Sunday, April 19, 2009

The New York Times settles (maybe) a question we were discussing with some friends this past weekend: how the number "420" became associated with marijuana consumption, to the point where today's date became a "high holiday" of sorts.

Mr. Hager said the significance of April 20 dates to a ritual begun in the early 1970s in which a group of Northern California teenagers smoked marijuana every day at 4:20 p.m. Word of the ritual spread and expanded to a yearly event in various places. Soon, marijuana aficionados were using “420” as a code for smoking and using it as a sign-off on fliers for concerts where the drug would be plentiful.

Other explanations offered had to do with the molecular composition of THC and police radio shorthand for pot-related lawbreaking. Since this guy is also just offering a hearsay explanation, it's perhaps appropriate that the answer remain a bit hazy.

The Times article also notes the growing optimism of drug legalization advocates that marijuana will gain some legal recognition in the relatively near future. For his part, Andrew Sullivan has been trying to move the ball down the field by running a series on his blog he's branded "The Cannibis Closet," featuring letters from established, successful people who regularly indulge in the forbidden flora. Here are a few representative examples.

I'm for decriminalization and interested in the revenue-raising possibilities of full legalization with a government monopoly, though I wonder if the policing costs of enforcing that monopoly would absorb too much of the savings from enforcing the criminal statutes to make such a move worthwhile. And I'm basically on board with the first argument of Sullivan and other pro-legalization voices: that heavy use of marijuana is less harmful than alcoholism. (For one quick illustration why this is a defensible point, see here.) But the breezy implication, bordering on outright assertion, that pot is totally harmless, troubles me. Obviously there are things it's just not a great idea to do while high, including many of the same things (driving, operating power tools, etc) one shouldn't do while drunk. The effects of long-term use, though, can be damaging as well, and as is the case with alcohol, an individual's body type and chemistry has a big impact on tolerance as well as how one holds up over a span of years with it.

Beyond that, it's said that "marijuana addiction" is almost a contradiction in terms: there's no physical dependency that develops, as is not the case with heroin or alcohol. But the line between addiction and habit--something one does regularly, almost as a matter of routine--is not always entirely clear, and I can say with some confidence that a pot habit carries some unhealthy consequences. You might eat too much, and not well; you might circumscribe your social circle. Mental acuity suffers, as does ambition; recall goes a bit fuzzy in spots. On the other hand, it can be a hell of a lot of fun, and a spur to creativity and relaxation. Essentially it rearranges one's senses and abilities: some things get better, some things get worse.

I guess the takeaway from all of this is that simplistic answers--total prohibition or total celebration--add no value. But the rational answer from a policy perspective (it should be allowed, but with as full public information as possible and responsible controls, similar to how we treat alcohol but probably without the celebratory advertising) and a personal perspective (nothing necessarily wrong with trying it, but understand what it is you're doing) might remain beyond the grasp of a society that still tends to embrace the simplistic.

Update: Mark Bowden has a worthwhile column in today's Philadelphia Inquirer that tracks my feelings on the legalization/celebration question fairly closely.

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