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Angola and The Grove

I attended a convention and tradeshow at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas awhile back, and while the Hard Rock was the most visited place by the show attendees, the second most visited place was just a few blocks away.

That place was called The Grove.

A legal marijuana dispensary.

I found time to stop in myself during the convention and the young man who waited on me at the Grove saw my convention badge and said, “We sure have had a lot of your people in here this week.”

Of course you have.

I don’t even like pot, either smoking it or ingesting it. I didn’t back when I was younger, and I still don’t.

But how can anyone resist going into a legal dispensary and buying something that for decades was illegal? I went to The Grove and bought some goodies, simply because I could. They’ll sit in the top drawer of my dresser for the next few years.

Recreational use of marijuana is now completely legal in 10 states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington). It’s even legal in the District of Columbia, which is wild if you think about it, since that’s where the White House and the Senate and Congress and all those uptight politicians are. When I say completely legal, I mean you don’t need a special note from your doctor in those 10 states. You just walk in and pick out your bud. No different than buying a six-pack of Coors Light at 7-Eleven.

Use of marijuana has been either decriminalized and/or approved for medical use (with that doctor’s note) in another 29 states. So you can pretty much puff away and not worry about a police baton across your forehead in almost 80 percent of America. Where you might get a knot on your head is in Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming where marijuana use is still illegal. Need some THC for your glaucoma? Well, not in our state, buddy.

What shocks me the most isn’t that you can now just walk into a store in so many states and buy pot legally. No, what shocks me is that while you and I are doing that, there are still tens of thousands of men and women in state and federal prisons for buying and selling pot.

For buying and selling a weed that grows wild.

Imagine you are sitting in Pelican Bay State Prison, the 275-acre super max prison in Del Norte County, California on pot distribution charges. You’ve been locked up for 10 years with another 10 years still to go, doing hard time in a prison filled with murderers, rapists and sociopaths. And just a few miles away from your prison cell, people are buying pot legally at a store, the store owner is making a profit on the pot those people are buying, and the state is collecting taxes on the pot being sold to them. You can almost see the store from your tiny prison window. And when the wind is strong enough you can smell the pungent aroma of marijuana from some guy with a legal spliff walking by outside the prison’s razor wire fence.

You’d probably be a little miffed. And rightfully so.

Andrew, a happy-go-lucky friend of mine from high school, was arrested at age 18 in Louisiana for selling a pound of dirt weed pot. This was back in the 1970s. Back when authorities put pot smoking on the same level as raping babies. I remember walking to a concert arena with a bunch of other young people with long hair and bell-bottomed jeans back then, joints hidden away, and as we passed groups of amped-up cops, they angrily glared at us. One cop kept smacking his billy club into his open palm, muttering, “Gonna get some tonight.” I’m sure blood was spilled at some point that night.

Andrew was a small guy with blonde hair. Couldn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds. He looked kind of like Dennis the Menace. And acted like him. Always smiling and laughing. Always involved in some mischief. If you went to a party or a barbecue, you hoped Andrew would be there. He was that kind of live wire.

For selling a pound of dirt weed—low-grade, home-grown marijuana, as much seeds and stems as leaf—to an undercover cop, Andrew got five years. Which was bad, but what was worse was that he was sent to Angola State Penitentiary.

Forget Leavenworth or Sing Sing or any of those other prisons hyped as being the baddest of the bad in movies. Angola was, and still is, hell on earth. Angola, officially the Louisiana State Penitentiary and also known as “The Farm,” is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a chain gang or of a guard sitting on a horse while pointing a shotgun at convicts in a field, it was probably taken at Angola.

The prison is called Angola because that was the name of the former plantation it was built on, and the plantation was named for the African country where many of the slaves brought to America came from. So it’s a prison whose roots are steeped in inhumanity and misery.

A former inmate who wrote a memoir of his time in Angola said that throughout the 1960s and 1970s a quarter of the inmate population was enslaved to other inmates. The New York Times reported that weak inmates served as sex slaves who were raped, gang-raped and traded and sold like cattle.

When they went to rape Andrew, he fought back. But he was no match for them. There were too many of them. They were too big. But because he resisted, they broke both his arms, compound fractures where the bones ripped through the skin.

Andrew was never the same after he got out of Angola, the thick white scars crisscrossing his arms a constant reminder of the hell he had lived through for selling a pound of weeds. The few times I saw him I felt like he was both angry and ashamed, angry that he had been sent to prison, ashamed at how other men had abused him.

Andrew stopped smiling and laughing. He didn’t go to parties or barbecues. He was no longer a live wire, no longer full of mischief. He stayed inside his house most of the time. He drank a lot. He drank so much that eventually it killed him.

When you go to The Grove or any other legal marijuana dispensary, the person who waits on you is called the “bud-tender.”

Isn’t that cute?

I don’t think Andrew would have thought so.

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