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Americans roll with growing pot culture

Written by Subject: Drug War
Published: September 27, 2009 3:00 a.m.
Americans roll with growing pot culture
Adam Tschorn - Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – Barneys New York in Beverly Hills is celebrating the Woodstock spirit by selling $78 “Hashish” candles in Jonathan Adler pots with bas-relief marijuana leaves. Hickey offers $75 linen pocket squares or $120 custom polo shirts bearing the five-part leaf. French designer Lucien Pellat-Finet is serving up white-gold and diamond custom pot-leaf-emblazoned wristwatches for $49,000 and belt buckles for $56,000.

This year, Season 5 of Showtime’s “Weeds” kicked off with promotional materials plastered on bus shelters, buses and billboards throughout the city. Last year, just across from the tourist-packed Farmers Market, a “Pineapple Express” billboard belched faux pot smoke into the air.

Even ’70s slacker-stoner comedians Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong are back. After recently concluding a world tour, they say they are working on another movie, voicing an animated version of themselves and even batting around the idea of staging a Cheech and Chong Broadway musical.

And in June, an estimated 25,000 people attended the inaugural THC Expo hemp and art show in downtown Los Angeles, an event that pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy – including a $22,400 payment directly to the city of Los Angeles for use of its convention center.

After decades of bubbling up around the edges of so-called civilized society, marijuana seems to be marching mainstream at a fairly rapid pace.

At fashion insider parties, joints are passed nearly as freely as hors d’oeuvres. Traces of the acrid smoke waft from restaurant patios, car windows and passing pedestrians on the city streets – in broad daylight.

Even the art of name-dropping in casual conversation – once limited to celebrity sightings and designer shoe purchases – now includes the occasional boast of recently discovered weed strains such as “Strawberry Cough” and “Purple Kush.”

National polls show close to half of American adults are now open to legalizing pot – a constituency encompassing today’s college students and the 60-something baby boomers who popularized the drug in their own youth.

Pot is legal for medical purposes in 13 states, including Michigan. In July, voters in Oakland overwhelmingly approved a tax increase on medical marijuana sales, the first of its kind in the United States, and something similar was proposed for Los Angeles.

New cultural status

Smoking pot used to be the kind of personal conduct that could sink a Supreme Court nomination (Douglas Ginsburg in 1987) or embarrass a presidential candidate (Bill Clinton in 1992). In contrast, it seems to be a non-issue for the current inhabitant of the Oval Office; President Obama issued his marijuana mea culpa in a 1995 memoir.

Drug references in popular music have multiplied like, well, weeds in the past three decades. Marijuana’s presence on TV and in movies has moved from the harbinger of bad things including murderous rage (“Reefer Madness” in 1936) to full-scale hauntings (“Poltergeist” in 1982) and burger runs gone awry (“Harold & Kumar go to White Castle” in 2001) to being just another fixture in the pop-culture firmament.

Cannabis crops up on shows such as “Entourage,” “True Blood” and “Desperate Housewives” and even on animated shows such as “Family Guy.”

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at the University of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, says marijuana’s new status is no surprise.

“The people who are making movies and television shows, from the scriptwriters to the director and the producers – a very large chunk of those are probably people who grew up not only much more comfortable with marijuana’s presence in society but probably as consumers themselves of it.

“As a result,” Thompson said, “it’s almost switched with alcohol. Think back to Dean Martin and Foster Brooks – their whole comedy act was the fact that they were in the bag – that now is seen a lot less often. The stoner is the new drunk.”

There’s one hitch. General marijuana use is illegal. Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance (in the same category as LSD, heroin and peyote), and possession of it is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, in 2007 there were 872,721 arrests in the U.S. for marijuana violations.

Indiana view

Trooper Dave Caswell with the Indiana State Police Fort Wayne post says he hasn’t seen an increase in marijuana arrests, but he is seeing marijuana being laced with harder drugs.

In addition, he says officers have tested today’s marijuana and found that the level of THC, the intoxicant found in marijuana, is up to 18 percent. The “older” marijuana, the stuff smoked by people in the ’60s and ’70s, only registered at 1 percent, Caswell says. He says the increase in THC levels is due to people tending their plants better.

Caswell agrees that the general attitude toward the drug has become one of acceptance. Of course, for him, that’s not the case.

“The people we deal with say it’s no different than alcohol,” he says.
And even though it is illegal, a new survey of Indiana teens by Indiana University’s Indiana Prevention Resource Center finds that marijuana smoking is on the increase.
The annual survey says that 14.6 percent of high school sophomores reported having used marijuana in the previous month, up from 13.5 percent in 2008. The report also found more marijuana use among eighth-graders and high school seniors.
Big money

Marijuana reform groups say it’s a $35.8 billion domestic cash crop. According to the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, marijuana ranks as Indiana’s third cash crop. Right behind corn for grain, which is No. 1, and soybeans.

And today’s cannabis consumers open their wallets for pot-themed movies, handbooks, energy drinks, hemp clothing and ganja-themed bus tours, all part of the ever-widening marijuana-adjacent economy.
The so-called marijuana movement has attracted some surprising names. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has spoken out about decreasing penalties for possession and protecting medical marijuana users. This year, Glenn Beck of Fox News announced on the air: “Look, I’m a libertarian. You want to legalize marijuana, you want to legalize drugs – that’s fine.”

David Bienenstock, senior editor of marijuana magazine High Times and author of “The Official High Times Pot Smoker’s Handbook,” said: “Whether you’re with the press or a politician, it’s no longer a third rail. In the past, it could have cost you your job. Now people are at least able to have those conversations.”


Terri Richardson, of The Journal Gazette, and The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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