with a marijuana leaf on the front. But you can’t talk about marijuana with the staff—it’s store policy. The Hippie Gypsy calls itself a “smoke shop.” They say their products are for “tobacco use only.”
"Our state paraphernalia laws are quite draconian," says Tom Maza, a pro-cannabis activist with AZ4NORML. "As long as you pretend it’s not drug paraphernalia, we will collect business taxes and we will feed off you like a vampire economically, but whenever we feel like it we will come in and shut you down, arrest you, confiscate your inventory."
Maza is tired of what he sees as hypocrisy in American society when it comes to marijuana. He says it’s time for prohibition to end.
"I don’t get it. I’ve never gotten it," he says with a laugh. "They, in their hearts of hearts, feel that they are saving us from ourselves."
When it comes to marijuana, America is full of contradictions. Pot is illegal, but that hasn’t stopped 95 million Americans from trying it. That’s one in three of us, according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
"Marijuana is ubiquitous," says Virginia Scharff, a professor of American history at the University of New Mexico. "The people who love it and who advocate it will tell you it cures everything. The people against it will tell you that it causes every conceivable ill in the world."
When marijuana became illegal in 1937, it wasn’t a mainstream recreational drug like it is today. Its popularity didn’t surge until the 1960s. And a certain mystique grew around it.
"It was about having a kind of immediacy with the world and it was about not taking a sold-to-you, made-for-you consumerist outlook toward your own life," says Scharff. "It was about letting the doors of perception be thrust open."
Many people still associate marijuana with the peace-love-and-hippie culture of the 1960s. But today’s pot is the major commodity of violent drug cartels. And while getting stoned used to be a symbol of anti-establishmentarianism, stoner culture today is a huge, bourgeois moneymaker.
The marijuana-themed movie Pineapple Express grossed more than $87 million at the box office. The Showtime television hit Weeds is sponsored by Disneyland Resorts. And Grammy winner Dr. Dre’s rap song “Kush”—slang for pot--was a Top 40 hit this year.
"I think the mystique of marijuana as a drug that makes you an outsider, and it makes you a rebel and it makes you an explorer on the frontier of consciousness is certainly something people will latch onto if they have another reason for wanting anesthetize themselves," Scharff says.
Last year, marijuana use among youth aged 12 to 17 rose nine percent. The Office of National Drug Control Policy attributes this to the “downplaying of marijuana harms” and links it to permissive attitudes of parents. But if so many Americans have permissive attitudes toward pot, then why is it still illegal?
"We have a puritanical society and people get worked up about certain things and they have conservative values," says Jimmy Boegle, editor of the Tucson Weekly.
In May, the paper ran a job announcement for a part-time medical marijuana critic.
"I expected to get a little bit of local attention from doing this," Boegle admits.
But he didn’t expect it to become a story in the Daily Mail, a London tabloid.
"They even misspelled Tucson," says Boegle. "That really pissed me off.”
“'Wanted: Marijuana critic. Newspaper sparks controversy after advertising for drug reviewer.' They just kind of made up this controversy," he says. "We’ve gotten two negative emails from people complaining that we’re not taking things seriously enough or the Weekly’s trying to glorify drug use. We like to say we like to shine a mirror on Tucson and show what’s going on in the city. And medical marijuana businesses, even if people don’t like them, I’m sorry, but they are and they’re going to be a part of our city going forward and we’re going to help people sort that all out."
Americans still have a long way to go to sort out our conflicting views about cannabis. One in three might use pot, but two in three don’t. And for that reason, legalization remains a controversial topic.
The Controversy over Cannabis continues throughout this week. Tune in to NPR 89.1FM/1550AM tomorrow at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. and meet Sensible Tucson, a new movement to decriminalize recreational marijuana.