To legalize or not

I’ve got marijuana on my mind. On my mind, mind you, not in my lungs; believe it or not I never inhaled. Not that it wasn’t offered. Too scared, I suppose. And a chilled stemmed glass with a submerged pair of cocktail onions was somehow more appealing.

A lot of Arkansans have marijuana on their minds, those who succeeded in placing on the November ballot a referendum on legalizing the weed for medical purposes, and those resolved to defeat the proposal. And the undecided, however many there now remain in these final hours before early voting, and election day, conclude.

Advocates and opponents are resolute. Both sides have mustered physicians and other health professionals to argue for or against. The anti-’s have some law enforcement officers on their team. Not necessarily supporting the issue but (if my conversations with them are a valid indication) viewing it with a certain droll amusement are their street cops, who say marijuana already is so abundant, so easy to obtain, so comparatively affordable and thus so commonly trafficked in small quantities that arresting someone for possessing less than a half-pound of the stuff isn’t worth the paperwork. The Feds? They’re concerned with tonnage, not poundage. They essentially ignore medical marijuana sales now sanctioned by 17 states and the District of Columbia.

The profoundly shabby appeal to racial fears in the Family Council of Arkansas’s television campaign against the initiative nonetheless highlights a central concern of many citizens — that marijuana is a “gateway” drug. Who among us does not know someone whose son or daughter, or husband or wife or sibling, either died of drug abuse or occupies that hollow planet spinning but one orbit away from death, and who lament that the loved one’s horrific journey began with marijuana and escalated to more potent, more addictive and ever more dangerous chemicals?

There is official — read, government — opposition to medical marijuana. Gov. Beebe is not sympathetic and has said so. Offhand I can’t think of a single state legislator who isn’t in his or her final term who supports the proposition, and those who view it as benign but who have another campaign remaining shudder at the ammunition it would provide an opponent. And I know Arkansans who would be much more inclined to support medical marijuana provided the legal and administrative protocols somehow were more stringent.

But I also consider the case of a woman I know, a gal pal. Her story encapsulates the arguments for legalizing at the state level — again, federal sanctions, however loosely enforced, remain in place — cannabis for clinical purposes.

I’ve no reason to doubt her when she says she took a hit or two of marijuana during college, rather a while back, but no illegal drug use since, none. She’s a most moderate drinker, the kind who will have a couple glasses of wine a week at home, maybe a highball before a restaurant dinner, some champagne at your daughter’s wedding, that’s it. She misjudged a stoop a few years back and tumbled to the pavement, damaging a vertebra or disc — I’m not certain which or what — and surgery was required to correct the problem. The operation was a success from a structural standpoint, but twice, perhaps three times a year, something spinal flares and with it near unbearable pain. None of the drugs her doctors prescribed seemed to alleviate her suffering. In desperation she accepted, reluctantly, a friend’s suggestion that marijuana might work. Whatever apprehension and guilt she may have felt about resorting to an illegal substance, she says, literally went up in smoke, as did her pain.

Would the matter be more politically palatable, more acceptable to the clinical and law enforcement and faith communities were the petitioners to redraft their initiative to include tighter controls? Voters could moot the issue should they endorse the marijuana proposition in the voting booth, though I doubt they will, in which case its supporters, who have come surprising close simply in securing ballot position, may regroup, perhaps rewrite, and try again, as I suspect they will.

But that’s speculation. To legalize or not, now — that is the question. I don’t know. I am not dodging the question, no more than thousands of other Arkansans. The answer is, I don’t know.

• • •

Steve Barnes, a Pine Bluff native, is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.