Dumb as a Potted Plant

Why is someone as smart as Mark Leno sponsoring genuinely stupid legislation to legalize hemp cultivation?

I like Mark Leno. He has the straight-laced disposition of a mortician, which juxtaposes nicely with his role as one of the California Assembly's maverick legislators. He's the governmental champion of underdogs, tenants, orphans, parolees, recovering heroin addicts, artists, foster children, and gay rights, to name a few.

Even though his issues resonate in San Francisco, like so many local officials who leave for Sacramento, Leno has been largely ignored by constituents.

He deserves a higher profile. And in San Francisco there's apparently no more direct route to public acclaim than aligning oneself with potheads. Last week, for example, members of the Board of Supervisors struggled to outstoner one another, even while they testified on behalf of a 45-day moratorium on new "medical marijuana" stores, a move designed to fend off law enforcement as supervisors write new regulations to protect these pot clubs from federal and state prosecution. During the 1990s, San Francisco's stunningly inept district attorney, Terence Hallinan, managed to stay in office for eight years in large part on the basis of his reputation as a marijuana fan.

In San Francisco, a city whose political culture still receives far too much guidance from 1970s potheads, you can't go wrong by carrying the ball for reefer freaks, no matter how absurd the cause, no matter how disastrous the results. As a journalist, I know the best way of pushing Leno toward local sainthood is to criticize him for advancing an especially idiotic item on the pothead agenda.

So -- because I like Leno and want to make sure his political career prospers -- I've decided to point out that he is sponsoring a truly stupid and specious bill that would create special agricultural licenses allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp that no one really needs.

In his previous job as a San Francisco supervisor, Leno was the city's go-to politician for medical marijuana.

Since then, medicinal-pot clubs -- which in practice sell to potheads and street dealers of pot, along with the occasional legitimate patient -- have sprouted across the city like Starbucks, to the point that even our pot-addled city fathers feared for marijuana purveyors' reputation a month ago when a pot shop nearly opened in a city-run hotel inhabited by drug rehab patients. The Board of Supervisors last week passed a 45-day moratorium on new pot-club licenses, as it considers a way to regulate this scourge.

Leno has moved on to Prong 2 of the potheads' dream of advancing the cannabis cause: legalized hemp.

As with medical marijuana, there is a legitimate, if limited, use for the hemp plant. But the most ardent advocates of the claim that the legalization of hemp cultivation is an "important issue" happen to be people who also believe, passionately, that they should be free to smoke pot recreationally. Although supporters often deny it, the underlying idea of both the medical pot and cultivated hemp movements is that incremental steps to make marijuana -- the plant and the product -- accepted within society will, one day, lead to the full legalization of recreational pot.

I sympathize with the logic of the potheads' arguments: If marijuana were legal, those who grow and sell the stuff would be identified, audited, and regulated just like any other corporate profiteer, a far better situation than the criminal marijuana underground currently fostered by prohibition.

The logic of the reefer freaks' unspoken cause, however, doesn't hide a couple of unfortunate facts: Long-term pot users wind up, by and large, as memory-impaired losers. And the rhetoric that potheads spew around foot-in-the-door issues like industrial hemp is easily disproved bullshit.

Industrial hemp is an ordinary cash crop that, if grown using the proper strains, can't get you high, no matter how many bales you smoke. The plant simply does not contain enough of the psychoactive drug tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to get a human being off. And the plant has a number of uses that have nothing to do with altering the mind.

Just the same, growing the stuff is illegal in the United States because of fears that farmers might secretly mix intoxicating pot plants in with identical-looking industrial hemp varieties. I agree with the potheads when they say this prohibition is silly. I part ways, however, when they claim this is an important issue. And potheads, along with their political hangers-on, make the mind-blowing claim that hemp is a really, really important issue.

Changing the status of nonsmokable industrial hemp could change the world, Leno and his fellow reefer freaks say. "There's great potential for an economic bonanza as a result of this new crop," Leno said during a recent conversation. "It's a remarkable plant. And it's time to reintroduce it to the local economy."

To this end, Leno last month sponsored a press conference during which people such as David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps (you know, the ones with the 3,000-word "the whole world is our Fatherland" inscriptions on the bottle), repeated the false pothead claim that there's a chronic shortage of industrial hemp in America, and that we therefore have a need to create special licenses for California farmers to grow the stuff.

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