by LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
I have smoked pot.
Not today or this week, or even this month, but I have. I’m telling you this because before I begin talking about the pot-smoking habits of others, I thought it would only be right that I first owned up to my own past use.
Three states — Colorado, Washington and Oregon — have marijuana legalization proposals on the ballot, and it won’t be surprising if at least one of them passes. Not medical marijuana, mind you, but the regulation and selling of small quantities for recreational use.
If you thought Nirvana and Pearl Jam put Seattle on the map, legal marijuana will make it out of this world.
And I promise that will be my last pot joke, although being silly about pot illustrates why it’s taken this long for the country to begin adult conversations about marijuana, and not just knee-jerk rhetoric based on fear instead of facts. When President Nixon signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, officially starting the so-called war on drugs, it was largely in response to pot-smoking hippies and Vietnam vets coming home addicted to heroin.
Nixon budgeted $100 million to fight what he called public enemy No. 1 — illegal drugs. In 2010, it was $15 billion. A trillion dollars has been spent on the war on drugs since it began.
Two government reports released last year had difficulty proving the billions being spent are making a big difference.
In 1970, the federal government listed pot to be more harmful than cocaine and meth. We now know that isn’t true. That’s not to say legalizing pot is without risks; it has been shown to impair concentration. But one study found alcohol was by far the most dangerous drug, followed by heroin and crack. Weed rated far down the list.
So why do we continue to allow the Nixon administration’s hatred of hippies to influence what we think about drug usage today?
I don’t know how much or how little tax revenue is actually going to come from state-sanctioned pot, but to me that’s not the point.
The issue isn’t how much money the government can make from pot sales, but rather, are the reasons why pot was originally classified as illegal still valid today? Now that we have studies that debunk the myth of longtime impairment from using pot, now that we see how ineffective the government has been in keeping pot off the streets, now that we have seen the gangland violence of drug cartels, should we still be looking at marijuana the way we did 40 years ago?
In the 1928 presidential election, Herbert Hoover crushed his opponent, Al Smith, winning 40 states, in part because Smith was demonized as “the cocktail president.” Smith was in favor of repealing the 18th Amendment — Prohibition — while Hoover believed he must enforce the law. It’s hard to imagine today, but alcohol was so vilified then there was an actual Prohibition Party dedicated to keeping it illegal. Members even endorsed their own candidate for president.
Yet, just five years after that election, alcohol was legal. And even though Hoover lost his bid for re-election, he did so supporting the repeal.
That’s how quickly things can change.
And that bit of history is what makes the results of these three states so fascinating. No one expects President Obama or Mitt Romney to come out in support of legalized marijuana within the next few days, but what will the conversation be like four years from now?
If the nation can go from upholding Prohibition to “drink up” in an election cycle, why couldn’t 2016 feature the first pro-pot president? Especially if next week’s results are, shall we say, favorable? Voting for a candidate solely because he or she lets you light up is stupid, but if all other things are equal, are we ready to vote to legalize marijuana the way our grandparents voted to legalize alcohol?
I think we are, but then one could say I’m a bit biased.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.
Z Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs