On yesterday's episode of Fox's animated sitcom "Family Guy," one of the main characters - a dog named Brian - is arrested for possession of marijuana. He subsequently goes on a mission to legalize the drug, at one point earnestly arguing that it is only outlawed because William Randolph Hearst wanted to keep hemp production from hurting his paper interests in the 1930s.
Yes, the argument was articulated by an animated dog. And yes, the response from one of the other characters was, well, a fart. But still: Last night, a serious argument for marijuana legalization was articulated on a major American cable network during prime time.
It's safe to say we've come a long way from "Reefer Madness," the church-financed 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film (also known as "Tell Your Children") that suggested marijuana leads to murder and depravity.
"There's some data out there that shows 47 percent of Americans have smoked marijuana at some point in their life," said Keith Stroup, founder of the marijuana legalization organization NORML, pointing to a Time/CNN poll from 2002. "That was five years ago, and that means there are likely more living Americans today who have smoked than have not. That tells me that we are very close to a tipping point on this issue."
Today is April 20th, or 4/20, a date that has become something of a rallying point for marijuana enthusiasts. (The number 420 has increasingly become synonymous with pot smoking over the past two decades, though its origins are murky.) It's the day when college students all over the country - most notably at the University of Colorado, where 10,000 showed up a year ago - gather for "smoke out" events to protest the law and, in many cases, light up in public.
Also scheduled this year is a protest meant to take place on the White House lawn in which Americans are encouraged to "just spark up at 4:20" - and, it seems, just see what happens.
In addition, NORML has chosen April 20th to unveil a new ad calling for marijuana legalization; it is set to air on CNN, Fox News Channel and elsewhere. In the spot, Americans say of the drug, "you can tax it, you can regulate it, apply age restrictions…create millions of new jobs… save our economy."
"President Obama, it's time for legalization," one advocate says, looking directly into the camera. (Watch the ad here.)
NORML founder Stroup suggests that Mr. Obama is the ideal president under which to reform marijuana laws, because he smoked the drug when he was a teenager and "knows it didn't destroy his life [or] turn him into some sort of reefer maniac."
Stroup added that he doesn't expect the president, who presently opposes legalization, to do anything "dramatic" on the issue, because he presently has more pressing priorities. But he argued that Mr. Obama could well take action if he is elected to a second term.
"I think within 5 years we're going to stop arresting responsible marijuana smokers in this country," he said.
That remains to be seen. But there does seem to be a clear movement toward greater acceptance of marijuana use; positive representations of pot smokers are increasingly popping up on television (The Sarah Silverman Program, Real Time With Bill Maher) and in movies (Pineapple Express, The "Harold And Kumar" series.) In a move that surely brought a smile to the faces of legalization backers, one of the stars of the "Harold and Kumar" movies, Kal Penn, is going to work in the White House.
And it's not just pop culture: Politicians, long wary of taking anything other than a zero-tolerance attitude on marijuana for fear of being labeled soft on drugs and crime, are increasingly willing to wade into the legalization debate. Libertarians like Ron Paul are advocating legalization; as the New York Times notes, more than twelve states are considering legalizing medical marijuana or are lessening penalties for possession of the drug.
In two states, legislators have floated legalizing and taxing the drug as a way for states to deal with their economic struggles. The Obama administration's Justice Department, meanwhile, has largely abandoned the Bush-era practice of interfering with medical marijuana production and distribution in one of those states, California. (The Office Of National Drug Control policy did not return calls for comment.CBS News poll last month found that 58 percent of those surveyed oppose legalizing marijuana use, even if it can be taxed and generate revenue for states. The federal government continues to fight an aggressive war on marijuana and other drugs, the trafficking of which has led to an increase in gang-related violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. And despite the pop-culture inroads, widely-aired anti-pot ads from the non-profit Partnership For A Drug Free America continue to portray use of the drug in a negative light.
Despite these facts, however, legalization advocates remain optimistic - and primed for a party. High Times magazine will be spending the evening crowning "Miss High Times 2009," a New York City event that looks much more like a celebration than protest. And pot smokers around the country seem content to mark the date by indulging in a drug that, despite its status, is relatively easy for most Americans to secure.
Said Stroup, laughing: "This is our holiday."