Reefer Mainstream

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With few exceptions, these people appear to live normal, productive, safe lives.

Pot is no big deal to them. Except when it comes to talking openly about it. Then they get a little paranoid.

For years, researchers have tried to quantify the number of marijuana users in America. Each year, the federal government sponsors the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. People are asked about tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use. Marijuana is broken into a separate category. In 2001, the survey estimated that 94 million Americans had tried marijuana in their lifetimes, 21 million in the past year.

Paul Armentano, publications and research director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws based in Washington D.C., believes this number is a vast understatement because people lie.

"The survey is based on . . . people's willingness to tell the federal government that they engage in illicit activity," he says.

Armentano points to government research that demonstrates that, when asked about tobacco and alcohol use, people will underreport their use by 15 to 30 percent. And those substances are legal.

"In many ways, we really have no idea what these surveys are telling us," he says.

The most recent National Household Survey detailing the results by state took place in 1999. At that time, about 5 percent of Arizonans said they had used marijuana in the past month, on par with the national average.

Here in Arizona, local pollsters say they don't bother to ask voters if they smoke pot, because they assume so many will lie.

"People don't tell you the truth," says Bruce Merrill, a pollster and professor at Arizona State University.

At New Times' request, Tempe-based media consultant and pollster Bob Grossfeld added several marijuana-related questions to a recent poll he conducted among Maricopa County voters. Grossfeld polled about 425 likely voters in mid-October. About 20 percent said they had tried marijuana. In a separate question, 20 percent said they knew people who smoke pot now. Only 10 percent said that they would use marijuana if it were to become as legal as alcohol.

Grossfeld says he's not surprised by the results. The population he surveyed -- likely or "high-efficacy" voters -- tends to be older and richer than the average. And he agrees with Armentano and Merrill that many people simply don't tell the truth when it comes to illegal activity.

For the third time in seven years, Arizona voters are poised to pass a statewide pro-marijuana initiative. The first two, in 1996 and 1998, allowed for the use of marijuana for medicinal reasons. They were largely symbolic, since federal law supersedes state law. (The 1998 measure would have reversed the '96 law, so a no vote was actually a pro-pot vote.)

But Proposition 203, on November's ballot, would potentially make a real difference -- and not just for cancer patients -- by reducing penalties for possessing up to two ounces of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor -- akin to getting a traffic ticket.

In other words, Harriet wouldn't get arrested.

The most recent statewide polls available show Proposition 203 with 53 percent in favor. Campaign insiders say the numbers have grown closer in recent weeks. Bob Grossfeld's poll put Proposition 203 at 33 percent in favor, 40 percent against and 27 percent undecided. He thinks the measure will pass, but not by much.

Arizona's not the only place ready to change its pot laws. Next month, Nevada voters will decide whether to eliminate all penalties -- criminal and civil -- for possession of up to three ounces of marijuana. South Dakotans will vote on allowing the production of industrial hemp, something several states already allow. And in Canada, a heated public policy battle is raging over whether to legalize marijuana entirely.

The marijuana leaf is more and more a part of our cultural landscape, even in the most uptight corners of Arizona. Last month, political satirist P.J. O'Rourke came to Phoenix to speak at a luncheon for the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank with a libertarian bent. O'Rourke packed a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton with rich, white Republicans -- most of them headed toward Social Security age. He joked about pot in a segue into a discussion of the farm bill:

"Now, I admit, like most Americans my age, my actual experience with farming was pretty much limited to raising some marijuana plants with a grow light in my off-campus apartment."

That brought down the house.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.