Phil Gulley: Reefer Madness

Illustration by Ryan Snook

I was fortunate to grow up when parents held the reins loosely, so I spent my childhood in the woods surrounding Danville. One summer day, I happened upon several tidy rows of marijuana in the forest, planted, as it turned out, by an entrepreneurial teenager who lived in our town. Being a young Republican and excessively fond of the rule of law, I reported it to my father, who phoned the chief of police, Merle Funk, who came with a hoe, grubbed it out, and hauled it away. The next day, I kept watch from behind a tree until the scoundrel returned, saw his ruined crop, and dropped to his knees, devastated, like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

I knew marijuana was evil because Mr. Younce, our gym teacher, had shown us a film on its dangers. According to government experts, it led to rock music and premarital sex, followed by heroin, then insanity, with death not far behind.

But my classmate Jerry Sipes wasn’t convinced. “That stuff won’t hurt you,” he told us afterward in the locker room. “Mostly it just makes you want to eat brownies.”

As it turns out, Jerry—who had the lowest IQ in our entire class—was right, and the government scientists, J. Edgar Hoover, and Richard Nixon were wrong. Marijuana isn’t physically addictive, nor is it a gateway drug. Rock music would have happened anyway. People had been having sex outside of marriage since Adam and Eve. Lies, all of it. All marijuana did was make someone want to run to the nearest Kroger for a box of Hostess Twinkies. Or take a nap. Or listen to Bob Dylan. In other words, the stuff we were already doing, whether we had smoked marijuana or not, which means the effects of it were negligible.

I’m not speaking from personal experience, since I believed the lies and was always too scared to use marijuana. That is, until last year when a friend gave me a marijuana gummy bear she had bought in Colorado. She warned me not to eat it all at once, so I bit its head off, felt absolutely nothing, then ate its plump body. I had supper, went for a walk, read awhile, then went to bed. In other words, the stuff I always did, whether I had eaten a marijuana gummy bear or not. No tingle, no buzz, no Bob Dylan, no heroin, no insanity, no lying dead in a gutter with a needle stuck in my arm. Well, maybe a little Bob Dylan, but nothing more.

If a man or woman, at the end of their long and difficult day, wants to smoke a joint and relax, that does not impinge upon my happiness in the least.

Meanwhile, across our not-so-fair land, thousands of people, mostly young and poor, rot in prison for the high crime of possessing or selling marijuana, even as one state after another legalizes the plant. For-profit prison corporations have spent millions of dollars lobbying state legislatures to criminalize marijuana, then made billions more incarcerating those who use it. Police departments have seized and sold the property of people they suspected of enjoying a few gummy bears.

I’ve never known anyone, after smoking marijuana, to beat their spouse. I’ve never met anyone who overdosed on marijuana, nor have I heard of anyone becoming addicted to it. Unlike alcohol, your body doesn’t crave it, nor does it suffer withdrawal when you stop using it, which most users eventually do. It doesn’t turn people into lazy stoners, unless you think Barack Obama, Maya Angelou, Bill Gates, Franklin Graham, and Oprah Winfrey lack ambition. In fact, it doesn’t do anything our government, preachers, and teachers told us it would, which makes me wonder what else they’ve told us that wasn’t quite true. (In 1985, I preached a sermon at a church youth retreat in which I claimed smoking marijuana would lead to hell. Sorry about that, kids.)

Would I want my two sons to smoke pot? No, but only because I want them to use their money for other things, like college for my granddaughter or an IRA. For that matter, I also don’t want them driving Lamborghinis or wearing Louis Vuitton. They can drive a Subaru and wear Dickies from the co-op, like their old man.

Have you noticed we’re changing our minds about marijuana just as politicians and corporations are realizing there is gold in them thar marijuana hills? While I welcome the change of heart, I’m suspicious when our morals are shed once someone discovers there’s money in it. Money shouldn’t determine whether something is right or wrong. That is why, at the age of 58, I’ve become a disciple of happiness. If something makes me happy, without jeopardizing the happiness of others, I’m for it. Similarly, if something threatens the happiness of my neighbor, then I deem it wrong and want nothing to do with it.

Today, if I were walking in the woods and found a patch of marijuana, I would not feel obliged to report its grower. If a man or woman, at the end of their long and difficult day, wants to smoke a joint and relax, that does not impinge upon my happiness in the least. Nor should the government use its power to rob that man or woman of the freedom to do as they please, provided no one else is hurt. Likewise, if a man has fallen on hard times and can’t support his family on the miserly minimum wage our government has established, he should be free to plant and sell an acre of marijuana, just as farmers grow corn and beans. There should be no license to apply for, no fee to pay. It is his land, his labor, his admirable effort to feed his family, and I support him to the fullest degree. And any adult should be free to purchase the fruit of that man’s labor and enjoy it.

We imprison people who pose little risk to themselves or others, often plunging their families into economic and emotional ruin.

Despite growing acceptance nationwide, marijuana prohibition still costs our federal and state governments about $20 billion each year. The authorities arrest someone every 42 seconds for using or selling pot, depriving them of liberty for ingesting a product that seems to be far safer than tobacco, which is subsidized by the federal government through its crop insurance program. With that $20 billion, we could house the homeless, increase teacher pay, or make college more affordable. Instead, we imprison people who pose little risk to themselves or others, often plunging their families into economic and emotional ruin.

The entrepreneurial Danville teenager who planted that crop in the forest years ago was arrested by the police for possessing marijuana a few months after his 18th birthday. With a criminal record, he was unable to land a decent job and died without health insurance at the age of 30 from a congenital heart defect he couldn’t afford to treat. Is it too late for me to feel ashamed?

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.