Report — From the April 2016 issue

Legalize It All

How to win the war on drugs

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I voted for marijuana legalization even though I hadn’t smoked pot in years and wasn’t much interested in doing so. Legalization seemed a sensible political and economic measure, and a way to distinguish Colorado as a progressive beacon of the West. But one night in July, I was headed for the Cruiser Ride, Boulder’s goofy, costumed weekly bicycle parade, and I thought it might be fun to try it stoned. It was a lightbulb-over-the-head moment. A year ago, I wouldn’t have known where to find a joint. Now, I simply pedaled to the Green Room, a marijuana retail store a mile from my house. Although I wear every one of my fifty-nine years on my face, I was carded — in a reception room decorated with portraits of Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix. A bud tender escorted me into the store, where I stood at a counter, separated from the customer next to me by a discreet, bank-teller-like divider. I picked up a card titled edibles education: start low, go slow and read that if I bought any of the pot-laced artisanal goodies, I should not consume them with alcohol; I should keep them out of the reach of children; I should start with a single small serving and wait two hours before taking more. “Everybody’s metabolism is different,” it said. For a new consumer, no more than one to five milligrams of cannabis was recommended; the potency of the buttery candies and cookies was listed on the labels. This was a far cry from the fibrous, foul-tasting pot brownies I used to eat before late-night college screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A young bud tender — tattooed and achingly professional — presided over a copious array of marijuana blossoms in large glass apothecary jars. I confess I got a little lost as he discoursed, with Talmudic subtlety, on the differences between Grape Ape, Stardawg, and Bubba Kush. The joint that I bought for $10 — fat, expertly rolled, and with a little paper filter — came in a green plastic tube with a police-badge-shaped sticker reading department of revenue, marijuana. For someone who started buying pot in alleys when Gerald Ford was president, this felt like Elysium.

I wasn’t allowed to light up in the store or outside on the street; I had to go home to smoke legally. As instructed, I started low and went slow, taking only one hit. Twenty minutes later, I was stoned in that good way I remembered: I felt perceptive and amused, with none of the sluggishness or paranoia common to the old fifteen-dollar ounces. That single joint I bought is so strong that even though I’ve taken hits from it half a dozen times since my Cruiser Ride, I still have about a third left, a treat to keep around for the right occasion.

So under legalization I have become a pot smoker again. But I don’t drive stoned or need treatment, so who cares? I drink a beer or a dram of Laphroaig most days too, and I still hit my deadline for this article.

If it is now time to start thinking creatively about legalization, we’d be wise to remember that, like carefully laid military plans, detailed drug-liberalization strategies probably won’t survive their first contact with reality. “People are thinking about the utopian endgame, but the transition will be unpredictable,” says Sterling, of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. “Whatever system of regulation gets set up, there will be people who exploit the edges. But that’s true for speeding, for alcohol, for guns.” Without a state-run monopoly, there will be more than one type of legal, regulated drug market, he says, and the markets won’t solve every conceivable problem. “Nobody thinks our alcohol system is a complete failure because there are after-hours sales, or because people occasionally buy alcohol for minors.” Legalizing, and then regulating, drug markets will likely be messy, at least in the short term. Still, in a technocratic, capitalist, and fundamentally free society like the United States, education, counseling, treatment, distribution, regulation, pricing, and taxation all seem to better fit our national skill set than the suppression of immense black markets and the violence and corruption that come with it.

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is the author of four books, most recently Gun Guys (2013). His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “How to Make Your Own AR-15,” appeared in the June 2013 issue.

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