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In celebration of 4/20, weed and a tale of two cities

By Bruce Barcott
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Following Colorado and Washington state, efforts to legalize pot have increased across the nation.
Following Colorado and Washington state, efforts to legalize pot have increased across the nation.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bruce Barcott looks at differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
  • In Louisiana, a second marijuana possession offense could get you 5-10 years in prison
  • In Colorado, you can buy two grams for $34 and change, and never go to jail
  • April 20 is seen as a day of celebration for pot smokers

Editor's note: Bruce Barcott is an award-winning science and environmental journalist based in Seattle who has written for Outside magazine, National Geographic and others. His forthcoming book on marijuana legalization will be published in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @BruceBarcott. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Through a bit of calendrical coincidence, Easter Sunday this year falls on April 20. That's unfortunate because April 20 has become, through no fault of its own, the highest and holiest day of the pot smoker's year.

From its origins as the meeting time (4:20 p.m.) of some Bay Area joint-passers in the early 70s, the 4/20 movement has evolved into an annual occasion for mass smoke-outs in leaf-friendly cities like Denver, San Francisco and my hometown of Seattle.

So Sunday should be replete with news coverage of sunrise services, Pope Francis on the balcony and twentysomething bros sucking on burrito-size doobies. I expect to see at least one weedhead in bunny ears on the top-o-the-hour news: "Meanwhile, in Colorado..."

America, I am here to tell you: Don't take the extreme to represent the mainstream.

Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott

What you see on Sunday may be rude, crude and obnoxious. But it bears as much relevance to marijuana reform as New York's raucous St. Patrick's Day parade does to the history of the Irish people.

I say this as a middle-aged pot agnostic who's living with the reality of legalized marijuana.

Eighteen months ago I became something of a canary in the cannabis coal mine. My home state of Washington voted to legalize marijuana. I was a father of two kids about to enter their teens. I hadn't touched pot since college.

Initially against legalization, I switched my vote at the last minute. Since then I've been digging into the reasons behind that last-minute change of heart -- and, by extension, into the reasons so many Americans have recently changed their minds about marijuana.

Believe me, we didn't do it in order to party down with Dreadhead Jones.

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We did it because our marijuana laws no longer made any sense.

As I write this, I'm flying from New Orleans to Denver. In doing so I'm exiting the state with the nation's most Kafkaesque marijuana laws and entering the state with the most regulated legal pot system in the world.

Cannabis lovers take Denver's 420 weekend to new highs

Do you know the main difference between the two? It's the number of people in prison for pot.

In Louisiana, it's not uncommon to serve five to ten years in prison for minor marijuana possession. Five to ten. That's more than some rape, robbery, or aggravated manslaughter convictions. And it's the main reason Louisiana has the highest per-capita prison population in the world.

Last week I spoke with a man who was caught with 2.8 grams of marijuana in his pocket during a classic stop-and-frisk. (Do I need to tell you he's black?) He's the same age as me. He had a wife, a kid, a job. Now he's serving 13 years.

"I don't understand it," he told me. "There are guys in my cell here for violent crimes, awful things, and they're doing less time than me. If I think about it too much it drives me crazy." I felt like I was talking with a modern-day Jean Valjean.

When I land in Denver, I'll stop by the Medicine Man shop over on Nome Street and buy two grams for $34 and change. No one will be harmed in the process. I'll take the bud and a bottle of wine to dinner at a friend's house. He'll probably take a couple puffs on the pot; I'll take one myself, but probably concentrate on the Merlot. Legal or not, weed's not really my thing.

How's it working out for Denver? Since the city's retail pot stores opened on January 1, violent crime is down. Property crimes are down. Cops used to arrest about 10,000 people every year for marijuana possession in Colorado. Now they don't.

Legal weed hasn't inspired an army of hooligans to tear up the state. It's just kept 10,000 people with a little bud in their pockets from being branded as criminals. Instead of losing their jobs, they keep them. Instead of draining tax dollars as prisoners, they contribute tax dollars as workers and consumers.

There is hope for those in Louisiana. An odd-bedfellows coalition of social justice campaigners and fiscal responsibility advocates have joined together to push for sentencing reform. That's a long way from legalization, but it may bring some common sense to an area that's suffered from a dearth of it over the past couple of decades.

Kevin Kane, president of the conservative Pelican Institute for Public Policy, is no pot legalizer. He simply believes the sentence should fit the crime. Ten years for a gram of marijuana? "It offends many people's sense of justice, including mine," he told me.

By the time I left New Orleans, it looked like reform might have a chance. The Times-Picayune editorial board declared that "Pot possession penalties are too high," and called for saner penalties -- a $100 fine and up to six months in jail. There was talk of considering more drug court deferrals and fewer Les Miserables sentences.

This is the day-to-day substance of marijuana reform in America. Some states are moving slowly toward legalization. Others, like Louisiana, aren't down with that, but they are ready to reel in the worst excesses of the drug war.

That's something to keep in mind when the most outlandish pot smokers splash across your screens on Sunday. The 4/20 shenanigans are an outlier. Most beer drinkers don't imbibe like Germans at Octoberfest or spring breakers in Florida. And I'm finding it's the same way with pot.

The 4/20 exuberants are one-day extremists. The reality of legal pot is something more akin to my dinner in Denver: Quiet, normal, and yes, almost boring.

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