The widespread use of marijuana and its growing social acceptability has now led to a political movement to legalize its use all over the country. Recently neighboring Massachusetts has legalized the sale and use of recreational cannabis. Politicians have been quick to see the possibilities of tax revenues from legalized pot sales, and neighboring states like New York and Connecticut are thinking of getting in the game.
My wife and I have always loved the Berkshires, that hilly, heavily wooded section of western Massachusetts and still like to go up for an occasional overnight in Great Barrington. The motel we stay at is near a cannabis dispensary and it is somehow sad to see the long line of people waiting outside from morning to evening to make their buy. Most of them look like middle-aged men with time on their hands.
On our most recent trip we had an even sadder experience. We often visit a men’s clothing store in a nearby town that is the epitome of the kind of old-time men’s clothing store that has disappeared practically everywhere else. I’m not a clothes horse but my wife loves it and she picks out most of my clothes there. We are regulars and have come to be friends with the charming and nattily dressed owner who always regales us with stories about his wife and children.
On this visit we sensed that something was wrong. He responded to our how are you with a modest ok but his face looked sad. My wife is good at engaging in conversation and while picking out some pants for me to try on, she got the story. Since we last saw our friend, his daughter had been in a horrible automobile accident that had practically taken her life. She was the apple of his eye and he always told us about how well she was doing in college.
We didn’t get all the details but she apparently had pulled over to the side of the road to check out something with her car. She was then hit by a speeding car driven by two seventeen year-old boys. The boys had been using marijuana. The girl suffered an incredible amount of brain damage, and is still in a special hospital. Her brain plates have had to be removed because of swelling and she goes in and out of consciousness. She has difficulty recognizing her father and mother.
Incredibly, the driver of the car that hit her was released. To the surprise of the state police who came to the scene of the accident, the District Attorney has dropped charges. She is a young politician and marijuana advocate who apparently has political ambitions. The family had to hire a lawyer to arraign the driver. Her father does not want the boys put in prison but believes there should be some punishment.
On an earlier visit to Great Barrington we actually talked with some people from New York who had come to Massachusetts to purchase marijuana. They admitted that they could have easily obtained it illegally at home, but preferred a variety that was available in the Great Barrington dispensary. We met in a restaurant parking lot after dinner and they were in a talkative mood. One older woman said that she used it because it was the only thing they gave her relief from chronic aches and pains. A somewhat younger social worker admitted that she used it just to get high once in a while. She explained that she was not a drinker and that she used marijuana for the same reason that someone might have a few drinks at a party or bar. A young man was with them who had apparently come along as the designated driver. These people were pleasant, ordinary people who did not look like drug fiends.
I think it inevitable that marijuana sales will be legalized in Connecticut and New York. People will say that marijuana use causes no more auto accidents than drinking or texting. Advocates will discount the cancer risks of smoking marijuana even though studies show that more carcinogens can be present than in cigarettes. Moreover, it will be pointed out that millions will continue to use marijuana whether it is legal or not. Finally, politicians will be attracted by the possibility of not only increased tax revenue, but also private profit opportunities.
The drive to legalize marijuana reminds me of the way cigarettes became popular during my childhood days. Although cigarettes were not illegal, we were warned they could stunt our growth. Nevertheless, they were glamorized in the 1940s and 1950s by the film and advertising industries. Of course, we had no idea that they could cause cancer.
Our favorite celebrities and athletes were not only smokers but they were also featured in innumerable ads in print or on the radio. In these days before TV, incessant and glamorous smoking was evident in the movies we attended every Saturday afternoon. Stars like Humphrey Bogart a chain smoker who would eventually die of lung cancer, smoked constantly in his films. Baseball stars smoked in the dugout during the actual games, and endorsed their favorite brands in advertisements. I don’t know why I never took up smoking. Maybe, I could never see myself as the rugged, outdoor Marlboro Man.
Over the past 50 years, cigarette smoking has become viewed as a disgusting and dangerous habit. It’s not just the cancer connection, but it has also fallen out of favor in the media. At the same time, pot smoking has grown in popularity among the celebrities of a new generation. They have spearheaded a cultural revolution that has made opposition to marijuana seem pig-headed and obsolete.
Even though marijuana may be legalized, its use could still have the same terrible consequences that resulted from cigarette smoking. We require cancer warning labels on cigarettes, ban their use in public places, and even try to tax them out of existence. They can no longer be advertised, and have virtually disappeared in movies. How long will it take the film and entertainment industry to turn on marijuana? One just has to look at that line in Great Barrington to see that it isn’t that glamorous.
Francis P. DeStefano, Ph.D., of Fairfield, is a writer, lecturer, historian and retired financial planner.