The Pot Thickens

Weed is a fact of life in O.C. So does Proposition 19 matter?

We had lived about two days in coastal Orange County when one of the kids raised the subject of weed.

“This boy at the surf camp went behind a bush and did marijuana at lunch,” our wide-eyed 12-year-old said.

“Shhh!” interrupted her older sister, home from college. “People don’t do marijuana, they smoke it. And don’t go around telling. If someone offers you any, just pretend it’s, like, sushi and say, ‘None for me.’ ”

That advice proved to be as good as any. Not that pot isn’t a rite of passage for adolescents all over America, but California, as they say, is “America, only more so.” Weed might as well be the state flower, it’s so culturally entrenched here. Take the upcoming election. Here we are with a gubernatorial candidate so rich that, with luck, she might forget about earning our votes and just straight-up buy them. But what are we fired up about? Proposition 19, the initiative to tax, regulate, and legalize recreational pot.

There’s something impressive about an idea with that kind of hold on peoples’ imaginations. My kids laugh when I remind them that legal marijuana used to be as unthinkable as gay couples on honeymoons. I remember my own first impression. I was about 12, too, and listening to my teenaged cousin’s garage band rehearse in our basement. The bass player, Stanley, told me to scram, then pulled out a joint. When I sneaked back down the stairwell, the air smelled funny, and he and my cousin were buk-buk-bukking like chickens to the tune of “My Baby Does the Hanky Panky.” I immediately decided: That stuff looked fun, and Stanley was a criminal.

I still have mixed feelings. When I finally did inhale, it was fun, but I still don’t think of pot smokers as model citizens. I know, medicinal pot, blah, blah. Sorry. Yes, it’s legal now, but, really, how much righteous indignation can you muster about a cure whose side effects may include the need to take a little nap and then eat half a cheesecake? Also, if pot is just medicine, why not just sell it in drugstores? I didn’t need a dispensary that looked like a head shop the last time I bought penicillin.

The best argument for weed? If you’re someone with absolutely nothing to do, it’s a great way to accomplish absolutely nothing. I once lost two days getting baked in front of “This Old House” reruns.

That said, living here has convinced me that the worst thing about recreational pot is that it’s still illegal, and I say this as a middle-aged mother of teens. Make no mistake. I’m no “Weeds” mom. No one has passed me a bong since the Reagan Administration. I get the concerns about pot DUIs, and I sound like a character from “Reefer Madness” when I talk to my kids about the topic. I’ve seen too many anguished parents with kids in rehab to question the link between pot and other drug use.

But the stuff is a fact of life here, and prohibition isn’t working, just jeopardizing the reputations of a lot of wide-eyed adolescents. More than 3.4 million Californians smoked marijuana in 2008, and no other state even came close, according to the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health’s most recent statistics; 47% of the state’s registered voters told a recent Field Poll conducted for the Sacramento Bee that they’d tried it at least once in their lives, and I’m certain that figure is low.

Kids grow up with it here, and eventually they stop pretending it’s sushi. And then you’re stuck hoping that one indiscreet purchase or tentative puff won’t cost them a career or an education. Not to mention the bigger picture: the brutality of Mexican cartels that use pot profits to underwrite terrorist armies, the billions spent on incarceration at a time when the state has a massive hole in its budget.

What happens when the downsides to a solution become worse than the original problem? Maybe we’ll get fired up enough to find out this election year.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti