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He's Not High: Inside Barney Frank's Plan to Legalize Marijuana
By John H. Richardson
While Congress debates health care, handles the economic downturn, and the quagmire in Afghanistan, Congressman Barney Frank is eyeing America's draconian pot policies.
To my shame, I started my interview with Congressman Barney Frank about the legalization of marijuana by apologizing to my subject. "I know you guys have a lot on your plate these days, so I'm sorry to be calling you about something kind of trivial..."
Then I did a rapid midcourse correction. "But it's not trivial, because people go to jail over it."
"That's exactly right," Frank said.
We were talking about the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2009, Frank's latest attempt to bring sanity to the federal marijuana laws. Currently, pot is classified as a Schedule I Controlled Dangerous Substance under federal law, which makes it worse than morphine, cocaine, amphetamine, and PCP. Possession of a single joint carries a penalty of $1,000 and a year in prison - a charge faced by about 800,000 American citizens every year. This is the government whose judgment on war and economics we are supposed to respect.
So I started the interview over.
ESQUIRE: Could you tell me why you're doing it at this time? Everybody says you guys have got so much to handle right now.
BARNEY FRANK: Announcing that the government should mind its own business on marijuana is really not that hard. There's not a lot of complexity here. We should stop treating people as criminals because they smoke marijuana. The problem is the political will.
ESQ: That's my second question. There's already been a lot of change in the country. Thirteen states have decriminalized pot. What's holding up Congress?
BF: This is a case where there's cultural lag on the part of my colleagues. If you ask them privately, they don't think it's a terrible thing. But they're afraid of being portrayed as soft on drugs. And by the way, the argument is, nobody ever gets arrested for it. But we have this outrageous case in New York where a cop jammed a baton up a guy's ass when he caught him smoking marijuana.
ESQ: You're kidding.
BF: Actually, I've just been corrected by my partner - it was a radio he jammed up the guy's ass, not his baton.
ESQ: Small radio, I hope.
BF: By the way, the bill is bi-partisan: I've got two Democrats and two Republicans.
ESQ: Who are the Republicans?
BF: Ron Paul. And Dana Rohrabacher from California.
ESQ: Isn't Rohrabacher pretty hard-right?
BF: He's a very conservative guy, but with a libertarian streak.
ESQ: That libertarian streak will help you out once in a while. And who's against it?
BF: Well, Mark Souder from Indiana, who's very much a proponent of the drug war.
ESQ: When you talk to Souder about it, what does he say?
BF: You don't waste your time on people with whom you completely disagree.
BF: Here's one thing I would say - there's a great intellectual flaw at work here. People say, "Oh, you want the government to approve of smoking marijuana." And the answer is, no, there should be a small number of things that the government makes illegal, but the great bulk of human activity ought to be none of the government's business. People can make their own choices.
ESQ: What about the "public-square" argument that we need to keep prostitutes off the streets and pot-smokers on the run in order to promote a higher level of morality and civic order?
BF: One, I don't think it's immoral to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, even though they may make you sick. Morality to me is the way you treat other people, not the way you treat yourself. John Stuart Mill's On Liberty makes a great deal of sense in that regard. I wish more people read him.
ESQ: My father forced me to read On Liberty when I was fourteen years old. I still haven't recovered.
BF: He deals very thoughtfully with some of the objections.
ESQ: Then let me ask you from the other side: Why is the bill so modest? You explicitly say you're not going to overturn state laws.
BF: Because I think it's important, when you're confronting political opinions this way, to make it easier for people. This isn't for drug dealers. Although I do think there's a logic that once you've allowed people to smoke, you're going to go beyond that.
ESQ: So how far do you really want to go? Decriminalize completely? Tax it, like they're talking about out in California?
BF: I don't think that's a debate I should get into right now.
ESQ: So you want to be a cautious centrist, waiting for the country to come around?
BF: [pause] You think this is centrist?
ESQ: [laughs] Okay, sorry.
BF: I must say, I don't have a lot of sympathy with people on the left who say, "Oh, I'm not going to settle for some small step, I'm going to take the big step." I'm doing something I think could be passable. I believe the results of modest beginnings will encourage people to go further. And if the people who disagree with me are right, it won't go further.
ESQ: Realistically, do you think it's going to pass?
BF: Not this year, no.
ESQ: How long do you think it will take?
BF: There's no point in my guessing. Why would I want to guess? We'll have a rational discussion, and we'll see where it goes from there.
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