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Come Out Of The Closet - Take Our Survey!, May 7, 2002

Coming Out of the Cannabis Closet

By Ann Harrison, AlterNet

Jodi James is a 34-year-old single mother of two, a Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives and a marijuana smoker. James, who made a point of disclosing her marijuana use at the Florida state Democratic convention, is one of a growing number of people who believe it's time for pot smokers to step forward and challenge their negative stereotype.

"If many prominent people come out of the closet, it will change the idea that we have to hide, that we have to be ashamed," James says. "Coming out on this issue will change what will be okay for other politicians to do."

Some politicians have already been forced out of the closet, or have come out on their own. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, was revealed to be a marijuana smoker by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which ran a series of advertisements featuring Bloomberg's reply to a reporter who asked him last summer if he had smoked marijuana, "You bet I did," said Bloomberg, "and I enjoyed it."

Other people who have voluntarily chosen to reveal their cannabis use include Don Topping, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii and Norm Kent, an attorney from Ft. Lauderdale and a recovering cancer patient. Kent uses marijuana for medical relief, as does James who became permanently disabled after a fall in 1987. But Kent hopes to move the cannabis debate beyond the question of medical use. He notes that the vast majority of the estimated 12 million American cannabis users are not lighting up to ease an ailment.

According to Kent, healthy cannabis smokers need to become a political constituency, much like gays and lesbians who built a political movement by shedding the "shame" of being homosexual. "It is about your right to be free and make decisions without the government telling you what you can do with your body," said Kent who publishes Express, the largest gay and lesbian newspaper in the state of Florida. "The rights you fight for can keep someone from going to jail."

Cannabis Consumers Campaign

A group of outspoken cannabis users, including James and Topping, are uniting to support the newly launched Cannabis Consumers Campaign -- a California-based movement that lobbies for the civil rights of marijuana smokers. "Are you tired of being treated like a second-class citizen, denied the same rights in society that our alcohol and tobacco-consuming peers enjoy?" reads a letter sent by the Campaign to prospective activists.

Campaign director Mikki Norris points out that cannabis smokers could have their children, jobs, public housing, drivers licenses, student loans and even their freedom taken away from them at any moment. "This is not just about the right to get high, it's about equal rights," said Norris in a recent address to the annual NORML conference in San Francisco. "I pay taxes, I earn a living, I recycle, I am a good neighbor, and at the end of the day and at the end of work, I like to smoke a joint."

The Cannabis Consumers Campaign asserts that marijuana prohibition is based on the false presumption that pot smokers are a detriment to society who lack a moral compass and fail to achieve their potential. The Campaign is conducting a survey that intends to clarify who cannabis consumers are and how they use the plant. Norris says the Campaign will culminate in an advertisement featuring 100 prominent cannabis smoking celebrities who will "come out" together.

"We need to present ourselves with dignity and stand up to the persecution and harassment that we live with," said Norris. "I would love to see a time when we are judged not by the contents of our urine, but by our characters."

Bill Maher, host of the television show Politically Incorrect, told attendees at the NORML conference that it's time Harrison Ford and Ted Turner stood up and acknowledged their cannabis use. Spokespersons for Ford and Turner did not return calls seeking comment on Maher's statement.

Norris acknowledges that coming out of the closet is not entirely without risk. The first wave of people that the Campaign is seeking to reach are self-employed professionals or entrepreneurs who are less likely to lose their jobs by coming out of the cannabis closet. Norris also cautions that such admissions could be used against parents who are involved in child custody disputes.

According to San Francisco criminal defense attorney Anthony Feldstein, a public statement of cannabis use is constitutionally protected speech. But Feldstein says there is no guarantee that law enforcement investigators will not use such an admission in support of a search warrant. Much depends on where the person making the admission lives and on the attitudes of the local judges. In general, he says, prosecutors in the San Francisco area have not been aggressive in pursuing cannabis possession cases. "The risk would be radically different from one county to the next," Feldstein says.

Feldstein adds that there also is a big difference between saying that you have smoked cannabis and admitting that there is a bag of cannabis presently in your house.

Should the Campaign create a critical mass of public cannabis smokers, Feldstein says the resulting publicity would also decrease the chances of arrest. "There is safety and strength in numbers," says Feldstein. "The more people who take the risk, the less risk there is for other people doing the same."

Speaking Out and Coming Out

Washington D.C. DEA spokesman Will Glaspy says federal authorities that prosecute drug traffickers will not target outspoken cannabis smokers. But Glaspy argues that the Campaign undermines the government's warnings about marijuana. "If we try to convince kids that smoking marijuana is safe, it is the wrong message and not the message that should be put out," said Glaspy.

Nick Spadafino, owner of Pacific Park Recovery Center, in Tustin, Calif., says he is concerned that those who proudly smoke marijuana increase their chances of addiction to other substances. "I started smoking pot at a very young age and I didn't think anything was wrong with it," says Spadafino. "But it led me to smoking cocaine and I smoked cocaine every day for 13 years. That almost destroyed me."

Spadafino adds that he does not believe that all cannabis use leads to addiction or self-destructive behavior. Many cannabis smokers now coming forward say that marijuana has not been damaging, but instead has enhanced their quality of life. "I get stoned and I listen to Mahler -- classical music with weed is fabulous," said 80-year-old Arthur B. Waugh who attended the recent Cannabis Freedom Day Rally in San Francisco.

The Cannabis Freedom Day Rally also drew San Francisco immigration attorney Steve Baughman who strolled through the crowd handing out a leaflet entitled "Vital Stats On One Pot Smoker." Among the items listed were "Number of persons in my employ who will lose their jobs if I go to jail: 15."

"I think it's important for mainstream, day-job people like myself to show up at events like this to get the word out that this is not just potheads wanting a bigger party," said Baughman, who wore a neatly pressed business suit. "This is a fundamental civil liberties issue."

Ann Harrison is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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