For Pot Movement, Sanjay Gupta Trumps Eric Holder

Why the CNN doc's pot doc will have a longer-lasting, larger influence on marijuana legalization than Eric Holder's drug sentencing reforms.

The Drug War continued its death rattle this week, loosening further still the iron-fisted grip it’s had on the American psyche since Reefer Madness turned pot into the devil’s weed back in 1936. It’s been a week orchestrated seemingly in tandem, with both political leaders and influential public figures tossing their support not behind punishment, pain, and pharmaceuticals, but compassion, care, and — what else? — cannabis. The pot camp, meanwhile, has rejoiced.

I am talking, of course, about Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s flip to support on the medical marijuana issue, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s push for drug sentencing reform by way of discouraging mandatory minimum sentencing. One concession, while not concrete in terms of law, opens up the possibility for a massive perception swing in the U.S. regarding medical pot. The other could help keep more non-violent drug offenders out of jail, reducing the U.S.’s runaway prison population by as much as one half.

In the War on Drugs, this is what real progress looks like. Both events are indicative of the coming tide of legalization, revealing a sort of tacit comfort with marijuana (and perhaps drugs overall) blooming in the public and private sectors. And though while Holder’s announcement could eventually help reduce our ballooning prison numbers, his course of action seems too reserved to either give drug advocates what they want in terms of law or national perception. Gupta’s change, on the other hand, could be the pop culture tipping point for the marijuana movement.

Gupta’s excellent Weed documentary (below), which premiered Sunday preceded by a heartfelt op-ed about the doc’s pot flop, attracted a healthy 1.21 million viewers to CNN — that’s about double the ratings for CNBC’s influential Marijuana, Inc. doc from 2009. Now, to be clear, that’s 1.21 million people watching to learn why one man changed his opinion about pot — not a federal agency, not an influential health organization. One man. The political sway inherent in that proportion is staggering.

Especially given the average age of CNN viewers, which is 68. That age belongs smack-dab in the group of “older voters” that have long been a hurdle for marijuana legalization advocates. Consistently lower in numbers for marijuana legalization support, the older voting crowd (the “Silent Generation” born between 1925 and 1945)  this year favors legalization to the tune of 32 percent — the lowest support numbers of any age group. That some of them have been taking their pot cues from Dr. Gupta — which, before this week, were none too flattering — doesn’t seem too outlandish.

Now, with Gupta batting for the other team, so to speak, he’s bound to bring some fogies over to the heady side of the debate as well. That type of surge in generational support for the de-demonization of weed may just be the final push legalization advocates have been searching for in their debate, consistently unable in the past to garner solid support from aged Americans — regardless of whether they had toked or not. In that sense, Gupta’s support, however tentative, could be the most important thing to happen to pot in decades.

Holder’s announcement regarding mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, though important, will never have that kind of impact. Essentially, he’s recommending prosecutorial discretion in drug cases by removing the requirement that the amounts of illegal drugs in a case be disclosed. Noble, but that leaves a lot of wiggle room for our 94 U.S. Attorneys to enforce drug laws exactly as they have been since the Boggs Act of 1952. Prohibition laws, the core problem here, remain unchanged. Besides, it’s not as if Holder has stopped recommending locking drug offenders in a cage over, say, treatment and evaluation. Gupta more or less has.

And, as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance notes, the Obama Administration could have instituted Holder’s change in the first term but did not, meaning that “hundreds of thousands of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of their delay.” In short, it’s too little, too late, and it’s unlikely that lasting or monumental change will come as a result of Holder’s speech — especially for marijuana, of which any mention was noticeably absent from the address. A move for pot from Schedule I to Schedule III, which would have opened up weed for a slew of scientific research, would have been more preferable. But I guess you can’t always get what you want — the War on Drugs proves that every day.

But given Sanjay Gupta’s potential impact on a group of voters contributing to keeping us from legal weed for decades, maybe not anymore.