I was having dinner out with my family on Saturday and a strange thing happened: a few patrons of the restaurant walked to the edge of the sidewalk (nearly in the road) and lit cigarettes. For citizens of Illinois and a few other states, this in itself would be unusual (smoking in public places having been prohibited for more than six months in Illinois). However, we were in the great state of Missouri, where no state law against smoking exists (although it’s being hotly contested as a city ordinance in St. Louis). So there was no legal reason for these good folk to distance themselves from other patrons of the restaurant. The strange thing is that they moved simply because they did not want to bother anyone with their smoke, and said as much as they passed by our table.
Stranger than fiction, some might say. I’ve known smokers who wish they hadn’t started, wish they could quit, and tell others never to smoke, but that is where their courtesy ends: they still smoke, still stink, and still piss all the non-smokers off. Did I witness the birth of a new generation of considerate/compassionate smokers who are selfless enough to indulge their addiction away from others who disdain it? I think not (everyone at the table next to ours lit up a few minutes later, and filled our lungs with the rich smell of burnt tar). No, these smokers were just exceptionally polite people.
Will the ban pass in St. Louis, forcing the polite & impolite alike to retreat to their homes before taking a drag? Is it even constitutional?
This led me to thinking about the governance of addictive substances in this land of ours. Addictive substances is the ugly umbrella-term for the trifecta of mind-altering goodies: booze, pot, and smokes. Nearly everyone has sampled at least one of the above, but the legal ramifications of each makes about as much sense as a Doonesbury comic. Why are the laws which govern alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes so contradictory? See if you know the answers to our addictive substances quiz:
Of the three (alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes), give the correct response to the following questions:
1. Which is a proven carcinogen?
2. Which is the most addictive?
3. Which can you buy when you turn 18?
If you guessed cigarettes…you’re right! You can buy cartons of the carcinogenic & highly addictive sticks with the money you get from your 18th birthday. If you wanna have a glass of champagne to celebrate, you have to wait until you’re a responsible adult or turn 21 (whichever comes first). At that time, you are free to let loose and drink until you pickle your liver. And marijuana…. don’t even think about it, you goddamn tree-huggin free-lovin hippie.
When you strip away the hysteria and rhetoric, alcohol is likely the most innocuous substance of the three. It may or may not be healthy*, but is relatively easy to procure and enjoy. It can be addictive, certainly, but not as readily or as detrimentally as cigarettes.
*By this time next year, no less than 37 studies will have conclusively proven/disproven that alcohol is good/bad for you. Seriously, do they just make this shit up?
Marijuana’s health impact seems to be a topic of contemporary debate, a war that is fought with competing studies and research. Naturally, pro-cannabis and anti-cannabis groups each have an arsenal of research, but the outcome of said research is often dependent of who funds it. I don’t think there can ever be a victory in ideological battles like this one, but for the time being, marijuana is illegal over most of the globe.
And cigarettes….are undisputedly bad. There really is no question of whether or not they have an impact of health; rather, the question is whether or not cigarettes actually kill the people who smoke them. End of story.
So what if things were different?
What if our government took an objective look (objective, meaning it doesn’t involve congress or tobacco/alcohol lobbyists) at these substances and put them on equal footing? Would cigarettes only be available at age 21, instead of 18? Would there be a ban against drinking alcohol in public? Would a Big Pot lobby spring up in Washington? Would anyone take them seriously?
It isn’t going to happen, but maybe someone in the government could start an honest debate on the subject (if such a thing is even possible). Until then, you can still drink anywhere, smoke cigarettes at home, and smoke your joints at Blue Oyster Cult concerts.