Up In Smoke
Is the Live Free or Die state ready for legal weed?
Will marijuana ever be legal in New Hampshire?
Many of the ambitions of the revolutionary 1960s have been realized. The battles for civil rights and gender equality were pretty successful. The "free love" movement may have run into entanglements with its consequences, but we're certainly a more liberated nation, sexually, than we were in the heydays of the Playboy Club. The Vietnam War was ended with a conviction that we'd never again enter into a quagmire in a foreign land - well, at least that lasted for a couple of decades. But the one change that most every long-haired, tie-dyed rebel dreamt, even assumed would happen in due course has been thwarted for more than 40 years.
Until maybe now.
Does this headline look familiar?
"Marijuana Decriminalization Favored by House Committee
Concord, NH (UPI) The House Judiciary committee will recommend a bill to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana be passed by the full House next week."
Evidence that legislators are earnestly debating one of our more contentious issues? The latest try at compromise?
That headline was from March 3, 1977. It reported on just one of many failed attempts to deal with the conundrum of marijuana: how to deal with an illegal drug that nearly half the population has used.
There are few issues as tangled up in differing views of history, cultural conflict and personal conduct as marijuana. At various times in history it has been a restorative tincture for distressed ladies, an act of generational rebellion and now, again, the focus of Hollywood stoner comedies.
Every act to suppress this weed has made it stronger. When open marijuana fields were eradicated by government raids, growers went indoors where high-intensity lights yielded shorter, bulkier and much more potent plants. In other words, law enforcement made marijuana what it is today. It is easy to grow, difficult to discuss and impossible to eradicate.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
If asked to name the longest war on record that was declared and fought by the U.S. government, what would you answer? The Revolution? World War II? Vietnam? Iraq and Afghanistan? Not even close. This is the 40th year of the "War on Drugs," first declared by President Nixon in 1971. The Obama administration declared it was dropping the term "war" in 2009 but, linguistic quibbles aside, the same basic battle strategy continues.
In most discussions about crime and its consequences, everyone involved is usually careful to first cite the plight of the victims of the crime: the beaten child, the grieving mother. Alongside the victims are the law enforcement officers who have performed their duty in pursuit of justice. But here's where it gets sticky.
A Gallup poll taken in October 2011 revealed that 50 percent of all Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, up from 46 percent the previous year. Clearly, a record number of Americans - including non-users - can't escape the feeling that when it comes to drug abuse offenses, the perpetrator is all too often also the victim.
Bob Constantine has lived in Grafton, N.H., for almost all of his 52 years. He describes himself as "pretty much a normal guy with professional jobs and so forth in property management and manufacturing." Constantine has osteoarthritis in both hips and readily concedes that he grows and uses cannabis - marijuana - both recreationally and medicinally. "My personal position is - I think it very hypocritical for the state to sell over $500 million in alcohol but put people in jail - peaceful people - for using a natural-occurring plant."
Constantine's home is in an isolated spot because he likes it quiet, but not long ago he found out it was not isolated enough. On September 4, 2009, he looked up to find seven heavily armed police officers raiding his home. They seized about a pound of marijuana and took him into custody. "It was a shocking experience," says Constantine. "One of the officers told me - talking out of the earshot of the other cops - 'I gotta stop doing this. You're a good guy.' So I stepped closer and said, 'Damn right, I'm a good guy. And what you're doing is wrong. You're not protecting anybody.' So I know talking privately to some cops, when it's just me and them, they know this is bullsh*t."
Constantine is an advocate of jury nullification - the right of a jury to overturn a court decision perceived as unfair. He had a court-appointed attorney but refused a plea bargain and instead argued his own case to the Grafton County jury. He explained to them in his closing argument that they have the "right of conscience." They did not convict him of the felony of manufacturing, which carries a penalty of up to seven years in jail. They did not convict him of the lesser felony of 3 ½ years. They did find him guilty of the misdemeanor possession charge, which is significantly less. "I'm counting it as a win for the jury nullification argument," he says.
Still, Constantine paid a price. He was sentenced to a year with 10 months suspended, a $1,000 fine and probation for possibly two years. "My life savings are gone because of this and it's a huge disruption," he says. "I was in a relationship with someone for 11 years and that went down the tube."
Constantine says he was not permitted to make an argument that he was using medical marijuana, but added that, by rights, either use is his basic right: "You either own your body or you don't and the element of crime needs to involve a victim."
Janet Valuk and Olivia Regan
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
They Beg to Differ
Those working to prevent the use of marijuana say there are plenty of victims, many of them youths who think there is no harm in marijuana. Those are the ones that most concern Janet Valuk, a health education teacher at Nashua High School South.
She described a typical class as one where there will always be those who want to debate. "One asked today what is safer - tobacco or marijuana? One says it can cure cancer," Valuk says. "They have a lot of misinformation and think it's a fact that 'everyone uses it.' They don't even see the legal aspect; don't even think about it. This all goes along with the latest research in brain research," referring to research showing that the typical adolescent brain has not developed sufficiently for sound decision making.
That's reflected in the annual Center for Disease Control Youth Risk surveys. The latest, using 2009 data, showed that New Hampshire adolescents are slightly less likely to abuse alcohol than the national average but more likely to use marijuana. Twenty-six percent of New Hampshire teens report using marijuana in the past 30 days, 5 percent above the national average. They were also 50 percent more likely to have smoked marijuana on school property.
With one in four high school students smoking marijuana, Valuk acknowledges the fight for hearts and minds has gone well past the "Just Say No" days of Nancy Reagan. "I gain and keep their trust by being honest with them. I also never use the words 'don't' and 'never.' I give them the facts and tell them it is their choice. Kids this age do not want to be told what to do."
Valuk knows that she treads a fine line in trying to plant a message in young minds. When asked if she thinks she has changed any minds, she says, "That's a very hard question to have an accurate answer for - beyond my classroom I don't know what the kids are doing or not doing. I have had a few kids come up to me after or written in their class evaluation that what I say in class changed their behaviors - but they could be saying that because that's what they think I want to hear."
Some argue it's a classic optimist/pessimist Rorschach test. The flip side of one in four using marijuana is three of four students not using. Many of those young people can be found at meetings of SADD, Students Against Destructive Decisions.
Olivia Regan, the president of the Nashua South SADD chapter, confirms the timeless truth that every high school is made up of distinct groups that have little to do with each other. "There are definitely groups of kids - I don't want to over generalize too much but it's the dark clothing, the baggy clothing, the greasy long hair, especially on the boys. A lot of kids will look at them and go - yes, they probably smoke. Not so much drink - that's the party people. But I would definitely think marijuana. Then there is the whole other side, what some kids would label 'the cool clique.'"
Regan says SADD tries to reach out to all the groups in the school by advocating against all "destructive decisions" including using drugs, alcohol and tobacco. It takes part in practical activities like "Bag the Butts," picking up all the cigarettes around the school, and more symbolic events like Red Ribbon Week, a schedule of anti-drug activities that culminated in more than 300 students dressed in red forming a giant ribbon.
Regan is proud of those activities but adds that joining the fight against drug use has its price: "I feel like other students do view me a little differently after I tell them I am in SADD, especially when I say I'm the president. Some won't care, some think I'm strange or no fun and others feel I am naïve. Even though this has hurt my popularity, I still think it's been worth it. To keep doing what you're passionate about even when others think it's dumb."
Regan says she is passionate about speaking out because of a painful lesson learned at an early age. A close family friend died in an alcohol-related crash. "And it made me realize it's something that should be prevented at all costs. It actually happened a long time ago but I remember it so clearly because it affected me so much. We still know her parents and I see how her death just destroyed them - left them so distraught. I always keep that memory because I would not want to put my parents through that."
Regan learned early on about mortality. She knows it's a lesson that is hard to teach young people. "I would like to think that I have changed minds. However, the reality is that besides people who are already against these substances, I do not believe anything makes much of an impact for others. I do know I have left questions in others' minds, who wonder what they might actually be doing to themselves, but they usually just laugh off the information and live by the saying 'you only live once.'"
Phil Bergeron has a different impression of the marijuana debate at Nashua South High School. Three years ago, he established the only high school chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), a college-based organization that espouses reforms including legalization of marijuana.
"I didn't attract a huge membership," he says. "At our peak we had about 30 or so members, most of them were either my personal friends who believed in changing drug policy or people who heard about the group through word of mouth."
Bergeron says any debate at Nashua South was stacked against SSDP: "The school administration did not like us at all. I fought them tooth and nail for everything I wanted to do. They forbade me to put up posters to attract people to our meetings if I put any anti-drug-war facts on them at all."
Bergeron says even the name of the organization was a point of dispute: "They referred to my group as Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) rather than Students for a Sensible Drug Policy." YAL is a youth organization originally begun by the Ron Paul campaign to espouse libertarian principles.
Like SADD, Bergeron's group took an educational approach, though with a different interpretation of the dangers of drugs: "We were able to host a showing of some Drug War documentaries, we held a candlelight vigil in memory of victims of the Mexican drug cartels and we did some tabling at some of the earlier tea party events."
Also like SADD, the reaction from the students was often very mixed. "There were a good amount of students who were totally for what we were doing. However, there were students who were very against us. For instance, SADD was very against our group, in one instance at a student activities fair, our tables were placed next to one another and they reported our group to administration citing that we were promoting drug use. The funny part is that we had a conversation with the people running their table telling them that we neither condone nor condemn drug use, which was what we told every other individual who came up to our table asking us about it."
The Nashua South SSDP chapter closed when Bergeron graduated in 2011. He is in his first year of college and continues his efforts for what he calls sensible reforms. Right now the Keene State chapter of SSDP is working to get a Good Samaritan policy on campus, which essentially protects students from getting in trouble if they were to call for help if their underage friend got alcohol poisoning or something similar.
Bergeron says that such fears get in the way of a rational approach to drug use. "We are very capable of having a dialogue about this - we just need to be more open about it. People are very scared to talk about the issue." Sometimes that includes parents who used marijuana - or still do. Bergeron says, "They should not be ashamed of their use. In my experience with friends and such who have parents who have admitted their use they are actually closer with their children than others."
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
A Gateway Drug
That could be dangerous advice according to Joe Harding, executive director of the N.H. Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services. He says, "A lot think it's a rite of passage, but it is much more serious than people give it credit for - much more powerful. It's addictive and creates problems such as short-term memory loss. Many consider it a gateway drug."
Harding worked for seven years in rehab facilities before coming to the bureau. It oversees all federal and state funding for alcohol and drug prevention treatment. Harding says marijuana is exceeded only by alcohol as the cause for individuals seeking treatment. The state funding comes from a formula established in 2000. It is capped at 5 percent of gross profits from state liquor sales. In theory.
In fact, it has been cut so much that only 7 percent of those who apply receive treatment. "Every year they [the lawmakers] have suspended the formula and put some amount in its place," Hardy says. "That fund was cut to pieces like everything else."
In spite of funding problems, Harding encourages concerned parents to look for assistance on the bureau website at www.dhhs.nh.gov/dcbcs/bdas.
Here they will find information about counseling, connections to other concerned parents and answers to common questions."The biggest myth is that marijuana is harmless. Certainly alcohol has risks associated with it but I think that by far the vast majority can use alcohol safely. Most who smoke marijuana do it to get high - that's like having five drinks in an hour."
If Harding has any advice to lawmakers, it may be to stay the course and keep current law: "Unlike prohibition with alcohol, it has been pretty effective in reducing access to marijuana."
John Tommasi, front and center, poses with some of his undercover colleagues from the N.H. Drug Task Force.
Photo courtesy of John Tommasi
Time Well Spent?
Reducing that access was John Tommasi's life in the 1980s. An undercover cop in Salem, N.H., he was assigned in 1987 to the New Hampshire Drug Task Force, a state agency funded by the federal War on Drugs. He says the action was fast and furious: "As soon as you arrest one person, there's another five to 10 to take that person's place."
Tommasi was also a pilot and that became his undercover persona: "You're doing great felony work and you're not stuck on the barking dog calls. But at some point I realized I was not having any effect whatsoever. This is having no effect at all. So is this really the right way to go? So I started doing some research."
Tommasi's research was part of earning a Masters Degree in Economics to go with his MBA. His principal conclusion: "We have in economics what is known as opportunity cost. So if I'm working on violations with drugs then I'm not working on, say, burglaries or other crimes. And if you're out there on the drug war, you must be taking the dealers off the streets, right? That's not the case."
Instead, the purity and potency of the drugs had increased while the price had gone down. Tommasi published a report on how much money would be saved if marijuana were legalized. The report drew much public attention and criticism from law enforcement agencies.
Tommasi began teaching courses on the Drug War and is now a full-time professor at Bentley College in Massachusetts. But he's also still a cop: "I do Hampton in the summer and I've arrested people for marijuana because I took an oath to uphold the state laws and my integrity transcends my own personal views." Then Tommasi, the economist, has to add: "But if I make a marijuana arrest, I'm tied up for a couple of hours at the station booking and I'm not keeping peace on the streets of Hampton - and in the summer, it gets busy."
Tommasi is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization that advocates ending drug prohibition. Most members began as enthusiastic recruits in the War on Drugs, which mirrors Tommasi's experience. "The younger officers are more intense about enforcing all laws," he says. "As officers age and gain experience, they tend to mellow and I believe their views concerning marijuana do also. I would say, informally, about 80 percent of cops have very moderate views concerning marijuana. They would not be upset if you had medical marijuana or if marijuana was decriminalized. In my opinion, 50 percent of cops would have no problem if it were legalized as long as it was subject to the same controls as alcohol. It will be difficult to get working officers to admit to this and rarely if ever would you get an 'oh-so-politically- correct' police chief to admit his views."
Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
A Defeatist Attitude
Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate is very forthright with his views, beginning with his take on John Tommasi: "I'm glad to see he's not doing this full time because I think it's a defeatist attitude that we're not making a difference." Crate says he knows about the pressures inherent in doing undercover work: "I did a lot of undercover. It's very easy to become cynical and think that the world is going to hell, and that everyone else is out there raping, murdering and molesting and dealing in all kinds of crime. You have to take a step back and realize that we are making a difference."
As head of the Drug Enforcement Committee of the N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police, Crate has made frequent appearances at the Legislature and in the media whenever marijuana bills come up for debate. He says the debate itself has been part of the problem: "The number of kids experimenting is going up even though cigarette use and alcohol use is down with teens. The push for decriminalization as well as for medical marijuana legislation for a number of years has contributed to that problem. It has clouded the issue - giving the teenagers the idea that it's not that bad."
Crate makes sure his officers reinforce the idea that marijuana use has serious consequences, that if they find someone with marijuana, they are charging. Crate says the law leaves little discretion and cited Weldy v. Kingston, a case in which two Kingston, N.H., police officers stopped a car full of underage drinkers, confiscated the alcohol and let them go. The youths bought more alcohol and crashed the car, killing 16-year-old Nancy Weldy. The New Hampshire Supreme Court found the officers had failed to uphold their statutory duty of care.
Crate says, "If your children were caught out and impaired, whether by some drug or alcohol, what would you expect the police to do? Let them wander away, knowing they may not be of sound mind? Or would you as a parent want to know. I think most parents would want to know."
The numbers seem to confirm that New Hampshire retains a tougher enforcement approach than neighboring New England states. The FBI 2010 Crime Statistics released in September, 2011 measured arrests for drug abuse violations that includes marijuana. In New Hampshire, 1 of every 285 residents was arrested. In Vermont, only 1 in 472 faced arrest, while in Massachusetts, 1 in 507 went to court.
Those numbers make sense to Richard Crate: "I'm familiar with Vermont. If you look at the number of police officers in Vermont, that would explain the situation in Vermont. In Massachusetts - they have decriminalized marijuana - so some departments aren't even making final charges on that."
There were 3,915 arrests for drug abuse violations in 2010 in New Hampshire. Nationwide, drug abuse arrests have risen in the past decade, while shrinking budgets have put an increasing strain on the court system. Just ask Ed Kelly, administrative justice of New Hampshire's circuit courts, which hear 90 percent of all cases. He says, "I absolutely think the biggest myth out there in the public's mind - if the public ever thinks about this - is that somehow we can arrest our way out of drug problems that might exist or drug use that exists in our communities. It simply doesn't work."
Opponents of decriminalization often point to the fact that charges of simple possession rarely lead to any jail time. Still, the number of marijuana arrests has been rising steadily. In 1995 arrests for marijuana possession were a third of all drug arrests. Now they are nearly half and that, says Ed Kelly, creates a big problem. "If we have a courtroom filled with cases like the ones we're talking about - first offenders who are never coming back again and don't have a drug abuse problem - and it takes us all day to deal with those cases, that's a day that we don't have to deal with, say, a very difficult divorce case involving children. So we've got a family in crisis waiting to get into court and us trying to find a day to get that family into court to deal with their issues so they can get on with their lives. And we're dealing with these cases over in the other court room that are going to result in a $500 fine and cost the state lots of money to prosecute. All for what I think is a pretty unclear objective."
One way prosecutors can ease the burden on courts is by using RSA 625:9 VI. It's a statute that lets them reduce any misdemeanor offense to a violation, which carries no criminal record.
The one exception? You guessed it: marijuana possession. Kelly says, "So I could go out and assault somebody, be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, come into court and have the prosecutor say it was a mutually-entered-into fight or there's some circumstance where the guy has never been in trouble in his life, and have it reduced to a violation. There's no crime, pay a $200 fine and be on his way. I could go out and get picked up for a roach in my car; it would go on my record as a Class A misdemeanor. That sort of dichotomy just screams out for attention to be paid to, to whether that's really the way we want to go. If the Legislature decides that, then so be it but we need to have that conversation."
William Wrenn agrees that conversation is overdue. A former police chief, he is now New Hampshire's Commissioner of Corrections. Wrenn says "it's hard to argue" the War on Drugs has made any difference, but adds, "it has cost a lot of money."
Way to Make Money?
That view is supported by a 2010 report from the Cato Institute that concluded ending the drug war would save more than $40 billion in law enforcement savings and yield a further $8.7 billion in taxes on marijuana. Wrenn isn't ready to go that far. "The problem I have with the usage of marijuana is that we already have a drug out there that is legal - alcohol - and we don't do a very good job of managing the addiction and the over-usage of alcohol in our society as it exists today," he says. "We still have quite a few drunk drivers to take off the road, still have many people killed by drunk drivers, still have a lot of families ruined by alcoholism. So to add another drug out there when we haven't done a great job managing alcohol would be foolish."
During his career Wrenn has seen the enforcement of marijuana laws evolve. "When I started in police work in the mid '70s, if we saw marijuana seeds in a car that person would be charged with possession of marijuana. I find it hard to believe any officer today would be arresting someone for finding seeds in his car."
When asked about what he thinks lies in the future, Wrenn says, "As we move along we'll probably see small amounts decriminalized. It would be a violation of the law like a speeding ticket. In my mind, I don't see this becoming fully legalized in this state but you may see it decriminalized to the point where it's just a violation. It may make it easier for the officer on the street dealing with it. I don't know that it would make any difference at the prison because if someone comes to prison involved with marijuana, it's been something more serious like larger amounts or illegal fields of it." According to Wrenn, there are only "nine people that are actually in prison because of marijuana - possession and sale of marijuana." The biggest problem, according to Wrenn, is that most inmates are dealing - or, actually, not dealing - with drug and alcohol abuse.
"I know one thing," Wrenn says. "Our population would be reduced greatly if people were treated in the community and the costs associated with it would be a lot cheaper because it's cheaper to deal with these issues in the community than it is in the prison." Not likely, in an era of social service cuts.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
It can be a delicate matter to ask commissioners, justices or other public servants about how they would reform existing laws. You can see them at legislative hearings, but they must wait to be called upon by legislators. Judge Ed Kelly volunteers that reform is something that "I would be happy to comment on and talk about. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction to any problem is to pass a law and then increase penalties on the theory that this will somehow inhibit people from breaking that law, without looking at what might be the underlying causes."
When asked if any Legislator had ever asked for his honest opinion during such hearings, Kelly replied, "I can't say that we've ever had that conversation." Ask Wrenn if he would want to engage in a true dialogue about New Hampshire's marijuana laws and he replies, "Absolutely. If that were to be posed in the Legislature, I would hope that something like that would lead to a study committee and we open it wide open. At least the ability for all folks to come in and talk about all the issues we're looking at doing, whether it's to create a legalization for medicinal purposes of marijuana or create a legalization for marijuana in general. And to talk about how to deal with the consequences, how to deal with those things that are going to occur on the streets of our communities once something like this becomes legal. I think those are discussions that are much needed for opening up the door wide open to the legalization of marijuana."
Much has changed in the four decades of the War on Drugs. Enforcement standards, public attitudes, scientific research, lessons of prohibition. There's even a lobbyist for marijuana in Concord. Kirk McNeil is his name. He represents, depending on the bill, NHCompassion (for medical marijuana) or NH Common Sense (just plain legalization).
The credentials are flexible, but the message about existing laws is steady: "They remind me of so many other laws in the history of our state and country in that they seem to lag about 25-30 years behind science and are primarily a product of prejudice and special interest groups. The current governmental approach is punitive and horribly ineffective at accomplishing its stated goals. Just like in the days of alcohol prohibition; driving a product underground creates violence, generates a dangerous situation for peace officers, and puts money into the hands of criminals."
What hasn't changed much in this conflict are the actual laws, which can only be bent so far before belief in them breaks and justice becomes arbitrary. For those who will be involved in the debates and decisions to come, it will be a true test of the meaning of the state motto "Live Free or Die."
Finding Common Ground
There hasn't been much lately to unite dedicated Democrats and conservative Republicans in Concord. Medical marijuana could prove to be an exception to that rule.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
Before Evalyn Merrick began her legislative campaign to legalize medical marijuana, she had to wage her own battle to survive multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks bone marrow. She recalls getting a blunt message from her doctor in 1997: "I was told if I didn't have a bone marrow transplant in 2 years, I'd be dead." Merrick underwent three months of chemotherapy designed to kill the cancer cells. "Then they gave me even more terrible chemo to kill off my immune system so that my immune system wouldn't go after the new cells that would be put back in. It ravaged my body and devastated me in so many ways. It was horrible. The after-effects from the transplant and chemo were the inability to eat, the inability to drink, chronic nausea and vomiting, and there were traditional medicines I was given and nothing helped."
"My husband was very scared. He's a physician and he was just mortified at what was happening. All he could think about was that he had to do something - that his wife was starving to death. A friend of ours came for a visit and said you really ought to try marijuana. And my husband said, 'I will do anything it takes to save my wife.' I remember taking a hit of this and literally, within a short period of time, I remember asking my husband for nut brown beer. I am not a beer drinker, I don't touch the stuff, and my husband was shocked. So he immediately ran out to the store and bought that nut brown beer. I sipped this beer through the day. And the next thing I knew I had an appetite and was asking for food. I never had any more after that. But had I needed more, I know my husband would have risked it all - his job, his livelihood, his license - to save my life. We have to take that fear away from patients so that they can receive the benefit that I did."
Senator Jim Forsythe has been in tough fights before. A former Air Force commander who flew combat support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Forsythe avoids the traditional rhetoric about marijuana. He says, "I think you have to be honest. When I was in the ROTC in high school, I had friends offer it to me. My reason for not trying it was that I might actually like it and end up using it. And I didn't want to do that."
"A friend of ours came for a visit and said you really ought to try marijuana. And my husband said, 'I will do anything it takes to save my wife."
Forsythe became involved in politics after leaving the Air Force and took an interest in medical marijuana. "I guess it was looking at freedom as a general philosophy, and starting to look at some issues in that regard," he says. "It's freedom of choice of treatment and it's also common sense. When you look at the other drugs that are prescribed or manufactured, this is certainly less dangerous than a lot of those and just makes common sense."
Forsythe says there is a lot of misinformation that muddies the debate. He says one of the biggest myths is the whole notion of sending the "wrong message" - that either by legalizing marijuana or medical marijuana that you're saying it's a good thing. "That's not true," he says, "and I'm someone who has never tried it and don't want to, nor want my kids to do it. It's just saying that in the medical case, it's the compassionate thing to do, and if you're looking at it more broadly, you can make a strong argument that the effects of the drug war have been much more disastrous than the drug use, which should be treated as a drug problem rather than a criminal problem."
Both Forsythe and Merrick say debate is difficult when some refuse to acknowledge the decades of research that have already been done on the subject. Merrick takes it personally: "They obviously have not done their homework. And it bothers me that people in these professional positions don't do their homework, because the fact is, there is so much proof out there."
There is much common ground between these two supporters of medical marijuana. Forsythe mentions a potential benefit that has already boosted state revenues in California. "It could be a decent source of revenue if licensed and taxed. It would probably solve our shortfall with the hospitals." Then he laughs and adds, "But I'm focusing on the medical marijuana issue right now."
The Straight Dope from a Local Dealer
Interview by Rick Broussard
To get a unique point of view on the status of pot in the state, we went right to the source. We promised anonymity in exchange for candor and we got it. Here's what a former dealer of weed in both N.H. and California has to offer of the subject.
What's something that straight people don't know about marijuana?
It's a networking thing that nothing else compares to. A person you've been in a car with smoking becomes an accomplice. There's a bond, a real personal connection. I know after lighting up with someone I could probably call him up for a favor. Smoking with someone is like saying "You are cool person, I know I can trust you, at least to a certain extent." It brings you one step closer because of that shared experience.
It bonds you a lot more than if you'd had a drink at a bar with someone because of the illegal activity. After that, we are partners in crime to a certain extent. Your attitude becomes, "He's cool I've smoked with him before."
What's it like in California since the medical marijuana dispensaries have opened?
By the way, the legal sales [in California] have done nothing but bolster the illegal sales. Everyone is selling more. Meanwhile, the weed community has been making strong and concerted moves to separate itself from the drug community. Drugs mess you up. There's a huge community of weed smokers who do not condone the use of Class A narcotics. They are off the table for a huge percentage of weed users. There is a large distinct group who do not drink or do drugs - they just smoke weed. Some won't even smoke cigarettes. Vegans, health food nuts, incredibly healthy people living healthy lives.
In California weed just gets better every week. There's constant inbreeding and hybridization going on.
Why haven't the dispensaries hurt the street trade? Are more people smoking?
I would say so.
Legalization in California has flooded the market with excellent ganja and the prices have come down. Dispensary prices are higher than street prices. They are paying for quality and overhead and taxes and government fees [like] registration - they have to have a building that's licensed.
Dispensary weed is always, always top tier. Medical ganja is the best money can buy. If you have a connection, you can get that on the street. People know what's new and good at the dispensary. You know someone with a prescription and friends will say, "Pick me up some of that while you are there."
It's legal to smoke outdoors in California.
So weed dealers are separating themselves from the drug culture, too?
Sure. Drug users are a nightmare. They will steal and rob people - they are a great big hassle. They are criminals. We don't view ourselves as criminals because weed is basically just a plant.
Drug people are down to do drugs no matter what they are. As a weed dealer, your endeavor is usually just to get the best weed you can.
But it depends on what you're doing. Lots of people in NH sell ounces of beaster just to make some money.
Beaster? Could you define that. And spell it?
Beaster or Beasters or Beester. It's marijuana of poor genetic quality grown under good hydroponic conditions or good weed not grown very well - sort of like cheap wine. Some dealers cater to certain peers who just require a certain amount of ganj, where quality isn't the issue.
If you cater to those who want good stuff you need to know the language. For the most part, seedy twiggy stuff isn't even sold any more.
Where does it come from? Tell me a little about the trade.
A great deal of it is grown locally. It can be grown indoors or outdoors even in the New England [area], but stuff grown outdoors in NH tends to be quite terrible.
In California, where there's lots of sun, outdoor weed is fantastic. In Humbolt County there are 100-acre plots
Since weed here is usually grown indoors, it's more expensive. Three hundred dollars per ounce of good, quality stuff is about the least I've seen - often it's $350. On the West Coast that same ounce would get $200 to $250.
The most commonly bought unit is eights (one eighth of an ounce or 3.5 grams). If you sell in quantities less than that it better be exemplary. On the West Coast, because of the dispensaries, the most common container for weed is the vial. Little plastic vials are incredibly common out there. On the East Coast, it's mostly zip locks.
One eighth of beaster, or bad weed grown really well - that's the standard unit sold here. It costs $40 for an eighth. About half a gram per dose for the average user [and] a gram for a heavy user. An eighth, also called a slice, is three to four healthy size joints or two to three blunts [big joints]. A dub is a gram to a gram and half and might cost $20.
Good buds should have no seeds.
Male plants are no good - you burn them. If you have ganja with seeds it's due to nominal cross fertilization.
What's been your experience as a weed dealer?
In my business, I threw down with one other person and all weed acquired was our weed. We had a group at our disposal to help us distribute, and they would receive smoke or sometimes money for helping us. All our profits went to grow the business to buy more next time to reduce the price per gram.
I started out [by buying] two ounces, and sold that to buy three, and sold that to buy four until [I had] bought multiple pounds and about a quarter pound of hash to go along with it. You can make a good living [but] have to be incredibly frugal - and it helps if you don't smoke.
The vast majority of people who sell in America doing it so they can smoke for free. I call them subsistence dealers. They sell just what they need to get by and to get high. But there are subsistence dealers who purchase up [to] the pound level.
It's actually hard to make a profit. Ideally you reach a point where you have as much ganja as you can possibly move and you put that away and just live on it for awhile. Any money we had lying around went to food and gas and rent - and to have fun. We always said, "If it's not fun there's no point. You might as well get a regular job."
Smart dealers do not advertise. Spending money they make and then wearing it or putting it into a fancy house or car is the best way to advertise. A smart dealer will save his cash and wait to spend when he's out of the game.
Your reward is relative to your risk. You are paying out to anyone according to the risk it takes. You charge that much not because of the cost to create it. It's cheap to create - It's the risk it takes.
The amount of money you make with ganja is paltry, pocket change compared to cocaine. When you are selling marijuana it's a choice you make. You don't cross that line. You might sell mushrooms from time to time.
No one is going to get shot over a pound of weed. Weed dealers don't carry guns. Well, I did, but not because of the weed. Once you cross over to Class A narcotics that's when you are working with people who might shoot you. A mere ounce of coke is $1,000 dollars and there is a physical addiction. You are in danger from the person you're buying it from and the person you are selling it to.
Also an ounce of cocaine is 20 to life - you will not see daylight again. Those nine guys in prison for pot were picked up back when weed was considered a Class A drug and they got 20 years.
If we had cash in our possession it was always in a safe somewhere. I had a safe full of weed and money. We had 20 grand just chilling at one time. I had some serous connects from guys in New York who were getting it from some serious growers. You can tell one strain from another by smell. If you give me a smell of a good strain of weed I can probably tell you where in this country it came from.
You don't ask. Questions are not encouraged in this industry. It's like "Fight Club." The first rule of "Fight Club" is you don't talk about "Fight Club."
You never work with anyone who doesn't come recommended by someone in whom you would entrust your life. Even so, you sometimes have to play debt collector. You will be ripped off.
If you are buying directly from a grower it's cheaper so you can earn more profit on each sale. It's a coveted spot, guarded. If you can get a hold of a grower, you are set. But there's turnover. Even people who grow weed aren't in it for life. Some kids set up giant labs in college dorm rooms. They grow for [the duration of the] school year, help pay tuition and are done. They never get back in the game. [It's] even hard to connect with a grower in California where it's grown everywhere.
Describe your clientele. Who were your best customers?
The best customers are the ones in your generation, sir (gesturing to the middle-aged interviewer). They love ganja, they are the most reliable, the best to deal with and they are coveted as customers. I mostly sold to kids, but we would fight over those older guys. They buy ounces at a time, always have cash, they are mad consistent and if you go out of your way to make it easer for them, they will compensate you and they never rip you off. And usually there are cookies there when you arrive. They are so glad to see you. It feels good to make someone so happy.
There's no joy in giving a slice to a kid who begs to pay you Thursday and when that comes around there's no money. But when you sell weed you do have the privilege to pick your customers. If you sell Class A narcotics, you have to get it out of your pocket because every moment you have it you are in serious danger of going to jail.
The weed user isn't looking to mess anyone up. He wants to sit and enjoy the buzz. Ask yourself how many people have died from drugs and alcohol. And how many from weed? One dumb-ass who tried to hackysack a tarantula. But it's not without danger. There comes a certain point when after the pound level or two pound level it gets interesting.
I was the gangster in the group, handling acquisitions and collections.
When you are handling a pound of weed you're talking about $3,000 to $5,000, so it's not the weed, it's just a money thing.
I was robbed at gunpoint once selling a quarter pound. He gave only a quarter of the amount he owed and pointed a 357 at me and said, "Get out of the car."
So is that why you stopped selling?
At a point it stopped being fun, and we felt under greater and greater scrutiny - [we] started seeing cruisers drive by all the time. The main reason to do this is that people need money and they don't know where else to get it. There has been a genuine and legitimate need for cash flow in every serious drug operation I've ever been aware of.
For instance, in my case, I just couldn't keep asking my parents for money.
Chong and Chong: The New Hampshire Connnection
Interviews by Rick Broussard
Tommy Chong, a icon of the stoner world and the more laid-back half of the classic comedy team Cheech and Chong, was in Portsmouth last September for the N.H. Film Festival where he spoke on a panel about comedy in the movies. The emcee for the panel was Chong's beautiful daughter, herself a successful actress and a Seacoast resident, Rae Dawn. Both are proponents of legalization of marijuana and both offered a few comments for this issue.
Rae Dawn Chong
Rae Dawn Chong
In a nutshell, how did you wind up in New Hampshire?
Love. I fell in love with a local that I met online on Myspace almost seven years ago. He was trolling and saw my picture and teased me for using a celebrity photo and I of course fired back, "Can't celebrities be on social networks?" it was on after that.
What are you up to, professionally?
I am in a new movie that will be released March 2 starring Jason Segal and Ed helms and me called "Jeff Who Lives at Home." Paramount Pictures will be releasing it and word is I will like it. I have not seen it and that is all I can say about that project. Also, I just wrote a new pilot called "The Celebrant" that is getting great reviews and here's hoping I can set it up, which will be pretty miraculous if I do sell and get it made but hey, why not? I still audition and keep in the game, only not as intensely as it would be in NYC or LA. Does an actor ever retire? No, not really - we just get old.
Growing up as the daughter of Tommy Chong must have had its moments. Care to relate a couple of them?
When I stopped smoking weed every day my dad was sad, really sad - it was as if I quit his church. We recovered but he was worried we wouldn't have anything in common and that was true for decades, but we've rekindled our affection since then.
Three weeks before he was arrested (for selling internet smoking paraphernalia) we, my sister and I were having lunch with him and he tried to convince us the DEA were fans because they had been showing up at his live shows for about six months and we were shocked he didn't realize he was being investigated and we said as much and he said, "No that they were fans" and the rest is history. We weren't shock or surprised when he was raided and arrested. Those are two classic "Dad" moments that I can think of right now.
Your dad and his buddy Cheech basically set the stage for a whole genre of humor and film. Why do you think "stoner comedy" is making such a comeback?
It never left - it just went under ground and now there is the Internet, which allows everything to be seen and experienced. [Everything is] instant and viral and so accessible. What are the options - booze and pills or religion or yoga and fitness? I am thinking of things one can use to discharge stress. Plus it is spiritual - it has ritual and humans need both. It will never be gone or eradicated luckily for us they [pot plants] are like cockroaches and will survive everything.
I know Tommy is very involved in promoting legalization of marijuana. Where do you come down on this?
It's a no-brainer. Legalize it all of it and tax the s*it out of it and move on. Take the tax revenue (some of it) and open rehab clinics and maintain control on it and watch the crime rates drop and addiction rates drop. It's elementary. Treating the masses like children isn't a social fix - it's a malignant mismanagement of the masses. When something is available it's less attractive to most, not all for sure, but most. Look at the legal prescription pill problem in America - it's systemic and those pills kill exponentially more people everyday then all the illicit drugs combined. So "Marijuana's" legalization is political, Big Pharma has lobbyists who keep it illegal, but the system is flawed and hopefully in my lifetime we can over haul our government and how it campaign fund raises - make lobbyists illegal too. It would make me happier and more trusting of our political system and democracy. The big money in government and corporate sway is a bigger problem then drug use in America.
Do you have any reservations?
My reservation is the idea that it (weed) is the problem. The problems in society that we have are spiritual, emotional and intellectual. We are morally compromised when we live in a money-focused way where it is profit over humanity so we have HUGE issues [that are] bigger than drug legalization. Still, so many drugs are abused that are legal and they have no place in nature. You can't go into a forest and come across an Oxycontin bush. The fact that the policy makers don't know the difference makes a difference. What needs to be clear is that there is a VAST difference between weed and Xanax bars or Magic mushroom and Zoloft or Auyausaca and booze - this is huge. And it dips into the religious, and when you do it gets grey and foggy and we are stumped. The bridging between the physical and emotional and physical is stunted in our society. We compartmentalize - we don't see the merging or the need to address soul wounds and spiritual damage - we only look at the physical and there is the tell that shows me how un-evolved we are as a race or species and as a society.
That worries me more. We don't see the entire picture because we, or most of us, are too scared, lazy and dumb to investigate it. So blanketing all illicit drugs as bad because you don't know them and most of the policy makers and the police and the politicians don't know illicit drugs and what they are and the why of them, is that problem. It's racial, like Chris Rock says, brown skinned people would benefit from the sale of illicit drugs like weed and hallucinogenics and big pharmacy cannot so they keep it illegal.
It's simple: crack, cocaine and meth aren't love drugs - they destroy everything, it's almost impossible to use those drugs and stay sane. Whereas weed and most hallucinogenics are love drugs they make more love. Also you don't crave them everyday - it's too much or exhausting so you treat it like a trip to Hawaii. Whereas pills are death drugs. They take you away from life and stop the heart. Which isn't nice either, no love only zombiehood. In the end it's all a conspiracy because if we dialogued and people could break it down all illicit drugs and get educated about the optimum way to use them the we make better choices. Some of us.
Actor Tommy Chong during the comedy panel at the New Hampshire Film Festival.
Photo by P.T. Sullivan
Cheech & Chong were the first reality show. It was shot like one, played like one. We were just two guys doing what we always do. Nothing special. No knowledge at the end of the rainbow, but very successful. It's a truth thing.
I always told my kids, if you are going to use drugs ... replace them.
I've got [NH's Free State Project] on my Facebook - they write me all the time. My take on that is God bless 'em. There's a reason pot hasn't been legal for 73 years and it's because potheads are basically naïve.
There used to be the Li'l Abner cartoon by Al Capp and they had an animal called the Schmoo. It was the perfect food. If you were hungry it would just fall over dead. You could cook it and it would taste like a pork chop. That's what the hemp plant is like. It grows in abundance and will do anything you want it to do. It won't harm you. It'll help you. It really is sunshine made physical.
Everybody gets a different effect [from pot] which proves that we are not cattle. We are not a herd. Each of us are individuals, so pot in the spiritual sense brings out that individuality of people which then brings them together.
One of the kicks is we don't know enough about the plant. It needs more experimentation. Then they make experimenting with pot illegal. It's just the government's way of saying yes, but no. So what I've been doing is I've been a one-man laboratory.
The DEA gets billions of dollars and in all the talk of budget cuts I haven't heard one peep about cutting the War on Drugs money because it's such a cash cow. It all boils down to money. They put you in jail not for having pot but for selling pot and then they go after you for money laundering and tax evasion and all that kind of thing.
The only thing I would change would be one word: "Live free AND die." That's the only word I would change because I love it, but you're gonna die, so while you're alive why not live free?
Four Bills to Watch Out For in the Legislature This Session:
Title: Relative to the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Sponsors: (Prime) James Forsythe, Raymond White, Tom De Blois, John Gallus, Evalyn Merrick, Jennifer Coffey, James MacKay, Rich DiPentima
Title: Allowing purchase and use of marijuana by adults, regulating the purchase and use of marijuana, and imposing taxes on the wholesale and retail sale of marijuana.
Sponsors: (Prime) Calvin Pratt, Timothy Comerford, Mark Warden
Title: Exempting cultivation of marijuana from manufacturing under the controlled drug act.
Sponsors: (Prime) Sean Cox , Seth Cohn
Title: Decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.
Sponsors: (Prime) William Panek, Kyle Tasker, Rick Watrous, Mark Warden