On firing things up

by Brian Clarey

Crisis struck at an inopportune moment this weekend, as is usually the case. This time it was my car, which has been in my possession a scant three months. I couldn’t get my key into the ignition, and when I peered into the key slot I saw a piece of white plastic wedged in there.

Naturally, I assumed one of my children had jammed something in there, or possibly all of them had conspired to destroy the newest and possibly most essential thing I own. When I questioned them — and I grilled them pretty good — each maintained an innocence that I eventually sort of believed.

Regardless of blame, I was still stuck with this piece of plastic in my ignition rendering my car useless in the driveway and it was starting to freak me out. It would have to be towed to a shop, because I couldn’t get it started, nor could I disengage the transmission which I figured would add a hundred or so to the cost of getting my vehicle to the mechanic. Then there was the matter of the problem itself, still unresolved, which I figured would cost a minimum of $300.

But before I resigned myself to shelling out the cash for car repairs — something I am loath to do — I ran the make and model of my car through Google, along with the problem I was having. It led me to a bulletin board where drivers across the country discussed the exact same problem I was having. Some called roadside assistance and others said they replaced the tumblers in the steering column. Another guy paid the dealership $300 to fix it. But near the bottom of the page came an entry from a motorist who fixed the problem himself with a Swiss Army knife. I applied his method with a small flat-head screwdriver and got my car started in about 23 seconds.

I bring up this story of a man who doesn’t want to pay a mechanic as a metaphor for our times, when our households, our communities, our very nation seeks to ease spending while raising revenues. And when the chips are down, unusual solutions to problems start to look reasonable.

For example, Californians will vote on Nov. 2 to legalize — and tax — marijuana, which the state’s Board of Equalization says will raise coffers by $1.3 billion.

This is nothing new. It was the introduction of the federal income tax in 1913, as described by the 16 th Amendment to the Constitution, that allowed for the prohibition of alcohol, as the money offset that which

was previously collected from alcohol taxes. And it was the Great Depression, when people’s incomes were vastly reduced, that led to its repeal.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized medical marijuana; the movement in North Carolina probably died when Rep. Earl Jones, its chief proponent in the NC General Assembly, lost his bid for re-election in the May primary to Marcus Brandon. Too bad, because North Carolina is uniquely poised to establish a thriving marijuana business. We’ve got legions of underutilized tobacco farmers here, many of whom are ready to begin today planting and cultivating marijuana crops, which would have established markets here at home and in other states where possession and consumption are legal.

It would be a boon, too, to newspapers like this one. Alt-weeklies in California, Colorado and Montana say that as much as 10 percent of their revenues comes from marijuana-related advertising, which includes doctors, lawyers and security firms as well as growers and sellers.

And the issue is gaining speed as a populist cause that could affect the 2012 election.

Democrats are watching the California election closely, suspecting that legal weed could, pardon the pun, fire up the party’s base in a year that sees much apathy on the left side of the aisle. Surely there will be hippies who haven’t voted in decades coming down from the hills to vote on this one. If the issue skews the numbers in California, the thinking goes that similar referenda in states like Colorado and Washington could help seal a re-election bid by President Obama in 2012.

None of this has anything to do with getting high. And despite the small-government fervor currently gripping much of the nation, the marijuana issue is not coming to the fore because people want to take back some of their rights from those who make the rules. It’s not even because marijuana users are demanding it — though marijuana remains very popular, despite its status as a Schedule I narcotic in much of the nation.

No, this movement is gathering steam because it presents a possible game-changing opportunity for a political party that appears to be on the ropes. And it has at its heart an economic argument that is becoming difficult to deny.

But there are surely those who see it as a sign of the impending apocalypse, no matter the potential benefits, just as there are some who would rather tow their cars to the mechanic before considering simpler solutions.