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Book Review: "Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition," Mitchell Earleywine, ed. (Oxford University Press, $45.00 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer Editor, 9/29/06

Psychologist and addiction researcher Mitchell Earleywine advanced our understanding of marijuana with his aptly-named 2002 book, "Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence." Now, the State University of New York-Albany professor is out as the editor of a brand-new volume of essays devoted to outlining the costs of marijuana prohibition and thinking about the strategies that can undo it. "Pot Politics" boasts nearly 400 pages of top-notch research and analysis by some of the best thinkers in the marijuana reform movement, ranging from activists to academics, economists to social philosophers, and beyond.
With "Pot Politics" the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Standing alone, each of the 17 essays -- on topics including the efficacy of workplace drug testing, the effects of marijuana on driving, the philosophical and religious bases of marijuana policy, the mass media's distorted reporting on marijuana, and the economic consequences of prohibition -- is a cogent, sometimes eloquent, critique of some aspect of the marijuana laws. But taken as a whole, "Pot Politics" is a devastating assault on pot prohibition as a whole and a reasoned, thoughtful argument for marijuana legalization.

I've been writing the Drug War Chronicle for five years now, and following the marijuana law reform movement for decades before that, and I'm usually hard-pressed to hear or read something about pot policy that I haven’t seen before. That's not the case with "Pot Politics." Yes, I was familiar with Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron's work on the economics of marijuana prohibition, but I hadn’t seen him put the data together on the national level, broken down state-by-state. According to Miron -- and after reading his essay, who's going to argue with him? -- we are paying nearly $8 billion a year to continue the folly of arresting and jailing marijuana offenders. At the same time, by refusing to do the sane thing and tax and regulate marijuana sales, we are foregoing more than $6 billion annually in lost tax revenues. Hell, $6 billion pays for three weeks of the Iraq war. Or we could find other uses for it.

An essay by University of Washington School of Social Work faculty members Roger Roffman and Anne Nichol is similarly fresh -- and full of smart ideas that could advance the movement. "The anti-prohibition movement will enhance its effectiveness in promoting liberalized policy and better serve the public if the movement's mission is expanded to include the dissemination of accurate, thorough, and balanced marijuana educational information, tailored for each of its current and potential constituencies," the pair convincingly argue. If the movement can provide honest, useful information about the possible adverse consequences of marijuana use to users, potential users (youths), users beginning to experience problems, dependent heavy users, concerned others, and service providers, its credibility will be enhanced among the public at large and fill a harm reduction information gap within the marijuana community.

That's good, solid, innovative thinking, and that's just what our movement needs. Charles Thomas of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (IDPI) provides more of that with a pair of essays describing the sometimes surprising positions of various religious denominations on marijuana and related issues and making the crucial point that pot law reform is simply not going to happen without bringing religiously-inclined people -- the vast majority of Americans -- over to our side. But, as Thomas' detailed analysis of the various denominations' stances suggests, the distance may not be that far. Still, for a movement that is largely secular, if not downright hostile to organized religion, thinking about broadening our ministry to reach out to our brethren in the pews is absolutely necessary.

Essay after essay is replete with this sort of provocative information and analysis. Yes, some of the pieces read more like research reports than persuasive writing, but behind the occasionally stolid prose there is useful data carefully evaluated. Academic rigor may not always make for the flashiest writing, but it has other qualities to recommend it.

Still, it took Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) to lay out the futility of marijuana prohibition in a nutshell. "The illogic of America's pot policy -- and its obvious solution -- became stunningly clear to me one day while I was waiting in line for a beer at a concert," he wrote in the forward to this volume. "I was... getting a beer for myself and a friend. When I turned to leave, I was approached by a kid clearly under the legal drinking age. He offered to trade me two joints for both of my beers. Then and there I understood the folly of America's pot policy. Here's a kid who can't get alcohol because it's taxed and regulated who has no problem whatsoever getting pot -- precisely because it's not taxed and regulated."

The marijuana reform movement understands this almost intuitively, but the rest of the polity is not quite there yet. "Pot Politics" will help the movement marshal its best arguments -- moral, legal, theological, pragmatic -- to move the rest of us forward, it will be an eye-opener for students and movement newcomers, and even for seen-it-all movement graybeards, there are going to be a few occasions when you stop and say to yourself, "Wow, why didn’t I ever think of that before?" "Pot Politics" is a welcome addition, both to the knowledge base on marijuana policy and its consequences and to the drug reformer's arsenal.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Radio Interview with the author Mitch Earleywine

09/29/06 Dr. Mitch Earleywine editor of Pot Politics + Kinky Friedman, Poppygate & Black Perspective & KPFT Prison Show Host Ray Hill

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