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Coming Out for Cannabis on 4/20

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In my world the high holidays are Bicycle Day (Apr. 19), Cannabis Day (Apr. 20) and Earth Day (Apr. 22).

While 4/19 celebrates Dr. Albert Hofmann’s bike ride on LSD in 1943, and 4/22 has focused on bettering the planet since 1970, 4/20 has more of a nebulous history. It commemorates a group of high-school students in San Rafael, Calif. in the early ’70s, who would gather for an after-school puff at 4:20 pm.

This is a year of grand political gestures, but rather than rolling a mile-long joint to smoke on the steps of your state capitol this 4/20, let me suggest a different tack. Tell someone you don’t know well—a colleague, acquaintance, neighbor—that you use marijuana and would like to do so without fear of being arrested, imprisoned, or stigmatized. Imagine the ripple effect if every soccer mom, lawyer, or service provider took this step.

“Saying that you support medicinal cannabis, or ending the prohibition of it, or even that you use cannabis and don’t want to be treated like a criminal can be a powerful act,” says Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist in New York and author of The Pot Book and Moody Bitches. “The more people who stand up to be counted, the further this movement will go.”

Dr. Holland credits Harvey Milk, who led the gay-rights struggle in San Francisco until he was gunned down in 1978, for proving the effectiveness of this coming-out tactic. Milk said: “If you want these rights, you have to stand up and be counted.” That helped every grandmother and uncle realize they had a gay or lesbian friend or family member who deserved the same rights. It’s the same with pot. Everyone knows someone who smokes and who doesn’t deserve to be treated as a criminal.

Four years ago, I started writing a book on weed, which caused me to go away for weeks on end and led to clients, associates and others asking what I was up to. Rather than lie, I came clean. I live in New York, where it’s decriminalized, but there are still many states where cannabis users can have their kids, jobs, public housing, drivers’ licenses, student loans or freedom taken away. I’m also white, which means I’d probably get a slap on the wrist if busted, while people of color are often locked up.

My cannabis coming-out went smoothly. Most people were curious (or jealous) about my project or shared a story about their own use. A small percentage lectured me about the dangers of the plant, telling me about friends who smoked away their lives. I reminded them that all substances, including sugar, cause some percentage of the population to overuse (9% of drinkers are alcoholics), but that the majority of cannabists remain responsible citizens. In 5,000 years of use, there hasn’t been one death, not to mention no mass outbreak of psychosis, amotivation, or damaged babies, due to weed. Thanks to the 80-year-long prohibition, cannabis is the world’s oldest victim of “fake news.” Dr. Holland agrees: “Keeping cannabis illegal causes so many problems. It forces people to hide their use, which causes guilt and shame, and can lead to more compulsive use. The first casualty in the drug war has always been information. It’s why the government can’t be honest about this plant and what it can do medicinally.”

So, think about how you celebrate the high holidays this year, when so much is at stake. The more people that come out about cannabis, the less risk there is for others who follow suit.

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