Despite the May DEA raids and Richard Lee's retirement, Oaksterdam University is still alive, and Saturday evening saw its first event under the leadership of his replacement, new executive chancellor Dale Sky Jones. It was a timely and informative one, featuring the authors of four recent books on marijuana, three of which we have recently reviewed, with moderation by David Downs, author of the weekly East Bay Express's Legalization Nation column.
But before getting down to business, Jones took a moment to talk up Oaksterdam and its founder, who was present at the event.
"This is the first new Oaksterdam University presentation, and it's a perfect opportunity to put Oaksterdam University back on the map," she said. "We cannot let this historic institution die, and we owe it all to Richard Lee," Jones added, sparking a round of applause from the several dozen in attendance.
Then Downs took over, explaining that he would treat the event as if he were the host of a TV talk show and invite one author to the dais at a time to discuss his work before opening things up for general discussion and questions from the audience.
First up was Campos, whose research into historical Mexican attitudes toward marijuana is and should be leading to some revisions in the standard narrative of US pot prohibition, which both followed and echoed Mexico's. As Campos showed, cannabis came to Mexico as hemp way back in 1530, then escaped into the indigenous pharmacopeia only to be demonized as a devil weed by the Inquisition, meanwhile picking up the marijuana moniker.
The Mexicans themselves developed a full-blown Reefer Madness, complete with the belief that marijuana use led to madness and murder, decades before we did. And we imported it, lock, stock, and barrel, thanks to the yellow press in both countries and the creation of the Associated Press, which allowed the same Mexican press horror stories to be picked up and circulated for years among different US newspapers.
"In the contemporary era, the US has been putting pressure on Mexico to fight the war on drugs, and people in the scholarly literature assumed this was always the case, but marijuana was banned nationally in Mexico in 1920, with the first local bans beginning in the 1870s," Campos explained. "That doesn't really fit the model. I'm a drug reformer, too, but we have to understand it's not simply the US imposing this; it has deep roots in other places, Mexico being one, but others in Latin America, too."
"Well, The Weekly Standard liked it, and so did StoptheDrugWar.org," he said.
A recent Slate article based on the book sensationally warned that with full legalization, the price of marijuana could decline dramatically. That prompted Downs to query Kilmer about it.
"National legalization and legalization in a state are two different things," the RAND scholar carefully pointed out. "If it were farmed like any other agricultural good, the price would drop dramatically to as low as a few dollars an ounce. But at the state level, it's a different story. It would depend on what the federal government would do, and no one knows that. That's important because much of the price is compensation for risk, and under national legalization, there would be a reduction in risk compensation, too."
"And the fear is that low prices might drive usage up?" asked Downs.
"Well, people who are not fans of pot might not like that," Kilmer responded. "We think legalization would end up increasing use, but we make clear we don't know by how much. And we have to think about its effects on alcohol consumption. The harms of heavy cannabis use pale in comparison with those of alcohol, but we don't know whether legalization would decrease or increase alcohol use."
Local legend Ed Rosenthal, whose Quick Trading Company has become a pot publishing powerhouse and whose latest title is about dealing with pests, talked about his love for growing and had one of the better lines of the night.
"Marijuana isn't addictive, but growing it can be," he proclaimed.
Greg Campbell, whose "Pot, Inc." used his adventures in the Colorado medical marijuana boom as a springboard for a broader discussion of marijuana prohibition and its alternatives, said he came to the issue not as an advocate, but as a curious outsider.
"I am representative of the majority in Colorado, who are not morally disgusted by the idea of this industry, nor are they true believers," Campbell said, explaining that his personal experience with marijuana was limited to a college semester and didn't go well. "I was neutral about this industry popping up, with some healthy skepticism about the medicinal qualities. But I learned that the medical qualities can't be denied and I ended as a true believer in legalization."
Colorado has survived its experiment so far, he said in response to a question from Downs.
"We've had two or three years without people dropping dead from smoking Sour Diesel, everything is fine, and we're a little bit annoyed by the federal government. They've been picking off the low-lying fruit," he complained, alluding to the two dozen or so Colorado dispensaries forced to shut their doors in the face of federal threats.
Legalization will be on the ballot in Colorado this year, along with Oregon and Washington, and it was on the minds of Downs and the four writers.
"There are signs of regime change," said Campos. "When moral revolutions come, some cruel or nonsensical practice will have existed for a long time, then suddenly it ends. The end begins with a strong, well-organized, well-funded movement against it, as there was with the African slave trade or foot-binding in China, and then there's a tipping point. I feel that with well-organized, well-funded groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and NORML, we're very close to that point now. It's time to push even harder and continue to fund these groups."
Legalization has many unknowns, said Kilmer, and should have an escape clause.
"No one has ever legalized cannabis production before; it should have a sunset provision," he declared.
"The war on drugs has been a human rights disaster," said Campos. "We need to keep our eyes on the prize of ending drug prohibition. I'm convinced that someday our children will look back on this period and wonder how we allowed that system to remain.
As for the unknowns of legalization, Campos had one cogent observationt.
"Look back at the late 19th Century, when not only cannabis, but heroin and cocaine were completely unregulated, yet use was never that high," he pointed out.
But leave it to Rosenthal to really put things in perspective.
"Marijuana has been illegal for 75 years," he noted. "In the history of the United States, the norm has been for marijuana to be legal. Marijuana prohibition is an aberration. The bottom line is nobody should go to jail or prison for marijuana, people should be able to grow their own, and the police should be out of it."