At 19, Jodi James was told she'd never live pain-free again. Sure, the breathing and relaxation techniques she learned in 18 months of physical therapy and the strong prescription painkillers could dull the pain (and, as she found, her mind), but the freak job accident that left her permanently partially disabled would always haunt her. Most likely, the doctors said, she would never work again.
Then James found marijuana. The illegal green herb eased the pain without dampening her senses, and she discovered that she could once again function. Today, the 34-year-old single mother of two heads the Florida Cannabis Action Network from Melbourne. Unrepentantly and unabashedly, James tells everyone who's interested that she smokes pot. Even while campaigning for the Florida House of Representatives at the state Democratic conference last month, she spread the news to mixed reactions from party activists.
Ten years ago, her campaign probably would not have been taken seriously. The medical marijuana movement was still in its infancy. Politicians questioned about their drug histories chalked them up to youthful indiscretions which they deeply regretted (or said they didn't inhale).
But James is on the cusp of a new wave within the drug-reform movement: users who, quite simply, don't think they have anything to be ashamed of.
Advocates cite polls showing that 73 percent of Americans support the legalization of medical marijuana, which nine states have done since 1996; and 61 percent oppose jailing people for simple possession.
Gov. Jeb Bush and the conservative Florida Legislature are going the other direction. Recently, lawmakers in Tallahassee increased penalties for pot possession, making it easier to sentence persons caught with larger amounts to harsh jail time. They decreased by half -- from 50 pounds to 25 pounds -- the amount of weed that constitutes a first-degree felony, which means three years in prison and $25,000 in fines. Weed growers also qualify for the stiff sentence if they have 300 or more cannabis plants -- and the state gives a generous definition for what comprises a "plant," including small seedlings and already harvested crops.
More than half of all drug arrests in Florida are for pot, but almost all of them are for misdemeanor possession of small amounts. A small amount is defined as less than 20 grams, and the penalty can be up to a year in prison plus a fine. In most cases, however, first-time offenders are given a ticket-like notice to appear in court and are sentenced to community service.
Meanwhile, the more than 30-year-old federal war on drugs has failed to decrease pot use significantly and has only made the black-market business more expensive and dangerous. Even as the federal government continues to run its ads attempting to link potheads with terrorists, drug czar John Walters announced last week that years of federally funded anti-drug ads have in fact been counterproductive. Americans increasingly have realized that weed is no big deal.
Last month, the nation shrugged when NORML outed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had told a reporter a year ago that he had smoked pot and -- gasp -- liked it. NORML put the statement in a $500,000 advertising blitz to discourage Bloomberg from locking up marijuana smokers.
Bloomberg was a reluctant poster-boy -- NORML ran the ads without asking him. Still, his outing illustrates that the dopeheads demonized by drug warriors do lead productive lives. They become doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, writers, artists, musicians and, yes, politicians.
"The climate of the country is far different than it was 10 years ago," says National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws executive director Keith Stroup. When Bill Clinton claimed not to inhale, Stroup says, he "was needlessly cautious. [Past pot smoking] didn't hurt [Al] Gore, [Newt] Gingrich, [New York Gov. George] Pataki, and it didn't hurt Bloomberg."
In fact, one of three adults -- totaling some 76 million Americans -- has smoked marijuana at some point in their lives; and most, like Bloomberg, didn't have a medical excuse. But according to Drug Reform Coordination Network executive director David Borden, the medical-marijuana debate was a shot in the arm for the reform movement, encouraging people to look critically at the government's staunch position.
"Prohibitionists see that as a bad thing," Borden says. "They have a fear of the possibility that they might lose the debate."
In California, medical marijuana co-ops -- which the state's voters approved by referendum in 1996 -- are taking heat from Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department. In February, the Drug Enforcement Agency raided a handful of medical-marijuana clubs in San Francisco, confiscating thousands of crops and arresting club owners.
Though California state law allows medical pot, federal law does not. And last May the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the feds could shut the state's co-ops down. Ashcroft immediately forged ahead, despite his longstanding claims of championing states' rights.
Legalization advocates think the best way to fight back is to erase marijuana's negative stereotypes. And that means positive, pot-smoking role models. "More and more prominent Americans [are] saying, I'm not going to act like I did anything wrong," Stroup says. "Bullshit. The law is wrong."
That thought inspires the Cannabis Consumers Campaign, a California group that wants potheads from all walks of life to tell all. "If people knew who used cannabis, [they'd know] these are good people," says campaign director Mikki Norris. "They have jobs and families and everything else. The amount of tax dollars [that goes to the drug war] would not be justified if people knew who used it."
In coming months, she wants to run ads touting 100 celebrities who all will proudly admit their marijuana use. Right now, she's compiling a database of high-profile professionals who admit passing the Dutchie. Hopefully, she says, the media will eventually consult these folks when putting together drug stories.
"We aren't the enemy and we shouldn't be treated like the enemy," Norris says, asking what the difference is between her and an alcohol-drinking neighbor. "I'm feeling like I'm treated like a second-class citizen."
Across the board, advocates stress that they don't want to give kids weed; they'd like age restrictions on possession like those that exist for alcohol and cigarettes. But they don't think the country should waste time and energy arresting nonviolent cannabis users.
Though James' pot use isn't the only thing she wants to talk about, it is garnering her national attention. The reaction thus far has been so positive that she doesn't expect Rep. Mitch Needleman, her Republican opponent, to use the drug issue against her. Needleman has 30 years of law-enforcement experience and has boasted of his involvement in destroying 80 tons of pot.
Until a reporter told him about James last week, Needleman didn't know about her behavior. "What are you telling me?" he asked. "She's illegally using drugs? I think that about says it all. That's not an issue that will be well received here in Brevard County or in Florida."
James counters, "If being an honest person is used against me, I think voters will respond [in my behalf]. I'm not afraid."