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Yesterday, the manager of my apartment building sent us, the tenants, a group email about the passage of Initiative 502 and the changing legal status of marijuana in Washington. “While it will be legal to smoke pot in our fine state,” he wrote, “please be aware that the Belford remains a nonsmoking building. This applies to any type of smokable vegetation.”

The manager said nothing about vegetation of the ingestible kind.

For those not in the know, Initiative 502 makes the recreational use of marijuana legal in Washington. We voted the measure into law at the same time we voted Barack Obama into office for a second term, supporting pot and the president in about equal measure—the final tallies around 56%.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, Initiative 502 provides for the state to “license and regulate marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons over twenty-one; remove state-law criminal and civil penalties for activities that it authorizes; tax marijuana sales; and earmark marijuana-related revenues.”

How the federal government will handle our declaration of independence is yet to be determined.

Even so, I’m glad to see we’re starting to take a reasonable approach to this issue, though I would have expected us to be further along by now, given the number of people in the US who’ve smoked or ingested weed—over 40% by some estimates—and the utter failure of pot’s prohibition to control its use. Our continued efforts would be laughable if they were not such an outright embarrassment.

According to researchers at the University of Washington, the public continues to puff away despite law enforcement’s best efforts to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate the pot peddling and pot possessing public and despite the 28,000 inmates sitting in state and federal prisons for weed-related offenses—at a cost of over $600 million each year (not including the costs associated with detaining offenders in county facilities or supervising them after their release).

Over the past 15 years, marijuana-related arrests have increased dramatically in the US, now accounting for nearly half of the 2 million drug arrests each year, yet pot is more available than ever, with a significant rise in use among US teens: One in every 15 high school seniors now smokes weed on a daily or near daily basis.

The UW researchers also found that easing up on pot prosecution or decriminalizing marijuana altogether would have little impact on the number of people imbibing in weed, thus thwarting once more the thinking behind marijuana prohibition. Legalizing marijuana would also save governments $7.7 billion annually—resources that could be redirected to more critical matters. Plus, if weed were turned into a regulated industry, states could rake in bushels of cash at a time when they need it most, while undermining the drug cartel’s black-market efforts to push pot and persecute resisters.

So, yeah, I voted in favor of Initiative 502 because it seems a far more sensible solution than our current approach, so sensible, in fact, I’m surprised we’ve taken this long to pass such a measure. Yet sense doesn’t always make for good politics or good headlines, especially in an era when reason comes in second to hysteria, when logic is knocked into the trenches and kicked in the head, when intellect falls victim to a Jacobin reign of terror, trampled and mocked as collateral damage and moral degradation.

Another ballot measure that Washington voters just approved is Referendum 74, the legalization of same-sex marriage. I was relieved to see this one pass as well, although I felt less confident it would. Discussions around this topic are seldom reasonable, even less so than for marijuana, with opponents gleefully citing Biblical passages, waving the flag of family values, and promulgating fantastical illusions of marital perfection.

We are, in fact, plagued by our diminishing ability to have sensible debate, to engage in opposing viewpoints, to take into account the other side, whether arguing about the environment or health care or Medicare or education or military buildup or countless other controversial and contentious issues. And what’s not controversial and contentious these days?

As a nation, we are split down the middle, incapable of finding a sliver of common ground, let alone common decency. Even if measures such as Initiative 502 or Referendum 74 manage to pass, nearly half of the voters still oppose their implementation, just as nearly half of the voters rage in disbelief at the re-election of Barack Obama.

Such divisiveness, no matter the degree to which it’s been orchestrated, has taken its collective toll, making it nearly impossible to reach consensus on any one issue. In the meantime, greenhouse gases worsen, poverty spreads unchecked, civil liberties deteriorate, and the distribution of wealth grows ever more disconcerting and disgraceful.

Yet a nation divided is hardly news, not to anyone who’s paying attention. Plenty of people are talking about it, writing about it, complaining about it.

But it’s not only collectively we suffer. What has perhaps not garnered as much attention is the personal toll that our divisiveness has taken. As individuals, the chasm between us has grown from the Delaware Water Gap to Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge, the mother of all abysses.

I became aware of the extent of this schism a couple years back, on a cross-country road trip that covered 25 states and over 15,000 miles, while meandering from one back road to the next, visiting friends and acquaintances from distant pasts and different lifetimes, when politics felt less divisive, less rooted in separation and hate.

Under such circumstances—on the move, sometimes wandering into unfriendly territory—I shied away from discussions that could risk enemy fire. Yet on more than one instance, I was assaulted by barbed comments aimed at my known or perceived political proclivities—identified as I was by my VW Eurovan and Joni Mitchell CDs—comments mostly related to welfare and federal handouts and out-of-control government intrusion, as though I were responsible for all the Fox-generated hype ramping up their ire and cross-waving contempt. But I was not the only one in the line of fire. Throughout the country, cordiality and respect and an acceptance of differences had given way to blame and resentment and anger on an unprecedented scale.

But I made it back to the West Coast’s bluish fringes only mildly scathed and ready to enter the final semester of my MFA program, at which time I requested and received Mike Magnuson as my advisor. Not only is Mike a gifted writer, but also a lover of Oregon’s fine pinot noir, which he was happy to share on more than one occasion, a big point in his favor, and happy too—or so it seemed—to respond to my battalion of questions and concerns and the millions of pages of manuscripts I sent to him throughout the semester. Our exchanges, in fact, had become the foundation of our relationship. I would submit a story. He would tear it apart. I would call him for clarification. He would smooth my ruffled feathers. We would then repeat the process. So efficiently did this pattern continue that we might still be at it had I not graduated and we had not gone are separate ways.

Recently, I discovered a Salon article written by Mike (“Game over, conservative friend”), published right after the presidential election. Actually, it’s not quite an article, but an open letter to “Rick,” a childhood pal from their days in Menomonee, Wisconsin.

In the letter, Mike illustrates how he and Rick played out their own microcosm of a divided nation, revealed through a series of Facebook exchanges—almost daily in the months leading up to the election—in which they cajoled and taunted and annoyed and embarrassed each other before a world of conflicting forces. “We never stopped,” Mike writes. “We never surrendered.”

When Mike and Rick were boys, they had fished the Menomonee River together, played drums in the middle school band together, and together shared a love of the Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers and Bic Banana Markers. Yet after 20 months of Facebook bickering, fueled by a bitter and divisive election season, Mike admits that their friendship might now go the way of the marker, a fact in which neither should feel pride: “People avert their eyes when we strike up the band, Rick. We are, in everybody’s estimation, a disgrace.”

Their disagreement, according to Mike, lies in a notion that neither seems willing to abandon: “the idea that you have to become me, and I have to become you.” Even if Mike were to promise to respect Rick’s view and bury all enmity, he knows he would never follow through—that few in fact would be able to do so:

How many hundreds of thousands of people in this country have come to this same place? How many people like us have had all positive connections between them destroyed? Close friends from childhood or from college or from the workplace or immediate family or distant relatives or husbands and wives and neighbors and strangers—all of us fellow citizens of the same two-headed empire where both heads want to chop off the other.
We could, of course, point fingers at those who control the media and politicians as the source of our separation and unwillingness to bend, but taking on the role of victim is as much a symptom as the gap that separates us. No amount of blame can excuse what we have allowed to happen. No amount of finger-pointing can remove the stains. And as Mike has discovered, the consequences run as deep as the Tsangpo Canyon:
We have become estranged from each other in legions. We dismiss people as freely as we pitch our Taco Bell bags into the trash. We rage and hate and loathe and fester and pick fun and bully and take constant offense and always refuse to concede that, just possibly, the other side may have a meritorious point. Can you see a way to fix this? Because I sure as hell can’t. Actually, I will almost certainly disagree with whatever you propose to fix this. So I take the question back. I want to take everything back, almost all the way to the beginning.
But how do we take everything back? How do we take back the accusations, the name-calling, the assumptions, the misinformation, the generalizations, the discriminations, the compassionless, mean-spirited, selfish diatribes that move us further apart with each aftershock?

Perhaps the answer lies in Initiative 502. Perhaps this measure can serve as an example of reasoned debate and sensible execution. Perhaps we can start having rational discussions on other topics as well. Perhaps one head doesn’t have to chop off the other.

Then again, the passage of Initiative 502 might have nothing to do with sense, only sensibility—a belief that if enough of us get stoned and stay that way, these hostile and hateful and fruitless encounters will no longer be worth the bother, that we can at last have conversations both friendly and embracing, even if not the most coherent. And if that turns out the case, then the rest of the country might want to jump on our wagon, while the band’s still playing and there’s still plenty of good fellowship to be had.

Originally posted to R H Sheldon on Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 12:38 PM PST.

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