Russ Belville responds to Steven DeAngelo’s explanation of “I don’t believe in legalization” comment

Steven DeAngelo, CEO of Harborside Health Center and recently star of Discovery Channel’s Weed Wars, has come under fire for his comments at the conclusion of Episode 4 where he said, “I don’t believe in legalizing cannabis for recreational purposes; I think cannabis should be used for purposes of wellness.”  Steven took some heat in cyberspace, particularly Steve Bloom’s fiery denunciation in (“Say it ain’t so, Steve DeAngelo!”).

What is it with the weed guys and the funny hats?

DeAngelo has responded in CelebStoner with some backpedaling on the statement, claiming his naïveté in television by not realizing how editors would snip out his “comments denouncing all criminal penalties” and leave “no recreational legalization” hanging there out of context.  That could be the case, though the DeAngelo brothers have made the same “no recreational legalization” statements on live interviews on MSNBC (Dylan Ratigan) and FOX News (Bill O’Reilly)  leading up to the premiere of Weed Wars.  During the unedited 9:31 of the Ratigan segment and the unedited 5:17 of the O’Reilly segment, I didn’t hear any ”comments denouncing all criminal penalties”.  In fact, in the Ratigan segment I heard this exchange:

RATIGAN: So you think the recreational – the legalization of marijuana as a recreational drug is a very different debate than the use of marijuana as a medicine for specific treatment?

DeANGELOs: Absolutely.

RATIGAN: And your goal is to draw the distinction between those who are suffering in the prohibition of recreational use that is preventing them from gaining legitimate access to the medicinal use.

STEVEN DeANGELO: Yes, exactly.

RATIGAN: Do I have it?

ANDREW DeANGELO: We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

That really doesn’t sound like “Everybody oughtta be able to use cannabis without criminal penalty; we just need to call it ‘wellness’ to get there.”  That sounds like you see two types of users, “medical” and “recreational”, and the latter are de-legitimized by the former.  I also heard Andrew toss off a line about medical marijuana patients being “the last people in the world who would probably buy a gun”.  Huh?  WTF?  And Steven said “In California, 67% of the people voted in favor of Prop 215″.  It was actually 55.58%.  But they hadn’t seen the final Weed Wars episodes at that time, so they wouldn’t have known they needed to play up the “comments denouncing all criminal penalties” angle, right?

So forgive me if I’m not convinced by this latest round of trying to play “hate the stoners” for the Discovery crowd and “don’t arrest stoners” for the CelebStoner crowd.  And I will not accept hints that this criticism is the sowing of “disunity” when he’s the one distancing himself from legalization for all purposes.  Every “legalizer” I know of votes for every medical initiative, but Prop 19 showed us the reverse is not true.  Who’s the disunited, the “legalizers” trying to protect us all, or the “medicalizers” who keep fighting for that subgroup of us who are sick or disabled?  Even championing an idea that all adults should use it for “wellness” separates those of us who are clearly not well from our cannabis use.  Some people will have an unhealthy relationship with cannabis.  They should be just as legal as alcoholics and chain smokers.

Let me conclude by once again addressing Seven DeAngelo’s latest defense of his central “all use is wellness” platform in the CelebStoner response:

At the same time, it’s my strong belief that our movement’s use of the concept and terminology of “legalization for recreational purposes” has caused us tremendous damage. Our opponents have used the term to paint us as unrestrained hedonists who advocate a society-wide lifestyle of self-indulgence. In the ’80s, this kind of propaganda succeeded in undoing all the accomplishments our movement had made up till then – and kept us on the defense until medical cannabis reinvigorated the movement in the mid-’90s. But the anti-recreational propaganda left a bitter legacy of workplace urinalysis, housing discrimination, transplant denials, student-aid denials, interference with parent’s custodial rights and more horrors sadly still with us.

There was a time, before our discoveries of industrial hemp and medical cannabis, when an individual-rights argument was the main tool in the activist toolkit. Today, we have more compelling and effective reasons to advance for changing the laws than an individual’s right to get high. The discovery of the endo-cannabinoid system has established a sound scientific basis for the incredibly widespread therapeutic efficacy of cannabis, and almost two decades of experience has taught us that the vast majority of cannabis consumers are using it for wellness purposes. In addition, dozens of public opinion polls have shown that Americans support medical cannabis in numbers far greater than “recreational” cannabis.

For me, all of this points us in the direction of emphasizing the use of cannabis for wellness purposes, rather than for “recreational” purposes. That’s why I’ve said I don’t believe in legalizing cannabis for recreational purposes – and still believe that. But I do believe adult Americans should be empowered to make their own health and wellness decisions about cannabis. Several months ago I released a paper, “Wellness Not Intoxication,” in which I called on the movement to reevaluate its use of the recreational-cannabis concept.

Steve, I appreciate your elaboration, but you’re still hitching your legalization wagon to the “it’s OK to smoke pot because…” theory, and as long as you do that, you invite some authority to determine whether your “because” is valid enough to keep you out of jail.

You base your pivot on “recreational” on a faulty analysis of the pendulum swing in public opinion from pro-legalization 1970-1979 to anti-legalization 1980-1989 as being one where our opponents painted us as “unrestrained hedonists who advocate a society-wide lifestyle of self-indulgence”.  But that hedonism image wasn’t built on just marijuana; it was also built on rampant cocaine use, swingers and orgies, and Studio 54 tales of excess.

Ronald Reagan successfully painted the image of “Morning in America” by coupling the inflation, unemployment, crime stats, and general “malaise” of the post-Nixon years to the ideals and culture of the 60′s-70′s hippie movement.  The biggest symbol of that was the pot leaf.  And as Richard Pryor, John Belushi, and Len Bias lent celebrity status to the tragedy of cocaine abuse and as “Miami Vice” showed cocaine to be the devil’s plaything, then the popularity of that marijuana which had been so tightly interwoven with cocaine as just a good-time party drug (see: HIGH TIMES centerfolds circa 1978-1982) began to wane.

You are right that in the 1990′s, medical marijuana revitalized legalization’s popularity, primarily by re-framing it as a medicine with benefits for very sick people.  Add to that Baby Boomers whose kids flew the nest and who now return to the pot they remembered in the 60′s-70′s and you have a new public mindset that understands that marijuana is not cocaine and is not one of the harmful drugs out there.  They even understand that it is safer than alcohol!

No matter how much pot helps the guy in the wheelchair, there are still guys like me who smoke pot because it is enjoyable.  It may indeed be staving off my alcoholism, my depression, my insomnia, but those are secondary benefits to the primary reason I use cannabis, which is “when I smoke it it makes me feel good”.  Just like my eating an orange because it tastes good, even though it is providing fiber for healthy digestion and vitamin C to stave off rickets.  You want to call that “wellness”, but that invites the listener to call a shot of whiskey, a good cigar, a glass of grapefruit juice, and a session of sex (self or shared) “wellness” and that’s where loss of credibility will overtake your re-framing.

It’s now the 2010′s; we have older adults with personal experience, middle-aged adults who’ve seen it as medicine, and younger adults who’ve grown up in a world were medical use is OK and Google tells them all the facts about cannabis that you and I growing up could never have learned (save reading “Emperor” or Dr. Tod’s papers, not exactly available in a high school library where I matriculated).  As I’ve shown with polls and election results, the 1990′s strategy of “medicalization” is backsliding and the 1970′s strategy of “legalization” is on the rise.

Calling it “wellness” (or “sacrament”, for that matter) won’t alleviate the fears parents have that their kids will come home stinking of “wellness” or you might be so “extra-well” that you cross the center line on the highway.

Finally, while in your personal opinion I should (if possible) consult with a doctor before using cannabis, in my personal opinion, I don’t need the permission of a king, court, congress, cleric, or clinician to use cannabis.  I need only the same permission a beer drinker or cigarette smoker needs: an ID that proves I’m an adult.

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