Moving Beyond the Medical

As tobacco goes out of fashion, marijuana enters the mainstream

In the first ever episode of Mad Men, Don Draper tries to sell a cigarette with the cheery claim that “it’s toasted.” Of course, the show’s creators can safely assume we know enough about the dangers of cigarettes to catch the irony. Gone are the days of the sultry noir dame with a cigarette in hand. Meanwhile, we’ve gone from societal terror over reefer madness to a culture of fairly widespread acceptance.

Pushed by research that favors marijuana over tobacco, a system of drug prosecution that victimizes children of color at an alarming rate, and changing societal norms, our outdated drug laws are adapting. 

“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” President Barack Obama recently tells the New Yorker. For possession of a drug that even Obama calls “not more dangerous than alcohol,” the penalties have always been harsh. Many see the drug war as thinly veiled race-baiting conjured by Nixon and Reagan to win elections. Books like the landmark The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander present data that firmly back up these ideas. The drug war has fueled anger toward the police and policies like stop-and-frisk, and also overburdened our prison system to an unsustainable excess. With debt as high as it is in New York, “sin taxes,” which discourage the use of unhealthy products, are still the most popular way to get money in a politician’s toolkit.

As New York toys with legalization of medical marijuana, the anti-tobacco push championed by Michael Bloomberg is in full swing, most recently with the restriction of cigarette purchasing to those under 21. In 2002, he instituted his first major indoor smoking ban and by 2011, you could get fined for lighting up at public parks or beaches. Even the arguably safer alternative of electronic cigarettes, robbed of everything but the nicotine, are on their way to a public ban simply because of the stigma associated with all cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration’s increasingly aggressive ad campaigns are about as disturbing as old anti-pot ads are funny today, and they emphasize the life/death narrative Bloomberg has used to back up his regulations. Bloomberg proudly proclaims in an interview with New York Magazine, “everybody agrees that [the indoor smoking] ban was one of the best things we ever did—saves 10,000 lives a year. Everybody loves it.” He’s right. It’s very unpopular to be a cigarette activist these days.

Meanwhile, when Andrew Cuomo talks about Marijuana, its health, not death, that is the keyword. In his State of the State Address, he says, “We have to make New York healthier. Research suggests that medical marijuana can help manage the pain and treatment of cancer and other serious illnesses. We’ll establish a program allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana, and we will monitor the program to evaluate the effectiveness and the feasibility of a medical marijuana system.” It’s hardly a shining endorsement, and it’s about as small a political step as he could take considering half of New Yorkers outright support medical legalization—including upstate Republicans, according to a Siena College poll. But Cuomo, presiding over a lumbering and divided state apparatus, can’t afford to make the type of bold statements and harsh judgments that Bloomberg does.

In New York City, legalizing marijuana has been uncontroversial for a long time. I spoke to local assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, who welcomed Cuomo’s statements as a move “long overdue.” He says, “there’s legislation pending which I am a sponsor of and there’s also a plan by Senator Liz Krueger to outright legalize marijuana which I would also be supportive of.” O’Donnell says he’d regulate marijuana in the same way as cigarettes, and he doesn’t think the legislation would conflict with Bloomberg’s indoor smoking restrictions. Second-hand smoke has effects beyond the medical, and it’s impossible to really avoid them indoors. “As a non-smoker,” he says, “I’m happy to go out to a restaurant or bar and come home and not have to reek of somebody else’s habit… In the days when you could do that, I would go home and literally have to take everything I’m wearing, put it in the wash, and get in the shower to rid myself of the smell of a smoke-filled room.”

Were it just up to cities, weed would have been legalized in New York, San Francisco, and Denver decades ago. But as Cuomo’s statement and legalization in the two Super Bowl states (Washington and Colorado) show, momentum for the idea is gaining steam.

The best case for marijuana comes from the far worse drugs already on the market. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention places tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death, responsible for one in five deaths every year. While alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death, developing an alcohol habit is almost a rite of passage in college these days (ever hear “you’re only an alcoholic after you graduate”?). Any major legal prohibitions on its use were put to bed in the prohibition era. And as Go Ask Alice! emphasizes, “it may be important to note that consuming alcohol does not necessarily cause harm. The same cannot be said of tobacco use.” So while an after-meal cigarette during Sunday football may get you a few worried stares, that beer will always be a classic part of the tradition, despite the danger of one too many.

Marijuana, meanwhile, doesn’t cause overdose deaths, is not linked to violent crime like alcohol (which is responsible for 40% of violent crimes according to the National Council on Alcoholism), and is less harmful than cigarettes in the long term. O’Donnell also points out that, “the vast body of research says that Marijuana is not addictive.” On another level, the high in marijuana is more intense and conducive to the “moments of uninhibited frolic” that David Brooks put down as “lesser pleasures” in his recent, much-maligned New York Times column. Brooks’ claim that the drug takes away ambition and prevents people from achieving their potential might have been palatable just a few years ago, but it was met instead with a strong flood of angry responses.

And while Marijuana is by no means safe, the regulation of other dangerous substances has proved counterproductive. I think we all know that weed is still easy to find. Garrett Peck compared Marijuana to alcohol in the prohibition era in a NYT article, where he noted that back then, “consumers had no idea what they were buying from the bootlegger. Was it really Scotch, or was it industrial alcohol with caramel coloring added for ‘aging’, and iodine for that smoky sea taste?” Marijuana could be cut with all sorts of dangerous substances, all inhaled into our lungs.

Prohibition taught us that the best way to actually limit the dangers of alcohol was to control rather than outlaw it. This is another reason O’Donnell supports bringing marijuana to market just like alcohol so that it can be curbed with sin taxes, “designed more to change behavior than to bring money in. You make it so incredibly expensive that people don’t want to do it.”

On Bloomberg’s age restriction, O’Donnell argues that “the data we have says that…if you can prevent kids from starting [when they’re young], they’re less likely to start or continue the life of being a smoker as an adult.” But at the same time, both on taxes and age limits, “the truth is that there is a point where people become adults and they get to make their own adult decisions… It does seem odd to me that somebody can vote and somebody can enroll in the army and get killed, but they’re not allowed to smoke a cigarette.”

All it takes is a visit outside Butler Library to realize that our campus is an exception to the broader national trend. Even the polar vortex can’t stop students from braving the elements to take a drag outside Butler’s busy doors. One of them, who preferred to remain anonymous, explains, “Columbia students need a break from studies and cigarettes are just easier to get.”

Once you watch them for a while, you realize that Butler smokers go outside for two reasons. Some go out alone, lean against a wall, and gaze into the distance, hoping for a moment of peace away from the work awaiting them inside. Others congregate in circles, using it as a moment to share stories. Most smokers say that they were out there “to take a break” or to take a moment “with my friends.” The ritualization of the smoke break reinforces the comfort of the habit. What especially distinguishes marijuana from tobacco is that the latter, being more visible, has benefited from the momentum of desensitization.

Upon arriving to campus as a freshman, the first thought that crossed my mind was what it must have been like for Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg to arrive here. I imagined them with mischievous grins and, of course, burning cigarettes sticking out of their mouths. 

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