The “Natural State” 


In 2005, I wrote a column about the movie Brokeback Mountain, the Ang Lee film that marked a sea change in how gay relationships were portrayed in mainstream American cinema. Two Wyoming cowboys, of all people, were portrayed as lovers, tortured by having to keep their relationship a secret.

Often, life really does imitate art, but, in this case, I think it was the other way around: Brokeback Mountain was reflecting a change in attitudes about homosexuality that was happening in the real world.

In 2011, the U.S. military policy of "don't ask, don't tell" was finally repealed, which allowed gay Americans to openly serve in the armed forces. The world didn't end. Nor did it end a few years later, when legal gay marriage became the law of the land.

We're seeing something of the same evolution happening with our attitudes toward marijuana. Memphis and Nashville, the blue spots in red Tennessee, both passed legislation in the past month that reduces penalties for simple possession of less than a half-ounce of pot. As this week's cover story points out, the measure was passed more as a matter of criminal justice than of decriminalization, the idea being to reduce the number of young African-American men being funneled into the justice system for what amounts to a victimless crime. But even so, the official legal attitude toward marijuana as a dangerous drug has softened.

And The Commercial Appeal this week published a story about a Tennessee lawmaker, Jeremy Faison — a Republican lawmaker, at that — who journeyed to Colorado to see the effects of medical marijuana legalization. He visited several Tennessee families who'd moved there in order to be able to obtain marijuana to treat their children's illnesses. He said he wanted to find out "why we are losing Tennesseans to Colorado."

It is expected that the Tennessee legislature will take up the issue of medical marijuana again in 2017. Whether Faison can convince enough of his fellow Republicans to move toward a more temperate policy remains to be seen. But if polling numbers are to be believed, Tennessee's way forward may be influenced by our neighboring state to the west, Arkansas, which has not one, but two, medical marijuana measures on the November 8th ballot. If both measures pass, the one with the most votes becomes law.

It's possible, of course, that neither will pass, but a recent poll showed 80 percent of Arkansans favored allowing the use of medical marijuana for treatment of illness. The number of conditions (40 or so) that will be allowed to be treated by marijuana under the measures on the Arkansas ballot range from cancer to migraines to restless-leg syndrome. Pot will be sold and regulated through licensed dispensaries and will be available only to Arkansas residents.

Yeah, sure. Just like in California.

Let's be real. When medical marijuana is legalized in a state, lots of people quickly develop conditions that require treatment with weed. And lots of folks travel to those states to obtain marijuana, especially from neighboring states. That's because thousands of fine, upstanding people smoke pot, and if they can figure out a way to get it that doesn't involve the risk of arrest or having to meet with some clandestine illegal drug dealer, they'll do it.

If Memphians will risk the long arm of the law to buy illegal fireworks just across the bridge, they'll do the same to get a little herb. Twenty-seven states (and counting) now allow either medical or recreational marijuana to be sold. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the map of states that have loosened pot laws is comprised mostly of blue states. Change on this issue is coming slower in the South. But it's coming, and it's closer than you may think. In fact, it may soon be just a bridge away.

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