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Pot legalization produces a challenge

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January 07, 2014 | 5 Comments

Colorado took an extraordinary step last week when, on Jan. 1, it implemented a law that legalizes the sale of marijuana for recreational use.  The state of Washington isn’t far behind Colorado, and it’s likely that if their experiments play out reasonably well, other states will legalize pot, as well.

In fact, the Washington Post reports that proponents for legalization have collected enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot this year in Alaska, and they have hopes for Oregon next year and six more states by 2016.

At least 18 pot shops were open for business in Denver on Jan. 1, selling up to an ounce of marijuana to Colorado residents over 21.  Out-of-state customers are limited to a quarter of an ounce.

Dozens of additional stores are expected to open in coming months, and officials are anticipating that marijuana sales could add up to $200 million to Colorado’s economy, as well as produce close to $70 million in tax revenue.

The trend is probably inevitable, but I’ll admit to misgivings.  Consider the role and uses of “stupefaction” in our culture. The term is quaint, but I use it in connection with the Russian writer Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of very big books like “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”  After a dissolute youth and a long, productive life Tolstoy adopted a radical version of Christianity and a rigid asceticism that resulted in 1890 in a short essay that asks a poignant question, “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?”

Tolstoy laments the excessive use of drugs in late 19th-century Russia, substances like vodka, wine, beer, hashish, opium, morphine and even tobacco.  Tolstoy’s definition of a stupefacient was anything that dulled the mind enough to make it lose sight of its conscience.

It doesn’t take much: Tolstoy implies that the fictional murderer of “Crime and Punishment,” Raskolnikov, was pushed over the edge by as little as a glass of beer and a cigarette. In fact, he speculates that the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant wouldn’t have been written in such a “bad style” if Kant hadn’t smoked so many cigarettes.

It’s interesting to consider what Tolstoy would have thought of our culture’s insatiable attraction to stupefaction, which we achieve in all sorts of ways – alcohol and illegal drugs, of course, but also plenty of legal drugs, food, TV, consumerism and enormous amounts of electronic entertainment, diversion and distraction, more than enough to keep our consciences at bay, as well as the realities of the bad things that happen in the world.

In fact, Tolstoy might have thought that a few cigarettes and a glass of beer are preferable to the stupefaction of the modern pot-bellied, middle-age American man who watches three football games on Saturday, two on Sunday, one on Monday, one on Thursday, and maybe Friday, as well.

Tolstoy’s answer is total abstinence, a bar that is probably too high in a land where stupefaction, in all its forms and degrees, has become a synonym for pleasure.  Besides, stupefaction in moderation is fun – it feels good! – and few of us would want to return to the pleasure-denying Puritanism prominent at the beginnings of our country.

Unfortunately, humans – and, maybe, especially Americans – don’t have much genius for moderation, and nearly all stupefacients – from cocaine to video games – are somewhat addictive.

Certainly, Colorado and Washington deserve credit for doing away with some of the irony and hypocrisy in our attitude toward marijuana, which accepts and even admires its admitted use by celebrities (Bill Maher, Willie Nelson, Cheech and Chong) and presidents (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama), while running up the world’s highest incarceration rate by the disproportionate prosecution of minorities.

But the challenge for citizens in both states will be avoiding self-indulgence and achieving a level of moderation that enhances, rather than diminishes, their lives.  Unfortunately, we’ve never been very good at balancing abstinence against obsessive stupefaction.  But, please, Colorado, do your best.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at jcrisp@delmar.edu.

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Discussion | 5 comments

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  • CD BrooksJanuary 07, 2014 - 7:07 am

    Nice challenge to successful people everywhere. Stupefaction is alive and thriving in Texas! ;)

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • LonghornJanuary 07, 2014 - 7:12 am

    Hook 'em, Horns!

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Rich GiddensJanuary 07, 2014 - 8:11 am

    California is ground zero for ''stupidfication''. It starts with your public schools and your government employee tyrants.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • LDJanuary 07, 2014 - 3:30 pm

    Some people may use marijuana as a tool to 'stupify' themselves but that doesn't mean that it is necessarily a bad thing. Steve Jobs and Carl Sagan both used marijuana regularly and I would say that they turned out fine. This may sound like stoner talk, but marijuana has the ability to make people pay attention to detail. There is that stereotype of stoners just staring at inanimate objects for long periods of time. Though some people might reach that level of highness, I find that to be rare. Most stoners are highly functional and just have a differen't vice than many others. I don't think it is the weed that makes the stoner lazy, but the fact that the person was already lazy. I read something that stuck with me but I don't remember the source. It emphasized how marijuana is demonized for making people stop caring, but in reality they just stop caring about things that aren't pertinent. In the grand scheme of things clean socks and a well made bed aren't important, but assessing one's life is.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Mr. SmithJanuary 07, 2014 - 3:43 pm

    LD: Your final three sentences sound a little "stonerish." I was kind of with you up to that point--at least willing to consider your ideas.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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