The following interview with SAFER cofounder and Marijuana Is Safer coauthor Steve Fox is featured by the independent music magazine, the L.A. Record:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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—www.saferchoice.org—there’s been a new campaign launched called safercampuses.org.
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.