Steve Fox is high on a mission. The Marblehead native is Director of State Campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. the nation's largest marijuana reform organization.
He has just co-authored a book entitled "Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" The provocative work was written with Paul Armentano of NORML ( the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a nonprofit lobbying organization working to legalize marijuana ), and Mason Tvert of SAFER ( Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, a Colorado-based organization that maintains marijuana is less harmful than alcohol ).
Fox, who is a graduate of Marblehead High School, Tufts University, and Boston College Law School, probably never expected to find himself on this career track. Yet the successful lobbyist, who worked previously as associate director of the Massachusetts Democratic Leadership Council and in the press office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has found a calling.
"I started working on marijuana policy professionally in 2002. At the time, I did not envision myself working in the field for the long-term. But it has really become my passion. I believe it is wrong to punish adults who prefer to use marijuana instead of alcohol," Fox said.
Up until the 1940s, marijuana was legal. But in the 1950s, the government embarked on a propaganda campaign to convince Americans that pot was a dangerous, addictive substance. It was classified as a Schedule 1 drug, and viewed in the same category as LSD or PCP. Possession and recreational use of pot became a crime that is still punishable by law in all 50 states.
Fox and other advocates for marijuana reform believe the government has a double standard. While alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs ( which they maintain are proven to be far more dangerous than pot ) are legal, the sale and consumption of cannabis for recreational purposes remains illegal.
In the book he states, "Why do we criminally arrest or discipline people for consuming a substance that is not associated with acts of violence, yet tolerate and at times even celebrate the use of another that is? Why do we embrace the use of alcohol, a toxic substance whose consumption is responsible for hundreds of acute alcohol-poisoning deaths in the United States each year, while at the same time condemn the use of marijuana, which is incapable of causing a fatal overdose?"
Many agree. Over the years, personal attitudes towards "the killer weed" have mellowed. The U.S. government reports that over 100 million citizens over the age of 12, or nearly 43 percent of the population, say they've smoked pot. The Gallup organization, which has been gauging support for marijuana legalization for decades, showed national support for legalization has increased from 31 percent in 2000, to 44 percent today.
Law enforcement and the medical community are also loosening up. The American Medical Association has called for a review of marijuana's classification. Cannabis use for medicinal purposes has been legalized in 13 states. And in a major policy shift from the Bush administration, federal prosecutors under the Obama administration are no longer targeting medicinal users.
Although this all comes as a breath of fresh air to Fox, he does not anticipate federal legislation legalizing pot in the near future.
"The only way we will change our marijuana laws is on a state-by-state basis," he said.
Although some are convinced that the dangling carrot that will push legislation through is the tax revenue stream that legalization of marijuana could produce, Fox disagrees.
"The revenue would be a benefit on top of the realization that it just doesn't make sense to spend our law enforcement resources maintaining a system of prohibition over a substance that is just so benign," he said.
Although he acknowledges that pot has its dangers, Fox believes that it is a better choice than alcohol.
"When parents have a serious talk about drugs with their kids, they should think about the fact that alcohol overdose can result in death in one night, while there has never been a marijuana overdose death in history. Our society is literally driving people to drink, and no one should be punished for making the rational choice to use a safer substance," he said.
When questioned if he personally smokes marijuana, the clean-cut and professional-looking Fox said, "I have in the past, and I will when it's legal. Think of it this way: If the alcohol industry announced tomorrow that they had developed a new recreational substance that is less addictive, less toxic, less likely to lead to serious health problems, less likely to be associated with violence and does not produce hangovers, would you use it?"
Steve Fox will sign copies of his book at 4 p.m. on Nov. 28 at Spirit of 76 Bookstore in Marblehead.
[sidebar by Bette Keva]
BENEFITS JUST A SMOKE SCREEN, SAY SOME
Essex County District Atty. Jonathan Blodgett is a regular speaker in schools and at conferences about his opposition to marijuana. When Question 2 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of it went on the ballot in the Nov. 4, 2008 election, he made known his views. It would have a negative effect on children, he said. Furthermore, it would lead supporters to aim for "their ultimate goal -- the legalization of drugs," he told The Daily News Tribune of Needham on Oct. 8, 2008.
Ultimately, voters overwhelmingly approved the ballot initiative last November in which users caught with less than an ounce of pot can be punished by a civil fine of $100.
Blodgett was not alone in his opposition last year. The governor, attorney general and district attorneys around the state said that decriminalizing possession would promote drug use and benefit drug dealers. They warned it would increase violence and safety hazards in the workplace, causing more car crashes as more youths drive under the influence.
Medical Marijuana ProCon.org lists pros and cons on marijuana use. Here are a few:
. While proponents laud it for relieving certain types of pain and nausea, opponents say there has not been enough scientific evidence to prove it.
. DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young said evidence shows that marijuana relieves the distress of great numbers of very ill people. He advocates administering it under medical supervision. On the contrary, John Walters, Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy, maintains that it damages the brain, heart, lungs and immune system. It impairs learning and interferes with memory, perception, and judgment.
. Proponents say there is little evidence that smoking is a significant health risk. Although cannabis has been smoked widely in Western countries for more than four decades, there have been no reported cases of lung cancer or emphysema attributed to marijuana, according to Dr. Leter Grinspoon, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The British Lung Foundation is opposed, saying three to four marijuana joints a day are associated with the same evidence of acute and chronic bronchitis and the same degree of damage to the bronchial mucosa as 20 or more tobacco cigarettes a day.
Neither District Attorney John Blodgett nor Detective Rose Cheever of the Swampscott Police Department returned phone calls to respond on this issue.
November 25, 2009
Jewish Journal Boston North