Ochenski: “Reefer Madness” Finally Comes to an End in Montana

Authoritarian governments have always tried in vain to keep citizens from indulging in activities they deem corrupting influences – or those that might diminish their control over the people.

In the U.S. the classic example was the short-lived but extremely vicious and damaging experiment in Prohibition, which outlawed any enjoyment, sale, or possession of alcoholic beverages. Spawned in the same benighted era, the demonization of marijuana outlasted the 1933 end of alcohol prohibition by nearly 90 years. But thanks to a Montana citizens’ initiative that garnered more votes than any politician in the last election, “reefer madness” – and the brutal criminalization of our fellow Montanans — has finally come to an end in Big Sky Country.

While smoking marijuana was often portrayed as something in which people of color and jazz musicians indulged, the truth is that it always enjoyed far wider acceptance and use than the government ever wanted to admit. Here in Montana, old timers will recall that the “custom cutters” who came up from Mexico to harvest wheat and sugar beets brought the leafy substance with them and the sweet smell of cannabis smoke drifted over their camps at night.

Yet, despite the government’s punishing campaigns, the 60s saw broad acceptance and widespread use of marijuana, of which the “hippies” were particularly fond. Indeed, it’s use in popular culture was pretty much impossible to ignore – particularly on college campuses, at rock concerts, or anywhere the “peace generation” gathered.

Rather than rely on scientific evidence that marijuana posed a minimal threat to individuals and society and that those who indulged were not turned into the raging maniacs so incredulously portrayed in the movie “Reefer Madness,” President Reagan and his wife Nancy decided to declare an incredibly damaging and disastrous “War on Drugs” in the mid-80s. Their motto was “just say NO.”

But of course by then millions and millions of Americans and tens of thousands of Montanans had already “just said YES” to marijuana. The result was both predictable and tragic as, once again, an authoritarian government ruined the lives of countless innocent citizens for a victimless “crime.”

As jail populations swelled with those arrested for various marijuana infractions and costs to contain prisoners and maintain prisons sky-rocketed, Americans finally said “enough is enough” and the decriminalization movement rolled across the nation. About the same time the significant medical benefits of marijuana for a variety of physical and mental illnesses became widely known, accepted, and much appreciated.

State after state approved the use of medical marijuana – including Montana. And of course since we couldn’t count on our lawmakers to do the right thing, it took a citizen initiative to allow cultivation, sale and use of medicinal cannabis. Nonetheless, soon a booming new industry arose driven by demand, not marketing. For many, medical marijuana was a welcome alternative to the extremely powerful and often addicting pharmaceuticals.

When Obama became president he promised his Attorney General – and the federal government – would not prosecute those in states that had voted to legalize medical marijuana.

It was a lie, as a number of Montana’s medical growers soon found out when the feds raided their facilities, confiscated their products and threw the book at them. The overzealous prosecutions ruined lives, put people in prison, and at least one died there.

What the feds didn’t count on was the extreme backlash from Montanans who, in a few short years thereafter, voted to broaden marijuana’s legality from medicinal to recreational. Yet the Republican-dominated 2021 legislature did everything it could to crimp down the initiative’s intent – including immediately re-directing the expected tax revenue away from its voter-approved use for public lands. And again, it’s not what the voters wanted or said, but fully reflects both the arrogance and ignorance of Montana’s Republican legislative majorities.

Now, as January 2022 rolls around, Montana joins the growing number of other states that have legalized recreational use. Given the rapidly expanding number of outlets, soon buying marijuana will be as easy as dropping into the store for a six pack. And much like Montana’s outstanding breweries and micro-distilleries produce a wide and excellent variety of craft beers and liquors, one can likely expect the same high quality and wide choices from our recreational growers.

As the old Grateful Dead song goes “what a long strange trip it’s been” – and indeed, it surely has. But in the end, the people prevailed against the baseless criminalization of our citizens by the draconian policies enacted by largely clueless, reality-denying, ideologically-driven politicians. So as they say in the movies “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” since it’s now legal and “reefer madness” has finally come to a welcome end in Montana.

—George Ochenski

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