Marijuana is Safer, which argues that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. He speaks now via phone to L.A. RECORD's Scott Schultz." /> L.A. Record


October 19th, 2009 | Interviews

Steve Fox is the Director of State Campaigns for Marijuana Policy Project—also known as the MPP, the nation’s largest marijuana reform organization—and is co-author of a new book called Marijuana is Safer, which argues that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. He speaks now via phone to L.A. RECORD‘s Scott Schultz.

Of the politicians in Washington D.C. who are opposed to marijuana legalization, what do you feel is the breakdown between those who are benefiting from the anti-drug campaigns, those who are privately in favor but politically opposed, and those who are just legitimately opposed?
Steve Fox: Fear is probably the biggest reason of all. When you think of the American public and how they’ve been convinced that marijuana is a dangerous drug, elected officials are at a whole other level. Many of them have been convinced that marijuana is a dangerous subject for them. They just know from their little playbook that’s given to them when they’re running for office: ‘Here’s what we’re going to say when anything about illegal drugs comes up.’ I think it’s really going to take public pressure for many of them to change, and that is what our book is all about. The book is about giving people the confidence to be more outspoken. There are so many people out there that are supportive of changing marijuana laws or maybe even using marijuana themselves. In the past—though they believed that marijuana was safer than alcohol—they weren’t prepared to talk about it at length. Instead they would get caught up in talking about, ‘Well, this is a waste of government resources!’ We want to make the simple point that all you need to talk about is, ‘I should just be able to choose.’ Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. I should not be punished if I want to use the less harmful substance. We should be asking our elected officials why they want to force people to drink instead of using the less-harmful option, and make it about alcohol and not about marijuana.
When Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams got suspended for smoking pot and retired early, I thought the sports media really played up the pothead stereotype rather than discussing the fact that NFL athletes use toxic pills as pain relievers instead of the safer alternative.
Steve Fox: We’ve certainly been waiting for a situation like that, and while I was working on the SAFER campaign, we tried to push that as hard as we could. We even put up a billboard in Denver encouraging Ricky to come to Denver with the people who support his safer choice. This was based on the fact that we put an initiative on the ballot in Denver to make marijuana legal, and it passed. So we were glad, and we did get some national coverage from that effort. But discussion of the deeper issues just doesn’t happen. The same thing with Michael Phelps when the picture of him smoking from a bong was released. The ignored part of the story was that he was drinking heavily and hitting on women and being obnoxious, but nobody really cared about that. That part is ignored. But he takes one hit, and that becomes international news. People have to think about the fact that we are steering people toward alcohol for no reason.
When you first hit D.C., did they ever send pages over to you to try to hit you up for some pot? Or just treat you differently?
Steve Fox: Nothing along those lines, but I went to one meeting early on in my lobbying—it may have been my third meeting that I had with an actual member of Congress, as opposed to a staff member. The chief of staff who was sitting in on the meeting with us opened the door the member of Congress’ door and said, ‘Hey, the potheads are here.’ We were both dressed up in our suits and looked nothing like potheads whatsoever, if you have a stereotypical image of potheads in your head. But that’s how we were introduced. It’s challenging work—trying to get members of Congress to change the image in their minds and the minds of their staff members.
How much do we pay in taxes when the DEA sweeps collectives? And what is the cost of other aggressive domestic tactics in the War On Drugs?
Steve Fox: I don’t have that figure. I’ve heard people say figures in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it could always be a higher figure. What you see in California right now is a huge effort called the CAMP—Campaign Against Marijuana Planting—program to go out to public lands wherever they see marijuana growing and cut it down. They published a figure recently about how much marijuana they had eliminated, and it was definitely in the billions of dollars worth. It’s just a massive amount of money doing this, and it’s really just not changing anything. They’re not diminishing supply in a way that the prices are going up.
I think the prices are going down, especially with competition between the collectives. At my neighborhood collective, I can buy an eighth of good sense for ten dollars. I can even buy a gram for three. It’s cheaper to buy pot now than it is to buy cigarettes in Los Angeles these days.
Steve Fox: I would imagine. Especially without even having taxes on it. This is the whole point. They’re spending millions and millions of dollars trying to eliminate this product. In some cases they’re actually chopping down hemp. It’s insane what’s going on, and all they need to do is shift this to a legitimate market and they won’t have to spend this money trying to eradicate it and arrest people. The nation is spending tens of billions of dollars every year trying to clamp down on the marijuana market, and it’s just crazy.
Our paper and other papers in Southern California have found a lot of new advertisers among medical marijuana collectives. It’s verifiable proof of the residual business that grows from the legalization of marijuana.
Steve Fox: That’s one of the reasons that I think the legalization of marijuana and setting up a system for taxation and regulation is basically inevitable at this point. With the collectives currently open for patients, they’re showing that this is a big business—like the pharmaceutical industry and the alcohol industry. They can’t kill it at this point.
I have a prescription and I have a lot of friends with prescriptions so we can purchase marijuana at collectives, and I would wager that over half the people are using marijuana as an alternative intoxicant to alcohol. Does that compromise the battle for legalization because it’s forcing casual users to be lumped together with actual medical users?
Steve Fox: You made an important point there that a lot of people use marijuana as an alternative recreational intoxicant to alcohol. We’re opening the whole debate about the medical use of marijuana and whether it’s being over recommended or not. It’s up to each doctor to decide whether they’re giving appropriate care. I think part of what contributes to there being so many recommendations is that for doctors, there’s always been a balance. You hear what someone’s problem is. You decide whether it makes sense to prescribe a certain medicine based on the potential health and the potential risk. As you know when we were growing up, what doctors used to say, ‘Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.’ Marijuana is less harmful than aspirin, so people claim they have some pain, and it’s possible that marijuana might help because it’s a balance between risk and benefit. And there’s potential benefit and little risk. There’s something to be said for changing the laws and making marijuana legal in the same way that alcohol is legal—there’s something to be said for many of us and officials who feel skeptical about the medical use. But now some of those people are more willing to talk about marijuana legalization overall because to them that is a more legitimate issue.
What is your ideal realistic timeline for marijuana legalization?
Steve Fox: I definitely believe that the states are going to have to lead the way. There are certainly signs of California leading the way. Just in terms of all the other business that’s going on already, with medical marijuana and the fact that the legislation has been introduced by representative Ammanio to get the conversation going. The field poll that shows that support is 56 percent. It just feels that way. I don’t think 2010 is going to be the year, but there is a serious chance that an initiative passes in 2012. MPP will also have an initiative on the ballot in Nevada in 2012. So we’ll see. If the trends keep going in the direction that they’re going now, I would think it would happen. The communications director of MPP has likened this battle against marijuana to communism and the fact that it’s sort of a system that doesn’t necessarily have a sustained intellectual foundation below it. We could be reaching the point where it just crumbles under it’s own weight, and we’ll just have to try to come up with a system to replace it.
Do you think that we’ll come to the point where marijuana becomes legal in 25 states before it becomes legal federally? At what point do you think the pressures of the recession and the federal and state defecits will provoke people to demand legalization to generate tax revenue and pay the bills? Especially if the platform takes hold in California?
Steve Fox: I’m one who doesn’t believe that the need to pay the bills is what will be making a state develop a system of taxation and regulation for marijuana. I think it will be more along the lines of the revenue being a benefit on top of a 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. The way I like to describe it now is to ask people to imagine if tomorrow, the alcohol industry had a press conference and announced they had developed a new product that is similar to alcohol, but that it is less addictive, less toxic, with fewer health problems, can’t kill you and has no carbs. Would we celebrate that? Of course there would be celebration, and people would say, ‘This is great! We have a recreational alternative that is so less harmful than alcohol. So let’s let people use that instead.’
What do you think would be a fair marijuana tax in California?
Steve Fox: I can’t say there is a proper tax. It’s going to be a moving target at the point where it becomes legal. The price is likely to shift. You need to factor that in so that you don’t have such a huge tax that it becomes almost more expensive to purchase through legitimate means than through the criminal market. Some people have floated $50 an ounce. It could be that the price for marijuana would drop. It could be more like tobacco taxes are right now, where in some states it could be two- and three-hundred-percent tax. It will be enough of a revenue generator that it will be worthwhile, and the important point here is that it’s a relatively benign substance, especially compared to alcohol.
In your book you said that one third of Americans believe marijuana is more harmful than alcohol and consider it a ‘gateway’ drug. How do you plan to change that? Or are you going to focus more on the moderate third in the middle who believe marijuana and alcohol have similar health risks?
Steve Fox: Clearly, going after the moderate third in the middle is the easier task. Those who believe alcohol and marijuana are equally harmful—getting them to appreciate that marijuana is much safer than alcohol. If you think of it as some sort of trend line as how people see marijuana from safe to dangerous, everyone should shift to the marijuana is safer side. I was once talking to a woman who had just smoked marijuana, and she was explaining to me that she was sort of embarrassed about it. She was telling me the ways that marijuana was harmful and basically echoing what the government has said, and this was someone who was completely supportive and believes that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. But even she thought the harms were much greater than they were. So really everyone has got to shift toward understanding that marijuana is not as harmful as they believe. There has just been so much propaganda over the past 30 or 40 years that it is just ingrained in people’s heads. All we want is to shift everyone to the idea that marijuana is less harmful. The statistics will follow.
How much do you feel Hollywood’s portrayal of the stereotypical pothead being an exagerated variation of the town drunk without addressing the fact that it a safer alternative to drinking affects people’s mindsets?
Steve Fox: It’s a stereotype, and when you get to the gut of why many people are opposed to marijuana, they have a picture of Woodstock or Harold and Kumar. They don’t want these people walking around and they don’t realize that there are so many people smoking already. They really don’t see that. Maybe if they live in San Francisco or Los Angeles perhaps, but there aren’t a ton if you talk to Middle America. They don’t realize that there are NASCAR fans who also smoke marijuana. It’s just happening and it’s out there, but on television it’s all a stereotype. But hopefully there will be other shows and there are other movies where they are slowly changing the image of pot smoking. Entourage, for example, shows all of the character smoking in a way that doesn’t make them look unlikable. They’re just smoking and having a good time.
Your new book Marijuana is Safer, So Why Are They Driving Us To Drink? was co-written by Paul Armentano of NORML and Mason Tvert of Safer Choice. Was that for the purpose of offering a united front among the three largest marijuana activist groups? Or simply a means to combine your research?
Steve Fox: We’re certainly happy that there is a united campaign around the book. MPP is the nation’s largest organization dedicated to reforming marijuana laws. They have about 35 full time staffers and a budget of 5 to 6 million dollars a year to work on state ballot initiatives that often have a budget of their own. The mission of the organization is to reduce the harm associated with the use of marijuana—which certainly includes arrest and imprisonment. At present we have a medical marijuana ballot initiative in Arizona in 2010 that we’re working on. We are working long term at taxation and regulation in Nevada and there are other things going on in a few other states where we’re advising or involved. It keeps us pretty busy. We certainly have an eye on California, where a lot of action is taking place. The truth is the ‘Safer…’ campaign has been going on since 2005 in Colorado. That’s something that I helped get off the ground and Mason Tvert has been heading up since then. He and I have combined insight into the book and Paul is just a real expert on the biology of marijuana. He’s spent years and years responding to the myths that are out there. It was good to bring him in. He was integral to the parts of the book that describe what marijuana is and its harms compared to the harms from alcohol and the evolution of the marijuana prohibition. Mason and I did more work on the latter half of the book, which is about the SAFER campaign. That opens the debate on the absurdity of enforcing a marijuana prohibition while we’re driving people to drink, and discusses what we can do to change the atmosphere in the country.
Who is a greater adversary for MPP? Liquor lobbyists or War On Drugs fearmongers?
Steve Fox: I would say it’s definitely been what the government has done to spread myths about marijuana—that’s where it all comes from. You could say the Partnership For a Drug Free America maybe played some role. The real anti-marijuana campaign was launched by the government and has been going on since the 1930s, more specifically since Richard Nixon and his anti-marijuana campaign. It really convinced most Americans that it’s a dangerous drug. The alcohol industry isn’t really out there fighting legalization, although we’ll see what happens in the future. It’s more that people sense from the government that marijuana is a scary and dangerous drug.
Do you think as the alcohol lobby becomes aware of the SAFER campaign—which clearly shows marijuana as a safer alternative to alcohol—they might set their sights on you?
Steve Fox: We’ll see. One would think that any industry is defensive of their own product, and if they feel they are being attacked—and they are feeling the effects at the till—that’s certainly a fight that we would welcome. We’re not such a big-budget effort that we would worry about losing funding or being crushed by the alcohol industry. It would be a great public debate to have. And it is the debate that we want to have. So if they engage, it would just raise our awareness to a higher level. The media would pay a lot of attention and that would give us a megaphone.
Why didn’t you guys publish your book on hemp paper?
Steve Fox: Good question. I suppose we could have tried to negotiate a deal with our publisher to publish on hemp paper, but we were just happy to get a publisher who was willing to put out the book. And we’re grateful they took a leap with it.
Are you going to be touring for the book or doing readings to get the message of the book out?
Steve Fox: Mason is going to be doing the touring part of the campaign. As part of the SAFER campaign——there’s been a new campaign launched called To give you a little background, there was a campaign called the Amethyst Initiative that has now about 135 university presidents all endorsing a call for a national debate for lowering the drinking age to address the myriad of alcohol-related problems on college campuses. We had been pushing for more of a debate about reducing alcohol-related problems on campuses by allowing people to use marijuana instead, or at the very least not having penalties for having marijuana that are far greater than the penalties for underage alcohol abuse. We run all kinds of referendum on many many big campuses around the country. We’ve gotten those approved by students and gotten all kinds of media attention for that. We haven’t had any campus come out and say, ‘Alright, yeah—that sounds reasonable. We’re going to lessen our marijuana penalties.’ What we’re doing now is pushing all of the university presidents who are tied down to the Amethyst Initiative to sign up for what we have: the Emerald Initiative, which is calling for a national debate about making the use of marijuana legal in order to reduce alcohol-related problems on campuses.
Any final words of advice?
Steve Fox: I would recommend they check out the book. It’s a balanced book that isn’t preaching to the choir. It’s a handbook for how they can make change and how they should talk to friends and family to get the ‘marijuana is safer than alcohol’ message out there, which is the prerequisite to changing the law. So they can buy the book, read the book, get themselves familiar with the talking points we put in there, and when they feel they have enough information, they can pass it on to a friend who needs to be educated.