October 10th, 2015, history moved forward exactly one inch.
It may not seem like much, but I for one am thrilled. Easily one of the most important events in Arizona’s long march toward legalization occurred last weekend, Saturday Oct. 10, 2015, when America’s most famous drug warrior, Joe Arpaio himself, quietly and reluctantly attended a pro-cannabis Sun City seniors’ event hosted by a feisty little group called Momforce and he actually acknowledged that cannabis does indeed have some medicinal value. With visible, visceral reluctance. He also glumly admitted he regretted the ways his enforcement of laws have hurt folks who are already suffering with illnesses. And, that he wants patients to be able to get the marijuana they need. But that’s it, don’t get the wrong idea, wise-guy.
If that doesn’t quite sound like the breakthrough you’ve been waiting for, wait, wait, it gets worse.
Once nicknamed “Nickle Bag Joe” because no pot bust was too small, the diminutive 84 year old former DEA foot soldier was in no way ready to simply reverse the legacy of his 50+ yrs. fighting the drug war after being sworn in by the founder of cannabis prohibition, Harry Ansligner himself. Though rumor in the propaganda mill of the cannabis community had, sometime to inadvertent comic effect, claimed Arpaio was actually the mastermind monster behind MPP’s ballot measure all along and this was just another step in his masterplan to further his prison industrial complex. The Arpaio who attended Sun City’s All Saints of the Desert Church that Saturday was nobody’s mastermind, just a grumpy old politician, stuck at a public appearance he wished he could have gotten out of. If inconveniencing the elderly were all it took to win legalization, we slam dunked it that day.
Arpaio in fact remained visibly troubled throughout the event by the thought of having to step away from the hard-edged zero-tolerance lawman myth he’s worked so long to cultivate and stayed for less than an hour of the three hour seminar. To be sure no one mistook the turmoil he was going through, Joe was quick to clarify that just because he is coming to understand that cannabis has some medicinal value, he doesn’t want people getting the wrong idea.
In fact, Arpaio repeatedly insisted he was not there to say he was supporting cannabis legalization, though he also repeatedly clarified he is inspired by the courage and the drive of the activists who are creating campaigns to change the laws. And also–just because he has seen real cases of marijuana medical miracles, don’t go getting the idea he is very happy with the implementation of Arizona’s medical marijuana program. “Too much diversion,” he scowled more than once. But then again he also repeatedly insisted he wants laws changed so people could “just get a doctor’s recommendation, go to the pharmacy and pick up your prescription like any other medicine.”
What was Arpaio’s ultimate opinion? I don’t really know and I think that was his intention; but it probably comes out to: “’All of the above,’ except legalization. Don’t anybody I said legalization!”
While that highly guarded near-non-acknowledgement may not sound like a milestone to some, I am hoping the rest of us will recognize that the end of America’s prohibition just moved that very significant inch closer to reality.
Over the course of the two weeks leading up Arpaio’s veiled epiphany, AZ-NORML heard from cannabis community members all over the state, outraged any self-respecting cannabis user could even speak Arpaio’s name without following it with a string of profane epithets. I swear I heard so many Nazi references leading up to that event, I started to think we were talking about WWII film. Activists who have fought against the drug war for twenty plus years were literally in tears of anger with me. Where was my outrage at the very thought of AZ’s cannabis community ever associating in any way in anything Arpaio? Excluding pillorying the man in effigy.
Oh absolutely I am one of the folks resent him. I moved to Arizona por que yo hablo poquito espanol and from the time I arrived in the state to teach history at a barrio school in Bullhead City, Joe Arpaio and lawmen like him have been a threat to people I hold dear–my students. My 2010 student of the year’s mom was deported in 2011 thanks to guys like Arpaio and the mentality he represents. But those are some of Arpaio’s other war-crimes. Being a border-state, AZ has been frontlines ground zero in the drug war. There have been over 200,000 cannabis arrests in AZ this century alone, with Arpaio smug pride-in-his-work right in our faces, apparently worshipped by all sorts of media. He creates massive misery in enforcing an unjust law, then brags about his harshness as “America’s toughest sheriff,” meaning the law man most wanting a reputation of being brutal and callous to the misery caused by his record of turning over-policing into an art-form. Meanwhile with all his scandalous stalking of a federal judge, harassing the Hispanic en masse, and serial ‘splainin’ of why he was too busy to investigate the sex crimes of El Mirage or the thousands of DCS cases of child abuse, because he was working night and day on turning the drug war into an outlandish reality TV series complete with pink underwear and Steven Segal. To this day the man gleefully “jokes” about his early days of “shooting Turkish dope peddlers” back in the 1960s and is only beginning to acknowledge his tone-deaf “all drugs are bad” all-out drug war vision, might have had some blind spots. Might have.
I do understand the cannabis community’s public pain. I too have been bedeviled repeatedly by law enforcement. After spending 40 years avoiding cops precisely because of guys like Arpaio, I still look over my shoulder at every intersection in case the cops really are, again, after me. I have been a loyal American my whole aside from marijuana, but for guys like Arpaio and Bill Montgomery, we’re all just enemies of their state.
Small wonder I too have created a mythology of the heartless law man and was not quite prepared that Saturday afternoon as I watched little ol’ Joe listen to others’ stories and visibly grimace at their suffering and then grimace again, silently, occasionally with clenched eyes, as it dawned on him that some of the suffering people were talking about was MCSO’s doing. I went looking for a giant, I found a small old man. Smarter and wily as ever, far more human as anyone was expecting, and in the midst of a 50 year process of changing his mind.
I don’t expect his official opinion on legalization will change while he is in office. This aging lion has far too much pride to ever admit he was wrong, not at least while any reporter is in earshot. So sure, those of you who told me so, you did indeed tell me so: watching Sheriff Joe surrounded by seniors this past Saturday, was far from the slam-dunk some in the community were hoping for. It was more like having spent years staring up at the apparently impossible edifice and noticing just in time to see a tiny crack beginning to form and move forward one inch. To some this was little more than much ado about nothing.
But I know this: somewhere along the overly long continuum on the timeline from the 1937 dawn of cannabis prohibition to that day, still unknown in the future, when this abomination of prohibition finally comes to an end, there will come a day when Sheriff Joe and MCSO will have to stop being an enemy of marijuana. Make no mistake, Saturday was NOT that day. But it was a first assurance for many of us that that day will surely come. The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it looks like justice may actually be ahead, now that we have heard Joe Arpaio himself admit he is weary of the suffering his work has caused. Whether he ever publicly acknowledges his responsibility in the horrors of our drug war, the moment is that much closer to the day the rest of Arizona will.
The famous eighteenth century social commentary, Gulliver’s Travels, has an iconic image of Gulliver waking to find himself having been subdued and in fact having been tied down, by dozens of Lilliputians with hundreds of tiny ropes. Individually the ropes would amount to mere threads compared to Gulliver. Alone, any single Lilliputian would have as mildly annoying and easily destroyed as a mosquito or some kid’s future on an MCSO Saturday night episode of “Cops.” But the Lilliputians, through their sheer number and sheer courage, casting their tiny threads, pulled down their giant. Saturday’s Momforce show showed us all that the dreaded Sheriff Joe is not a giant, just a man, a man beginning to doubt the last 50 years of his life’s work. While many may fantasize of various horrific torture-porn type revenges to be visited upon Joe Arpaio and anyone who ever knew or liked him, all in the supposed name of justice, I doubt that any torture could torment the man I met as much as coming to realize how monumentally wrong the war on drugs has been and that, quite personally, he has harmed more people than he could ever count following his false belief, empowering a lie that has crushed the American people for his entire life.
(… And that he has years to contemplate this catastrophic crime against humanity while in federal prison for those contempt of court charges for stalking that judge while harassing Hispanics and ignoring sex crimes and child-abusers so he could spend taxpayer $$$ on political revenge, and all, just saying.)
But for now, I am going to take what I can get.
Saturday in Sun City, Kathy Inman’s Momforce & seventy or so seniors tossed out several tiny ropes that lassoed a tiny part of Joe Arpaio, maybe his heart. And the battle lines in the war on drugs shifted. For the moment. It’s our ground to cede or keep, because many of our enemies are sure to fight on no matter what some stoners claim they heard Arpaio was supposedly saying some Saturday afternoon. We’ll have to defeat each of them in time too, but that was always part of the equation. For now, NORML applauds the efforts of all of those who will take up their own personal battle to pull down the giant of prohibition. Even if it’s only one inch.
–Mikel Weisser, the state director of AZ-NORML, writes from the left coast of Arizona.