I have a good friend whose name you surely know if you live in the Rochester area: Evan Dawson. I met him when he worked for 13WHAM as a reporter on their nightly news, and he’s now moved on to host his radio show, Connections with Evan Dawson all week on WXXI radio. I mention him because, as you may also know, he wrote a book called Summer in a Glass about Upstate New York’s wine region and the men and women who shape that industry’s fate.

It is a book rich with poetic turns of phrase; it is a book filled with impressions of the country, the people, the history. Very clearly, Evan has a deep and abiding respect for the industry and the products of its labour. It’s a great book and you should definitely read it.

Flash back to a grown-ass adult trying to buy a goddamned bag of weed in the same state: sitting in the cigarette-reeking back of some asshole 20-something’s mini Toyota pickup truck – not the “back seat,” just a subwoofer he never bothered to plug in – waiting patiently among the food wrappers, old clothing and personal hygiene implements for an overpriced bag of agricultural product no more harmful than the stuff Evan waxes poetic about in his book.

With apologies to Evan, we live in a state that doesn’t just allow you to make wine, beer and now hard alcohol: it fetishizes those things as though they were some noble thing. “Uncork New York,” as they say. Every festival in Rochester has a wine tent. There are stores throughout the Finger Lakes that don’t even sell wine, just all the wine accessories you could possibly want including tee shirts, bottle openers, earrings. Evan’s is, as you might suspect, hardly the only written document on the subject.

Matter of fact, there is a comfort care home down the road from me that can’t house more than five people; they’re having a wine tasting in a couple weeks. A home for five people, all of whom must certainly have been told to stop drinking alcohol thirty years ago, and they’re having a wine tasting.

I don’t begrudge the alcohol industry’s success in New York State. Hell, I even used to write a column for (585) Magazine called Over Drinks, dedicated to the topic. But as silly as it’s ever been for weed to be illegal when alcohol is legal, that goes doubly and trebly for a state that makes such a farcically big deal out of hootch. There are those who want or need marijuana for medical use, recreational use and research, but even attempts to make medical weed available have stalled.

If any state in the union ought to have promotions all summer long for it’s Marijuana Region, it is a state as hilly and sunny as New York. We have conditions to make beautiful, award-winning ganja to suit every palate and preference. Setivas. Indikas. Candy bars and sodas. And sure! Why not a weed-themed New York State tee shirt?

“New York State of Mind,” or “We Came, We Saw, We Smoked,” or “My Parents Went to Weed Country, and I Had to Buy This Shirt Online Because They Forgot.” Just as suggestions. Perhaps there could be a “Toke New York” campaign with billboards on the 90?

Either way, while half a dozen other states have a referendum on the ballot this November to legalize weed, our silly-ass pols sit in Albany trying to figure out which universities are going to get weed in pill form. And then get a drink of wine with dinner. Because thank you, New York.

The New York Times editorial department caused a big splash on Sunday, declaring that:

It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol.

The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.

Good for them for taking such a strong stance on what should really be a no-brainer policy change now. But Gawker noted – confirmed swiftly by the Huff Po – that the New York Times still tests it’s employees for drugs and has been clear they’re not about to change that policy:

“Our corporate policy on this issue reflects current law,” the spokeswoman said. “We aren’t going to get into details beyond that.”

It is of course illegal to, in the words of George Carlin, “drop, shoot, snort or rub into your belly,” anything more fun than alcohol. But what “current law” requires drug tests? What statute so hems in the New York Times drug policy?

Well, none exactly. But the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 requires that companies must drug test employees if they’re to receive any money from the Federal Government in the form of grants or loans or if they are to become contractors. So no, you don’t have to test your employees. You just can’t have any of that sweet, sweet government pie.

It seems unlikely that the New York Times is a federal contractor (snide comments aside). They do however have a rather large and expensive building in downtown New York, so who knows what grants or loans they’ve applied for?

But the law that seems most applicable to the New York Times drug policy would be New York’s own Worker’s Compensation laws, which allow companies to receive breaks on the cost of Worker’s Comp insurance in exchange for setting up drug testing policies. Money talks, especially in New York, and the State is giving out free cash for companies that want to invade their employees’ privacy.

What does New York State plan to do about these laws, now that they’ve made medical marijuana legal? What, for example, might the policy be for the 30-90 days required to get marijuana out of one’s system? Are employees required to open their medical records to the state, now that we need to make extra sure you’re allowed to have that weed?

As we move towards what I suspect is a fairly inevitable conclusion of this part of the Drug War, it’s important to remember that there are dozens of laws just like this on the Federal and State levels. Because of course, you can’t actually make a drug illegal: you can only prohibit it’s sale through countless little statutes. Statutes that will now need to be unwound if we’re to climb down from the high peak we find ourselves on.

Don’t hold your breath, is what I’m saying.

After I went to all the trouble to agree with Governor Cuomo a year ago, saying I don’t support medical marijuana any more than he said he did, it now turns out that we’re mere moments away from legal weed… for seriously ill patients, only. Yahoo News gets a key point wrong, though:

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has steadily resisted pressure to legalize marijuana, was expected to announce the plan at Wednesday’s State of the State address, according to the newspaper’s website.

That’s not true at all. In fact, he has suggested legalizing the possession 25g or less of marijuana. What he has objected to is medical marijuana. But no longer.

Why the Cuomo marijuana switch? Because medical marijuana is the “gateway drug” to fully-legalized pot? Recent history doesn’t bear this out. Why does California still not have legal weed? No, Colorado and Washington did not bother with this “intermediary” step.

It’s much more likely that, if New York gets medical marijuana, it becomes open season for everybody. What constitutes a “serious” medical condition will be diluted and more and more people will have prescriptions for fun. This is especially true in light of Colorado and Washington getting no-bullshit legal weed.

Speculating from a million miles away it strikes me that, because Governor Cuomo’s plan is to issue an executive order, the Senate and Legislature don’t have to take any heat for legalizing weed. The pressure is off for elected Conservatives who might agree with the idea of reforming our drug laws, but who do so at the peril of alienating their constituencies. They didn’t have to pull the trigger.

But they can vote for the Krueger bill that legalizes and taxes the herbals. Because, gosh, on top of Obamacare we don’t need Liberals in Albany turning doctors into pushers! They can vote for a bill that satisfies both the Libertarians who want weed decriminalized and the social Conservatives who will probably view medical marijuana as a step towards the… oh, Californication.. of New York.

Certainly, I’m hoping there is a Cuomo marijuana plan that extends beyond medical marijuana. New York State struck a major blow for marriage equality and human dignity when they voted to legalize same sex marriage. We can once again strike a blow for social justice by being the most populous state with legal recreational weed, ending decades of useless criminal records, shame, and economic and racial disparity in our justice system.

Don’t get me wrong. Do I think marijuana has plenty of perfectly legitimate medical purposes? Absolutely yes, I do believe that. I also fully believe that it makes an excellent fuel source, footwear and legal documents. Well, ok. It could make perfectly good legal documents.

However, I have also discovered another use for marijuana that you might find interesting. It turns out that, if you put the buds of the marijuana plant into a pipe and smoke it, you get high. I find this really interesting, myself.

Mind you: I don’t know any of this first-hand. Some kids in bible study told me about it. But in fairness, they were right about the number of K’s on a Marlboro pack and the image of the burning Twin Towers on the $20 bill. So I’m going to assume they’re right about this.

And being that we live in a state that doesn’t just celebrate – doesn’t just market or advertise – alcohol production and consumption, but spends millions of dollars nearly fetishizing the whole affair, it seems reasonable that we should want to also make marijuana consumption equally safe and legal. Don’t you agree?

That other states have been able to open the discussion of legal marijuana by legalizing it for medical purposes is something we can all thank them for. But the idea that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes isn’t going to just put doctors in a bind, having to either piss off and lose patients or else prescribe marijuana for a host of otherwise-curable diseases is just a farce. We all know why marijuana legalization is popular. Let’s just get on with it.

Please don’t make me seek out a prescription for fun. Please don’t turn the medical profession into a rubber stamp for the proper enjoyment of Pink Floyd and Monty Python (c’mon, dude, be honest). Let’s at least start by decriminalizing reasonable quantities of weed in the state.

Or if we are going to make this a medical thing, let’s also require insurance companies to pay for lava lamps, Doritos and Christmas lights that change color to the beat of music. In for a penny, in for a pound.

I think it is more an article of faith than a empirical  fact that liberalizing drug laws or legalizing certain drugs would cure a lot of our society’s ills. I say that as a person who very-much supports the idea of drug legalization, at least for pot and a few other limited drugs.

But as I watch the bath salts and fake weed controversies evolve, I wonder whether they don’t offer empirical evidence that our fantasy of legal drug Nirvana may be just that. Out of a list of reasons to legalize weed, two that jump out as the more common ones are that:

  1. Making drugs illegal doesn’t really stop people from doing them, and
  2. Illegal, unregulated drugs are inherently dangerous, because you don’t know what you’re buying

13WHAM’s Evan Dawson has a report up that shows that cracking down on the sale of synthetic, nominally legal intoxicants is having a significant impact in the Rochester area:

13WHAM News combined the number of local calls to poison control about bath salts with the number of emergency room visits related to bath salts. Here are the totals, month-by-month, which show a surge in bath salts, followed by a steep decline after the ban:

March 2012:  23
April 2012:  30
May 2012:  42
June 2012:  81
July 2012:  104
August 2012:  29
September 2012:  19
October 2012:  3

In a bubble, we had what seems to be a pretty significant problem by July, which seems to have been eliminated by October. It is impossible to tell whether this is just a fad that ran its course – perhaps sped by crackdowns – or a legitimate case for illegality as a preventative measure. Certainly, High Times and head shops have always been filled with “alternative” drugs. I can’t say I ever knew anyone who tried them. Certainly, things changed.

But the second argument – that legal drugs will be less harmful – is clearly in doubt as well. In fact, the only reason this story was ever a story is because people were getting hurt. Hurt by things sold over the counter, entirely legally.

American history prior to the passage of the 18th Amendment bares both these truths out: use of legal drugs from alcohol to cocaine and opiates was legion throughout the country. For a Rochester perspective on just how overrun our alcohol culture was in the mid-1800’s, read A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. There is no credible measure by which our current levels of drug and alcohol abuse compare to those days. And because our 19th century drug and alcohol problem was as much as anything a manufacturing problem, there are numerous examples of less than ethical mixtures, including but not limited to using cocaine and opiates in just about every “curative” you could sell at the drug store.

Perhaps what this says is that “decriminalization” is less desirable than legalization – bringing illegal drugs under the same legal regime as alcohol. Anyway, just food for thought on a Thursday afternoon.

In his State of the State address today, Andrew Cuomo’s prepared remarks show that he views marijuana arrests as too costly. Yes, too costly in terms of the effects on the lives of New Yorkers ensnared in the legal process. But also, keenly in terms of getting Republican support, in pure dollars and cents:

The mounting number of arrests without convictions in this area is not cost-free for law enforcement or the public either. A cost-benefit analysis performed by Dr. Harry Levine of Queens College examined the costs to the police and courts of each arrest—approximately $764 in police and $336 in court costs. Based on the number of arrests, the analysis concluded that it costs approximately $75 million a year to support the current practice.

His solution is not to decriminalize, but rather to simply make possession outside the home of more than about half an ounce (15 grams) of weed. Possession of about an ounce (25 grams) in the home is a non-criminal offense already. And already punishable by a fine.

Two things stand out, here. The first is that most of the above-cited costs of criminal possession of marijuana stay right where they are if you’re going to fine everybody you find with weed on them. And since (last I knew) you got fined for having weed in addition to the criminal charges anyway, I’d call this a financial wash at best: it would be better to just decriminalize in both cases, inside and outside the home.

The second is rather an obvious logistical problem that most anyone who has ever gone grocery shopping understands: how do you get 25 grams of weed home if you’re only allowed to have 15 grams of weed on you in public? Make two trips?

No, no. Acid is still illegal.

Kirstin gets the nod, California gets the weed, but not everybody’s happy in today’s DFE News Update:

  • Xerox is the breaking news of the day for Rochester, as it’s earnings report gives some indication why it’s laying off workers: they broke even on earnings this quarter, down from 41 cents per share this time last year. Breaking even is good when you’re a kid paying bills, but it’s bad when you’re a multi-billion dollar, publicly-traded international corporation.
  • A happy switch from eight years of one reality, President Barack Obama (fuckin’ LOVE writing that) affirms a woman’s right to choose as both a woman’s right and a family’s right to privacy on the anniversary of the Roe decision. Protesters on the lawn don’t get their traditional phone call from the president anymore. Shucks, I guess they’ll just have to freeze.
  • Kirstie Gets the Nod!!! Yes, our long statewide nightmare is over, with frickin Patterson finally getting off his ass and picking someone. I’ll probably comment on this more later, with perhaps a roundup of reaction.
  • From the “Obvious But Worth Noting” department, experts predict as much as a 9 percent shrinking of the wireless market in the next year. Duh. It’s a recession.
  • I commented yesterday about Obama’s decision to shut down Gitmo, asserting that a test of that decision would not be long coming. It took one day, actually. A freed Saudi has now become a leader in the al-Qaeda military machine. Joy.
  • Finally, happy news from California: pot crops are abundant this year. As I pointed out in a comment on TPMCafe, Obama could do this country a world of good by just legalizing it, already. Ease our suffering in this time of economic, military and environmental troubles.