On Tuesday, Vermont moved to decriminalize the possession of marijuana for quantities up to an ounce, replacing potential prison time for arrests with fines.
Peter Shumlin, the state's governor, made a telling distinction between weed and "harder" drugs when he announced the move. "This legislation allows our courts and law enforcement to focus their limited resources more effectively to fight highly addictive opiates such as heroin and prescription drugs that are tearing apart families and communities," he said.
The idea that weed isn't that big a deal and that governments need to readjust their priorities is pretty common. There's little vocal anti-pot government outcry, no temperance movement analog for cannabis. Recent polls have found that a majority of Americans think marijuana should be legalized.
Even our mainstream faces of stoner culture are generally silly, harmless and amiable (Jeff Spicoli, Cheech & Chong, Harold & Kumar, and whatever Snoop is calling himself these days) except when they're revered and saintly (read: Bob Marley). On TV, there was Weeds, a dramedy about an upper-middle-class widow who starts selling marijuana to make ends meet. Change the drug to something else like heroin or meth, drugs with more sinister reputations, and it becomes something much darker. You'd pretty much have to go all the way back to Reefer Madness to find a widely seen film that portrayed pot as dangerous or threatening. (And the whole reason we all know about that movie is because the concerns at its center are often mocked as kitschy and histrionic.)
Mona Lynch, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who studies the criminal justice system, says that stereotypes of marijuana usage in popular culture don't come across as very threatening. "There's not a lot of uproar around marijuana [as] a crushing problem," she says.
But this image of weed use as benign recreation or banal nuisance doesn't square with another great fact of American life — the War on Drugs. And more and more, that War on Drugs means marijuana.
Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Criminal Law Reform Project, says that in 2001 years ago, marijuana possession arrests made up 34 percent of all drug arrests. And now? "Half of all drug arrests are now marijuana-related," he says — and 9 in 10 of those are for possession.
The focus of the continuing law enforcement battle on marijuana lands disproportionately on people of color. The ACLU crunched some Justice Department numbers on drug arrests, and released a much-discussed report last week on their findings. The upshot: African-Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than whites, even though blacks and whites consume weed at about the same rate.
For blacks — and black men in particular — marijuana is a gateway drug into the criminal justice system.
"The thing that was shocking about the report was the pervasiveness, that this [disparity in arrests] is happening everywhere," Lynch tells me. "It's happening in small towns, big towns, urban and rural."
Both Edwards and Lynch say that part of the reason marijuana is getting more attention from law enforcement agencies is that police departments are being subsidized with lots of federal dollars to stop drugs, but the crack epidemic has since waned. "Institutions don't like to shrink," Lynch says. "It's actually a reverse kind of pattern — drug arrests are going up [even] as crime drops."
At the same time that marijuana's become a more central focus of the War on Drugs, there are plenty of business types who are already making their plans for selling marijuana after, uh, all the smoke clears. They're trying to give pot an altogether new face: as a widely available commercial product backed by big business. No one knows what that market might even look like quite yet, but it could be incredibly lucrative.
Might you be able to cop some weed at your supermarket behind the counter with cigarettes? Would your favorite coffee shop start selling some "extra special" lattes? What about an over-the-counter headache medicine packaged in a box with a little green leaf in the corner?
Seriously — it might not be that far-fetched.
Diego Pellicer, a company that hopes to open marijuana stores in Washington and Colorado, is looking for investors. Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, was a guest speaker at a Don Pellicer event last week, and has said that he would grow marijuana if weren't against the law. "Once it's legitimate and legal, sure, I could do it," he told reporters. "I'm a farmer. Producers of all types can participate." (Fox, it's worth noting, used to run Coca-Cola in Mexico, and its sales jumped by 50 percent during his tenure.)
There are already vending machine companies working on cannabis-dispensing kiosks for retail stores for the people who don't want the hassle of humoring those talky connoisseur types. "The way we see it, when you walk into a shop, you don't need the expert or aficionado to help with selection," says the head of one such vending company. "The people who are using this in the recreational space — they know what they want, and they don't want to hear the whole spiel every time."
And there are all the industrial, non-psychoactive applications. Hemp fiber, which is especially strong, is already used in all sorts of textiles. One researcher told writer Doug Fine that a decade after weed became legal, a domestic hemp industry would sprout up in the United States to the tune of $50 billion a year — which would outpace the estimates of what smokable reefer would bring in.
"When America's 100 million cannabis aficionados (17 million regular partakers) are freed from dealers, some are going to pick up a six-pack of joints at the corner store before heading to a barbecue, and others are going to seek out organically grown heirloom strains for their vegetable dip," Fine wrote.
So now we have to reconcile the many different faces of marijuana — a jokey, pop-culture staple, a continuing fascination of law enforcement agencies whose attentions fall disproportionately on people of color, and the potential cash crop of a bright, green future.
Which of these will give way? Or will any of them?
Correction: June 13, 2013 12:00 am — A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the company Diego Pellicer as Don Pellicer.