Commentary: I’m a teetotaler for legal marijuana

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protestors at a news conference where a coalition including the LDS Church came out against Utah's medical marijuana initiative, in Salt Lake City on Thursday Aug. 23, 2018.

I have never smoked a joint. Or eaten an “edible.” Or smoked tobacco. Or drunk alcohol. Or used cocaine, or heroin, or meth, or LSD, or Xanax, or, well, to be honest, I don’t really know all the drugs out there, as partaking of them never interested me.

I’m 57 years old, left the Mormon church at 26, and spent years socializing in French Quarter bars. New Orleans is the “City That Care Forgot,” whose motto is “Laissez les bons temps rouler.” There is a party or festival almost every week of the year. The streets flow with beer on Mardi Gras.

But neither the availability nor the popularity of alcohol ever led me to take even one sip. I knew that many people could drink moderately without any problem, and that doing so seemed to enrich their lives. But I was also aware that some people who drank became alcoholics, and there was really no way to know if I belonged in this latter category until it was too late.

A lifelong introvert, I understood as well that a drink or two might make social situations easier for me. But the risk was just too great, and I chose not to take it. For me, that was the right decision. But it would be ridiculous to think everyone else in the entire world must make the same decision I made. Even if drinking turned out to be a mistake for them, people are allowed to make mistakes.

My sober world did not come to an end simply because I could legally buy alcohol at a drive-thru daiquiri shop. There’s no law, after all, that says people have to drink alcohol, which has been legal my entire life.

Likewise, marijuana has been legal in Washington state, where I now live, for a good while, and I’m still not interested in that, either.

To be honest, I think marijuana stinks. Literally. On my grandparents’ farm as a child, I sometimes smelled the repulsive odor emitted by skunks. And for years, I would look around downtown Seattle, mystified. There were occasional bear sightings in the suburbs, and raccoons in my urban neighborhood, but where in the world were those skunks hiding? I was shocked to discover that other people actually liked that acrid odor and paid good money for it.

I still immediately think of skunks whenever I smell someone smoking pot.

The fact that I do not need medical marijuana myself for the many conditions it alleviates doesn’t absolve me of the obligation to make sure those who do need drugs derived from cannabis have access to it. And while I am not interested in any mood- or mind-altering substances of any kind, I am convinced that we not only need to decriminalize the sale and use of both medical and recreational marijuana, but we must legalize it as well.

Critics insist marijuana can be harmful, and that may well be true. But we know alcohol and tobacco can be harmful, so harm alone doesn’t justify a prohibition on cannabis. Sugar is harmful, isn’t it? Fat, too, at least in large quantities. Even drinking too much water can lower a person’s sodium to fatal levels. Over-the-counter acetaminophin taken in amounts above the recommended dosage can kill. As can insulin. As can almost anything in excess.

So let’s go ahead and put warning labels on marijuana. Let’s fund rehab for those addicted to any substance at all (even sugar). If we’re truly worried about the health of our citizens, denying them access to medical marijuana, or health care in general, certainly isn’t the answer.

But we need to stop wasting millions of dollars and ruining countless lives on a losing battle. I find it odd that it is mostly political conservatives, those who complain that the government has too much control over our lives, who always insist on making laws which limit the freedoms of others.

If political conservatives don’t want to partake of marijuana, if devout Mormons don’t want to partake, even if liberal atheists like myself don’t want to partake, we don’t need to. But it is wrong on every level not to allow others the freedom to do so.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of “Behind the Bishop’s Door” and many other collections of Mormon short stories.