I have long had a complicated relationship with marijuana.
It has been decades since I held a joint between my fingers. (I’m not even sure that’s what it’s called these days.) But memories from my youth came pouring back to me on Tuesday as I pondered over the question on my ballot.
Voters in Chicago and surrounding areas were asked to weigh in on whether marijuana should be legalized in Illinois. But it didn’t stop with recreational users. The nonbinding referendum also asked us to consider whether people should be allowed to cultivate it, manufacture it and distribute it without retribution.
I was stumped, and it felt like deja vu.
I’d been asked that question once before, in the 1970s when I was about 20. I didn’t know how to answer it then, either. And it cost me something that was very important to me at the time.
It was during the final round of interviews for the University of Georgia homecoming court. (Ok, go ahead and laugh, but it was a big deal to this idealistic kid from a small town called Hogansville that no one had ever heard of.)
There I was with what I considered to be a momentous opportunity to make history as the first African-American woman to walk onto the football field at halftime wearing a crown. I had made it through the first round of interviews with the committee, and this was the final hurdle before making the court from which the queen ultimately would be chosen.
Even the judges seemed to be pulling for me as they presented the question, “Should marijuana be legalized?”
I froze in complete silence. I didn’t have a clue. I’d never even thought about it.
Then something silly poured out of my mouth. “Maybe,” I said.
And that quickly, I had blown my chance.
I have thought about that missed opportunity occasionally over the years. It is less important to me now that I didn’t make the homecoming court. I am much more focused on the importance of being able to think things over quickly when necessary and make a decision.
Nothing is more frustrating to me than people who can’t make up their mind. I would rather make a wrong decision and deal with the consequences than to be unable to make a decision at all.
That kind of confidence usually comes with maturity. But on Tuesday, the confidence wasn’t there when I needed it.
There is a lot to consider when talking about legalizing marijuana.
I have no issue with legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. There is a growing body of research showing its health benefits, ranging from pain relief to controlling epileptic seizures.
Illinois was right to pass legislation two years ago decriminalizing possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana. Throwing someone into jail for having a small amount of the drug was overkill. The $100 to $200 fine — much like a traffic ticket — is fairer.
And for the record, I don’t judge adults who choose to smoke marijuana for recreational use even though it’s illegal.
So what is my concern?
I’m not entirely comfortable with approving the drug primarily as a source of tax revenue. And it was ironic to see the marijuana question appear on the ballot along with another question addressing opioid addiction.
While asking voters if we wanted to legalize marijuana, presumably to add more money to the state coffers, we were also asked if we wanted the state to spend more taxpayer dollars on opioid and heroin addiction treatment.
There are many studies that suggest recreational marijuana use is harmless. But other studies raise doubts. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, studies have found that marijuana use can lead to something called marijuana use disorder, which often takes the form of addiction.
According to the institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, recent data suggest that 30 percent of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder. And people who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults.
The bottom line is that we don’t know definitively the long-term impact of marijuana use. Are we willing to risk contributing to another potential substance abuse problem before all the facts are in?
In Cook County, 63 percent of voters said “yes.” Only 37 percent said “no.”
The only time I ever tried marijuana was in college, not on my own UGA campus but while visiting my best friend at a historically black college in south Georgia.
It was following a concert by Parliament-Funkadelic, where frontman George Clinton emerged from a makeshift spaceship as the band played “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” Clinton thought nothing of pulling out a joint onstage in front of hundreds of screaming college students and encouraging us to do the same.
So let’s just say on that particular night, I was feeling it. When people started passing around a joint, I put it to my mouth and took a puff. But honestly, I didn’t inhale. It was just for show.
Afterward, I was disappointed in myself for following the crowd. Marijuana always was readily available at parties at UGA, but I never once bowed to the peer pressure.
In college, I would laugh my guts out whenever friends would get together and watch “Reefer Madness,” the 1936 propagandist film that depicts young people going crazy after smoking marijuana.
It was ridiculous. And it still makes me chuckle when I watch it.
Still, I wore my anti-drug and anti-alcohol stance like a badge of honor. It was my way of saying, “I’m my own person. I make my own choices.”
I’m still no good at following the crowd. So on Tuesday, to the question of legalizing marijuana, I voted “no.”