In a reflection of how overwhelmed I’ve become with festivals, events and general information about downtown the last few weeks, I’ve been sitting on the story of the Knoxville Cannabis Hemp Rally held on Market Square for several weeks. You might guess it happened on 4/20. You’d be wrong. It happened on 4/21 because Dogwood Arts had the square reserved, for cleanup I suppose, through the 20th. For those of you who have no clue, do an internet search for 4/20. You’ll find lots of sites lauding the infamous weed.
That Knoxville would have such an event is news in itself. Tennessee hasn’t generally been on the forefront of efforts toward legalization. According to the NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) website, twenty-one states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, sixteen states and Washington, D.C. have decriminalized marijuana and three, plus Washington, D.C. have legalized it. As you might guess, the southern states lag the other states in this push, with only two decriminalizing it: North Carolina and the surprising Mississippi.
An ACLU report from two years ago on the topic presented some interesting facts:
Between 2001 and 2010 there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the U.S. (88% for possession).
Simple Marijuana possession results in 46% of all drug arrests in the U.S.
In 2010 a marijuana arrest happened every 37 seconds in the U.S.
In 2010 states spent $3.6 Billion enforcing marijuana possession laws.
Even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession.
In view of these statistics, the ACLU went on record calling for legalization of marijuana for persons over twenty-one years of age.
According to Pew Research in an article published last month:
53% of Americans say marijuana should be legal
68% of Millennials support legalization vs. only 29% of those over age 70
69% believe alcohol is more dangerous vs. 15% who say marijuana is the more dangerous of the two
57% said they would not be bothered if a store selling legal marijuana opened in their neighborhood
Only 15% said they would be troubled if people used legal marijuana in their own homes
49% of Americans have tried marijuana
18.9 million reported using it in the previous month
Add to this that, at the federal level, over half of all prisoners are there for drug offences. As I’ve mentioned before, the U.S. is second in the world in incarceration rates (Seychelles is #1). We incarcerate 707 citizens per 100,000. The first European country on the list is Scotland with a rate of 146 per 100,000. If drug offenders were removed, we would still look bad – but we’d drop to 23rd.
Which brings us back to the rally on Market Square. Organized by Ryan Rush, a Maryville activist for legal medical marijuana, I sat with him to discuss his reasons for the rally. He said it was the first such event in Knoxville, though Seth Green organized one in Johnson City. He said, “If people find out something they didn’t know, if one or two businesses change, if one cancer patient looks up the information, it will be worth the effort.”
His focus is on hemp oil, which he feels will cure many medical conditions. I asked the obvious: “If Bob Marley could die of cancer, how is conceivable that marijuana cures cancer?” He stressed that smoking marijuana will not give the kinds of concentrations required for treatment of illnesses and that taken properly, the medication doesn’t even produce a high. He does believe that cancer cells are stopped by the right amount and application of the drug.
He notes that two bills are on the table in Tennessee. The first, to decriminalize (as Mississippi has done) was sent to “summer study” and will be considered in 2016. He termed the medical marijuana bill that just died in committee “terrible,” and was glad it was killed. His primary concern isn’t with the incarceration rates as much as it is with the people who he says are suffering needlessly while a remedy for their pain and illnesses is available.
A series of speakers took the stage. Yvonne Neubert of East Tennessee NORML, who is legally blind and noted discovering at 15 years old that marijuana consumption eased the pressure in her eyes. Steve Cooper, of the Tennessee Medical Marijuana Initiative, spoke of his effort to get referendums on county ballots for legalization of medical marijuana. He said that 16,000 signatures in Knox County would get it on the ballot. Dana Arbitson promoted her National Cannabis Patient Wall (warning this link opens with a voice-over) project. Sam Andrews from Cookeville spoke of a cousin who died (needlessly, he feels) of cancer and of his own anxiety disorder.
A small group of supporters along with the curious circulated among the various booths learning about everything from medicinal applications of marijuana to the use of hemp for every purpose known to humanity. Couples smoked hookahs – filled with tobacco. No one passing by seemed to object. All-in-all it was a low key conversation. Which, for Knoxville, in and of itself may be a marker of some shift in the political winds.