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May 09, 2008

I Never Thought I Would Be the Guy Writing to His Congressman to Legalize Pot

And yet, I am. For the record, I do not smoke marijuana, nor do I drink except rarely. Nor do I smoke cigarettes. I do, however, occasionally indulge in hardcore hallucinogenic drugs, but that's just because I like it when the curtains talk to me.

Recently I read a newspaper article about H.R.5843, The Act to Remove Federal Penalties for the Personal Marijuana Use by Responsible Adults (read full text of the bill here). Basically it says you can have 100 grams or less pot for "personal use," and if you get caught smoking in public, it's a hundred dollar fine. Now I don't know how much 100 grams is, but it sounds like a lot. Certainly more than you need to get your rocks off. The bill is sponsored by Barney Frank and Ron Paul, both of whom I like a lot, and it finally seeks to address our nation's drug hypocrisy, which I hate. The hypocrisy is this: 40% of Americans have smoked or will smoke marijuana during their lifetimes. It's less dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes, and yet we allow our political leaders pretend that it's some dangerous scourge that's going to infect our youth and turn them into brownie-munching zombies. To which I say: bullshit. And besides, even if it does, brownies are delicious.

So I wrote my first ever letter to my congressman, Christopher Shays (pictured below).

S001144 I cannot reprint the text of that letter because I wrote it to him directly from his website, and did not save a copy. Keep in mind, Shays is a Republican. Republicans, as a party, extol the virtues of personal freedom and responsibility, unless it's about what you put in your body or do to your body, or who you sleep with. Then they get all up in your shit. Consequently I did not expect his support on this issue, but I figured it couldn't hurt to write.

(For the record, Shays seems like a good guy: he is a fiscal conservative, but votes with the Democrats on a lot of things, including supporting gun control, supporting gay rights, supporting environmental regulations, humane treatment of animals, etc. He's also a Christian scientist who served in the Peace Corps from 1968-1970 in Fiji. Am I supposed to believe he didn't get high in Fiji?)

A week or so later, I received a reply from Congressman Shays' office. Which reads as follows:

Dear Michael:                           

Thank you for contacting my office expressing support for H.R. 5843, the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act.  I appreciate you taking the time to contact my office.

I would be inclined to oppose H.R. 5843 should it come to the House floor for my consideration.  This legislation would eliminate federal penalties for the possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana and the not-for-profit transfer of one ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana. Additionally, this legislation would provide for a civil penalty of $100 for the public use of marijuana.

While the medical use of marijuana may have its benefits, the fact is, recreational use of marijuana is not benign.  Smoked marijuana damages the brain, heart, lungs and immune system.  It impairs learning and interferes with memory, perception and judgment.  Smoked marijuana contains cancer-causing compounds and has been implicated in a high percentage of automobile crashes and workplace accidents.  By legalizing the medical use of marijuana we would be opening the door to easier production and accessibility for others.

Please do not hesitate to contact my office again.  If you would be interested in receiving my e-newsletter to update you about my work on your behalf in Washington, or for other information, please visit my website at www.house.gov/shays to sign up or to contact me.


Sincerely,

Christopher Shays
Member of Congress


CS:jm

I cannot guarantee the integrity of the text of this letter if it was not sent to you directly from my Congressional Email Account: rep.shays@mail.house.gov.  If you have any questions about the validity of this message, please email me or call my Washington, DC office at: 202/225-5541.

I found this response annoying because nowhere in my letter to him did I mention medical marijuana, as I think that's a side issue, and I didn't want to use it as an excuse to talk about recreational marijuana smoking. Also, I think his argument that marijuana has been "implicated in a high percentage of automobile crashes and workplace accidents" is specious. What percentage? What are you basing this on? Where are you getting your information? I appreciated that he told me "not to hesitate to contact" his office again. So I did. I wrote back another letter:

Dear Congressman Shays,

Thank you for responding to my email in support of HR 5843. While I agree with you that marijuana poses some health risks, I maintain that the risks are minimal, especially when compared with alcohol and cigarettes. According to the National Vital Statistic Report, in 2005 there were 21,634 alcohol-related deaths in the United States excluding accidents and homicide. The CHC reports that cigarettes cause 438,000 deaths each year. I can find no credible source reporting any marijuana-related deaths. This clearly does not mean marijuana is not directly or indirectly responsible for some deaths, but clearly whatever that number is, it pales in comparison to the deaths caused by cigarettes and alcohol. Furthermore, according to the White House's Office of National Drug Council and Policy, nearly 40% of Americans have tried or will try marijuana during their lifetimes. Are these people all criminals?

The same office reports that "12.7% of state prisoners and 12.4% of Federal prisoners were serving time for marijuana-related offenses." That's over a hundred thousand people incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes. My question is: does marijuana's cost to our national health justify the cost to society of locking up over a hundred thousand people each year? The average cost of incarceration is, conservatively, $20,000 per inmate. Is our marijuana policy saving us more than the two billion dollars a year it is costing just to keep people locked up? Not to mention the cost of police, lawyers, judges, etc?

Marijuana, when used responsibly, is as safe or safer than cigarettes and alcohol. I urge you to reconsider your position on HR 5843. Adults should have the right to make a personal choice regarding recreational marijuana use.

Thank you,
Michael Black

Nowhere did I offer to make my newsletter available to him, the way he did me. Perhaps I should have. But, what if he accepted my offer? Then I'd have to start publishing a newsletter. Anyway, sorry this isn't funnier, but there was something very satisfying about writing to my congressman, and I thought I would share the experience with you. God bless all of you, and God bless America.

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Joe

Hey Michael! Interesting post to say the least. Let us know when, or if, he writes back!

Sara

Based on this post alone, you are a dreamboat.

me again

I am being 100% serious with this suggestion: Please run for office.

Susanna

I'm so proud of you, writing to your congressman about legalizing pot. Don't give up on this issue - stoners are people too (high people!).

Ralph

Hey, long time reader, first time commenter. Thanks for the new post. I dislike most of the people who comment on your blog, so I will try not to hate myself. Thanks again for the post. I'll be reading.

Jaime

Now, you've really perked my ears. Funny and smart. Wow, Maddox and Suri are lucky kiddos. Now I will bore you with a long post.

I teach freshman composition at a small private University, and of course I get a million essay on legalization of marijuana. I was a staunch disbeliever until I read a few really logical arguments, became flummoxed, and finally conceded. Try referring Mr. Shays to some essays by Milton Friedman. Better yet, have him read Friedman's estimates on governmental revenue from taxing legalized marijuana. Interesting:
http://www.forbes.com/2005/06/02/cz_qh_0602pot.html

Anyway, that and the argument of marijuana's benality in comparison to alcohol and cigarettes is a good one, especially in connection to alcohol which is also a mind-altering substance.

So often, the opposition maintains that legalizing marijuana opens the doors for rampant drug use, that people will spend their days bombed or that it is dangerous to legalize this "gateway drug." However, to counter, it's important to note that though alcohol is legal, the majority of our population is not sitting around snivelling in a pool of vomit. We are responsible, and when we're not, we're penalized.

Also, marijuana is no more a gateway drug than alcohol is. No drug addict has gotten where they are without also getting drunk at some point in their past as well.

And I am so glad you addressed prison overpopulation. Probably 15% of my students chose this as a topic this year (I have no idea why. Never had anyone write on it before), but they all pointed to the high number of non-violent criminals (mostly marijuana users) incarcerated, the low rehabilitation rate, and the counterintuitive drawback of actually turning these non-violent criminals into violent criminals by sending them to overcrowded, violent, sodomizing, drug-infested prison. Compelling reading -- and cheery.

Anyway -- bully for you. You just hooked me on a whole other level. Much thanks.

Pee Pee

Jaime

Wow. That was too long. I'm sorry. Can I take it back?

your friendly congressional district office intern

i'm glad you wrote your congressman to support a bill, but it's totally lame they sent you a form letter.
what makes me sad that i haven't received on call or letter asking for support for that bill, but i've been receiving 10 faxes from crazy people who hate immigrants.

Matt

I wrote about the Online Gambling legislation that went into effect in October 2006 over the previous summer. I got the same form-letter jargon. I came to realize that I really don't matter if my issues differ from a senator's. They are not, in any way, representative of me.

Therese

They just re-classed pot here in England to make it a more 'dangerous' drug. I used to smoke it a lot, and never felt tempted to start shooting up smack as well. OK, so maybe I indulged in some other things, but nothing that couldn't be ingested through an existing orifice.

Good for you for presenting such a great case, even though his mind seems made up already. Keep us posted on his reply, should you get one. And please don't apologise for not being 'funnier' in this entry. Blogs aren't all about the 'laffs'.

Camille

Interesting,thought-provoking blog. I even enjoyed the comments,being that I like most of the people that comment on here.

Reen

Cammy, Ralph needs a flower in his hair and a good old fashioned "initiation"...

"We love you *anyway* Ralph! Mmmmmmuuuaaahh! :-* We're painting the church on Sunday! Come along and have some cake!"

Welcome back Tee! And agreed. Michael, you're an excellent read - doesn't matter what you throw out there, it's all good. Thanks.

I have to say, I plan to copy and paste this to a lot of people who would enjoy your concise and to the point take on 1. Republicans: "Republicans, as a party, extol the virtues of personal freedom and responsibility, unless it's about what you put in your body or do to your body, or who you sleep with. Then they get all up in your shit". Excellent. And of course 2. Your compelling argument for the legalization of Pot. Hot. Very hot. (Can I say that on here?) As you know, I'm much older than your target audience and most of my friends are in their 30's to mid 50's - many of them the tail end of an "era" shall we say. Musicians, free-spirits, tree-hugging Liberals, you get the idea. They're gonna loooovveeeeeee you up but good.

that stoner kid

You are my hero. Thank you for doing this and sharing it.

Last Saturday there was a Worldwide Marijuana March. Over two hundred cities participated. I participated in the Chicago march. Next year, you should make an appearance at your local march.

james

Sweet. I found this through Jim Himes Blog. http://www.himesforcongress.com/blog This is the man running against Rep. Shays. Although I can't vote for Himes (I did vote for Murphy) I would based on what I know about the man. (and what i know about Shays)

R_Bishop

Thanks for the informative post (and complete with facts and figures thrown in). I'll be sure to plagiarize most of this post for my obligatory college reference paper on the legalization of marijuana for English 101. Hopefully I get a better grade on this paper than I did by plagiarizing James Joyce's "Dubliners" for my Travel Writing 102 course.

jaime

There you go Bishop! Just sign up for my class -- I'll give you an A just for reading Michael's blog :)

CJ

I may or may not get back here ever again--my girlfriend forwarded me the link--but this is exactly the type of rational argument needed for an extremely serious issue.

For the sake of keeping things short, know what Friedman is a top scholar when it comes to drug policy, and there couldn't be a better academic voice to champion for level-headed drug politics.

I'm finishing up my studies at the University of Washington, and just this last quarter two classes focused on the carceral impact of our nation's drug policy. If you check the Federal Drug Schedule, you'll notice Marijuana listed in the same breath as "hard" drugs, such as: Heroin, Ecstasy and Meth derivatives. However, scroll down and you'll find Cocaine as a Schedule II.

These assignments carry heavy implications with mandatory minimums worsening, the higher you go.

I'm in the same boat as you, I don't smoke the stuff, but when there are people's lives destroyed over such hypocrisies, there's something wrong.

Thankfully, there are alternatives to incarceration; they still don't address the ridiculousness of our policy, but they're better than nothing. I encourage you to look into Drug Courts and Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative. The former is an opt-in system with strict guidelines, but allows successful participants to dispel any drug charges upon completion of the program. The latter is a post-sentencing program which takes one-half of the midpoint of a sentenced range, and turns that time into either an in-prison or out-patient treatment plan for recovery--you still have a criminal record, but you get out of your sentence if you're accepted.

MJ policies are just a small portion of our f'd up drug laws (ie. crack:powder cocaine and 10:1 sentencing), and we need high-profile voices to help motivate change.

Cheers.

Jaime

Here here CJ! Alternative punishments are what most of my students focused on too (like house arrest, halfway homes, and rehab options). I hadn't heard of these two. I will have to keep them in mind when my next spate of papers comes in :)

CJ

Aye.

Here's a good place to start for an overview:
http://www.ndci.org/courtfacts.htm

Drug Courts aren't your typical courtroom where adversarial proceedings are the style. Instead, they work as a "therapeutic" option, where the courtroom acts as a "team": defense, prosecutor and judge work together to help the "client." If you ever have a chance, go down to your district court house and see if they have on. The environment can be extremely uplifting, as in Washington's DDC, it's not uncommon to have the entire room clapping for a client for doing something well.

DOSAs are a from legislation which allow courts to extend treatment programs to non-violent individuals within certain guidelines, see:

http://www.puaf.umd.edu/faculty/reuter/CCJS%20720/WA%20State%20Institute%20for%20Public%20Policy.pdf

Sorry, can't go into much detail, but those are some good places for quick details.

Taylor

You like psychedelics too? We should chill, Mike.

alex

wow
you are amazing
they totally should legalize it man
that would be awesome

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