A Pothead Confession
I was a pothead.
That is not intended as some sort of startling admission. It cannot be startling that a 1960s college student used weed.
I smoked pot — a lot of pot. So did nearly everyone I knew. And we all survived and grew into mostly successful adults.
That was not the case for far too many. From 1965 through 2021, more than 29 million Americans have been arrested for simple marijuana possession, mostly for violating state laws. But thousands were convicted of federal offenses.
Now those arrested and convicted by the feds since 1965 are receiving pardons under a program announced last week by President Biden.
It is estimated 6,500 Americans will benefit.
And the president has called on the Department of Health and Human Services to begin the lengthy process of removing marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 narcotics, the schedule that includes heroin, LSD and ecstasy among other truly dangerous drugs, but does not include the far more dangerous fentanyl and methamphetamine
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, marijuana was viewed as a most dangerous drug, a gateway to the harder drugs. And I know that was the case for some. Of course, statistically, it was (and is) just as likely that alcohol addiction leads to hard drugs. But that argument never carried much weight back in the day.
I had avoided pot while in high school even as its use grew rapidly in the late 60s. But within days of starting at the University of Oregon, I was smoking weed. All my friends were smoking. And it was fun.
We would stay up late into the night watching bad TV or listening to music. I often worked two or three jobs while going to school and mostly pot never interfered.
Of course, marijuana was illegal in Oregon and everywhere else. Most of us had friends who had friends who knew someone who could sell a “lid” (about one ounce more or less) for about $10. The pot would come from Mexico or northern California.
There were busts. But no one I knew was arrested.
Still, buying pot, even smoking pot, was a crime and you could go to jail. A felony conviction for possession or sale of even a small amount could end careers before they started.
And I came close.
I have told this story only a few times. And I tell it here because it speaks directly to the president’s action last week.
My college roommate and I were living in a rattle-trap country house owned by a well-known local defense attorney. We were deathly poor, living on surplus cheese and food stamps. Spending $10 for a lid was really beyond our means. The solution — pool what little we had, buy a small brick of marijuana, break it up for sale to friends, and smoke as we sold.
So, we bought our brick of pot and a post office scale. One Sunday morning, we placed a plastic table cover on the dining room table and began to break the brick into lids. And we smoked as we went.
There was a knock on the door. My roommate looked out the window and saw two sheriff’s deputies on the porch. We both panicked. He stalled while I ran out the back looking for a place to hide the goods. I spotted a metal plate in the concrete patio. I moved it aside and dropped the table covering, the pot and the scale into the darkness.
My roommate opened the front door. The deputies could smell the pot, of course. They just laughed. They were looking for a man who had jumped bail, our landlord’s client. When they were satisfied the man was not inside, they left.
After we stopped shaking, I went outside to retrieve the goods. But in my haste, I had dropped the entire bundle into the septic tank. Our days as low-level dealers were over. The rest of that month, we lived on 10-cent boxes of macaroni and cheese.
That is how close I came to a felony arrest that would have completely derailed my life. Had those deputies been more aggressive, I would be looking for a state pardon today. After that, I never considered doing anything more than occasionally smoking with friends.
The marijuana landscape has changed so much since then.
Pot is now legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Another 18 states have medical marijuana laws. Many of the states that decriminalized pot, either through vote or legislative action, have pardoned those arrested for simple possession. But millions of Americans still have destructive felony records.
The president’s pardon program will not affect those convicted at the state level. But it is a step forward, as is the proposal to remove pot from Schedule 1 narcotics. When that happens, and it surely will, it is likely marijuana will become legal nationally, and rapidly. And just as likely, millions of Americans convicted at the state level will receive their pardons.
I smoked pot occasionally right after college and stopped entirely after a couple of years. After recreational marijuana became legal in Washington in 2014, I tried smoking once or twice. But the new commercial strains are too powerful, and the experience was not at all enjoyable.
The battle against marijuana was particularly aggressive in the 60s. Racism may have been one reason. Pot laws were applied to people of color far more often and far more harshly. Society’s panic over youthful rebellion surely played a part.
But the science behind aggressive enforcement was never solid. Including pot on Schedule 1 was never justified.
Public opinion has shifted as the kids of the 60s have grown into today’s power brokers. Polls show a large majority, 65 percent, according to Gallup, have no moral issues with marijuana use.
The federal government has lagged behind the states — and the public — in rectifying the injustices perpetrated during the war on pot. But President Biden’s actions next week constitute a good step in the right direction.
I am no longer a pothead. And thanks to a septic tank, I am not a convicted criminal.
I hope the president’s pardon plan helps extend that status to millions of Americans.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020. His columns reflect his progressive political views. Smith was raised in a Jewish home and is culturally Jewish. However, he considers himself an atheist, which is reflected in his writing. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon. Smith currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.