As fate would have it, I headed into a reefer store in Denver to buy some marijuana—legal as booze, of course—at roughly the same time Mayor Rahm Emanuel was holding a press conference to pat himself on the back for taking a stand against the mass arrests of young black men.
The events were more connected than they might initially seem.
But let me first congratulate the mayor for his action. No, not for having a self-congratulatory press conference—that's about as routine as the Cubs blowing a late-inning lead.
Instead, I'm talking about the mayor endorsing a bill making it easier for juveniles to expunge their arrest records so they don't get branded for life for a youthful indiscretion, as former Congressman Henry Hyde once put it.
"Our young people should not be held back by a mistake in their past," the mayor said. "Automatically expunging these records will help make sure we're putting young people on a path to prosperity."
Right on, Mr. Mayor. Keep this up and I might have to vote for you. At least until I recall that you still closed almost 50 schools.
Anyway, the issue of black youth getting arrested brings me back to reefer—and specifically to our insanely hypocritical enforcement of marijuana laws.
As you may know, this has been an obsession of mine for a few years. It started after I came upon a huge crowd of teenagers—most of them white—happily smoking their asses off in Lincoln Park, with cops around and everything. I believe they were participating in something called Peace Fest.
Later that night, I went to the Park West and saw George Lopez—who, by the way, is a very funny man—do a stand-up bit about throwing the first pitch at a Cubs game while high as hell on marijuana brownies.
Meanwhile, my colleague Mick Dumke and I were visiting courtrooms around the city and watching as one black man after another was hauled before a judge to face charges of possessing small amounts of marijuana.
It was pretty obvious that as a society we were blithely turning our heads as thousands of black people were routinely locked up—blemishing their records—for doing the same thing that mainstream comedians joke about and thousands of affluent kids are undoubtedly doing as I write this.
Mick and I discovered that of the 47,000 people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana in 2009 and 2010, almost 80 percent were black. Only 5 percent were white and 17 percent were Hispanic.
That's pretty twisted, people.
I'd like to think that our investigations played some role in embarrassing Mayor Emanuel and his aldermanic sidekicks into taking a tiny step toward decriminalization.
In any event, in 2012, the City Council passed a law that gave police the option of ticketing people caught with small amounts of weed instead of arresting and booking them.
But alas, as Mick's latest reporting shows, the grass gap is still very much with us.
Yes, arrests are down in the last two years. But the ratio is unchanged—roughly eight out of every ten people arrested for reefer possession in Chicago are black.
Moreover, 70 percent of the people getting ticketed for possession are black.
Mayor Emanuel could fill a lot of potholes with the taxes from selling marijuana gummy bears.
So the double standard remains—something the mayor managed to avoid mentioning at that recent press conference about the expungement law.
It's pretty clear to me that we're using marijuana laws as an excuse to lock up black men.
The mayor undoubtedly knows this is going on, but doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to do anything about it.
At the same time, out in the civilized world known as Colorado, where the electorate voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana . . .
The marijuana dispensary that I visited was discreetly tucked away on the fourth floor of an office building in downtown Denver.
I had to show my driver's license twice to prove I was over 21—as if one look at my mug couldn't ascertain that fact.
The shop had a vast array of products, including all kinds of edibles, kept in a back room.
A budologist—which is what the dispensary calls its sales people—asked what I wanted. I told her I was a sort of a rookie about these things—at least, I hadn't smoked since 1980. Or maybe it was 1981—I can't remember because I was high at the time.
That's a joke I may or may not have stolen from George Lopez.
In any event, I was looking for a blend that wouldn't make me paranoid. She then gave me some advice that I'll never forget: plastics.
My bad—I just watched The Graduate.
"Stay away from the sativa," she said. She then sold me some indica gummy bears, which is sort of like marijuana for rookies.
Another customer in the shop bought a one-gram joint for about $8—or $11 with the tax.
My sources tell me that same joint would cost nearly $20 in Chicago, with zero money going for taxes.
Think about it: Mayor Emanuel could fill a lot of potholes with the taxes from selling those gummy bears. Hell, the schools might even be able to afford to buy toilet paper.
Anyway, I popped one of those bad boys while being driven through the Nevada desert on my way to Vegas—just like Hunter Thompson! Though I don't think it was gummy bears that Hunter was popping.
I spent most of that drive listening to the Allman Brothers, gazing out the window, and occasionally saying things like, "Dang, man—look at that cactus do its cactus thing."
It made sense at the time.
Coincidentally, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd also sampled a marijuana product on a recent trip to Denver.
Alas, she had a terrible reaction to a "caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar," which left her "curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours."
I'm not sure what accounted for our drastically different reactions. It could be that Reader writers are made of sturdier stock than Times columnists. Or, more likely, she took more than the recommended dose—or simply should have stayed away from the sativa.
Clearly, more research is needed.