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Join the party on pot legalization?

Around Memorial Day, this headline appeared in The Orange County Register: “Rep. Dana Rohrabacher: I use medical marijuana for my arthritis.” This wasn’t Willie Nelson talking about using marijuana, or Snoop Dogg, or Woody Harrelson. This was a conservative Republican, and, most likely, your elected congressional representative, talking about how someone gave him some cannabis wax for his aching joints at an Inland Empire pot expo. He applies it topically before bed, and, voilá, no more pain.

Rohrabacher’s admission created no controversy. It cost him nothing, politically. If anything, like past marijuana advocacy statements he’s made, it probably helped make him more palatable to a broader range of voters. And it made me realize how far we’ve come.

My name is Neal Pollack, and I’m a stoner. Forget the Cheech and Chong images the word “stoner” conjures: I own a home and two cars, have published 10 books, have written for The Wall Street Journal and Wired, among many other national publications, travel around the world driving race cars, and am a three-time “Jeopardy!” champion. Except when I’m driving the race cars, marijuana is part of my life – like drinking wine, or flossing, or going for an evening walk with my wife.

When I first used marijuana sometime around 1995, I was already a successful journalist in my mid 20s. I didn’t start getting high for any kind of disorder or illness. It happened because I was hanging around a different, more bohemian crowd than before. Surrounded by poets and self-styled revolutionaries, I felt vaguely countercultural when I got stoned. Back then, at the height of the drug war, I was. Pot appeared at parties and at concerts, but everything about its culture, unless you went on vacation to Amsterdam, stayed way underground.  Getting weed wasn’t easy, and the people who had it were often shady or unstable. There were harsh penalties for indulging in what non-users considered a demonic gateway to certain death. Stoners found one another gradually, via secret handshake. Non-stoners often walked out of parties when they smelled the dank.

I moved to California 10 years ago because my bestselling memoir had been optioned for a movie, hardly a stoner’s motivation. But by that time, some of the weird stigma around pot had been removed, and I found a version of paradise. The state, full of professionally successful stoners like me, was already a decade into its medical marijuana experiment, though everyone knew that despite the genuine needs of many patients, “medical” was just code for “quasi-legal.” The system was a sham, populated by fake doctors at pop-up non-clinics, basically a shoddy backdoor to true legalization. Some dispensaries were well-marked, while others hid in the shadows. I made monthly trips to a sketchy apartment behind the Burrito King on Hyperion in Los Angeles and another one hidden behind a weed-and-corrugated-tin-strewn lot on Sunset. Pot had mainstreamed a bit, but only a bit. Being a stoner still took dedication, effort and will.

Now here we are, in the legalization decade. Four states have legal recreational marijuana, available in stores at the strip mall. In Washington, D.C., though it’s not legal to sell or buy, it is legal to possess, leading to people spending $40 for a couple of bags of tea, and then getting an eighth of an ounce of sativa as a “gift.” And it’s not just bags of chiba. Marijuana exists in candy form, as sodas, as vaporizable wax, disguised as aspirin, as an ingredient in raw-food coconut nutrition balls, and even, to the great surprise to anyone who’s kissed someone with pot mouth, as breath strips. It gets successfully used as a palliative for ailments ranging from AIDS, cancer, epilepsy and PTSD to anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain.

Not only that, but science has developed to the point where there’s even marijuana that doesn’t get you high. It turns out that the plant contains many cannabinoids, organic substances that have many pharmacologic properties: Some have psychoactive qualities, others provide pain relief, and still others prevent epileptic seizures. For patients in hospice, there are concentrates strong enough to tranquilize a horse and remove cancer pain. It’s a far cry from sneaking a puff in the alley before a punk show.

As pot goes mainstream, we’re quickly learning that though marijuana comes with some risks, it may actually be good for society. Colorado has seen a decrease in driving while impaired and traffic deaths, and even, thanks to an excellent education program, a decrease in teen marijuana use. My wife and I are raising a teenager with minimal drama (so far). When it comes to marijuana, I’m taking the line with him that the state of Colorado takes. Pot is bad for teenagers, because consuming it as a teen is bad for brain development. Wait until you’re 21, or, even better, 25. At that point, if you live where it’s legal, any risk you take is your own.

But the risks seem pretty minimal at the moment. Adults are having fun. The New York Times did a story on soccer moms who use pot, featuring a suburban book club populated by Christian stoners. I’ve attended marijuana-theme gourmet banquets, taken marijuana yoga classes, and even stayed a night at a marijuana B&B that featured an amazing “happy hour” at 4:20, as well as a breakfast buffet of a half-dozen strains. This is no longer the realm of the poets and the jailbirds. It’s a bourgeois hobby and a medical cure-all advocated by none other than CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Marijuana, as it turns out, is as normal as beer, or wine, or water, or chocolate, or bread.
Rep. Rohrabacher is slightly out ahead of the political curve on this one. But he’ll have company before too long. Legalization efforts are on the ballot in several states this fall, including California, where 60 percent of voters back legalization and the pro-legalization lobby has a multimillion-dollar war chest. More than half of all states, including Louisiana and Ohio, have some form of medical marijuana on the books. Eventually the federal government will reclassify marijuana as a Schedule 2 drug, taking it out of the company of Ecstasy and heroin and placing it with prescription medicine, or even decides to put some marijuana-related products on the same footing as alcohol and tobacco, where I think they belong.
There will come a time, in the not-far future, when going to the store to buy marijuana or marijuana-related products will be as normal as going to the liquor store or the grocery store or the drug store. In my lifetime, Walgreens will sell marijuana. It will be as ordinary as self-driving electric cars, virtual-reality vacations and 3-D printed pizza.  

I’m not certain of much in this world, but I am certain of this: Weed will be around for the rest of our lives. It will be as American as apple pie and may even give that pie a little extra kick. Everything will be fine. Don’t be afraid. I’ll see you at the dispensary. We might even run into your congressman.

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