INTERVIEW: Dr. Mitch Earleywine

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PHOTO: Dr. Earleywine giving a TED talk. All photos courtesy of Dr. Mitch Earleywine

We caught up with Dr. Mitch Earleywine, Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at the University at Albany, State University of New York and newly elected Chair of the Executive Board at NORML. He earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Indiana University, taught at the University of Southern California for 14 years, and has published multiple books, including “Understanding Marijuana” (Oxford University Press) and “The Parents’ Guide to Marijuana” (Trans High Press). He also writes the “Ask Dr. Mitch” column for High Times.

Ladybud: Tell us about your background.

ME: To paraphrase my pal Holden Caulfield, nobody cares about that David Copperfield crap. Everybody constructs narratives to make it look as if wherever they are is exactly where destiny propelled them. If I were suddenly chair of the executive board of the fireman’s union, I’m sure I could come up with a story to make it seem like it was a very natural progression.

Like damn near everybody else, I’ve got friends and family who’ve struggled with drugs and who’ve been wounded in the drug war. If I can keep one person from getting arrested or make sure one student doesn’t get screwed out of education loans because of ridiculous laws, I’d call my life well spent.

Ladybud: How’d you get into marijuana law reform?

EarleywinedevilME: I grew up in one of those Leftie, Pinko, hippy households where helping people was a top priority. I think of educating undergraduates and training psychologists as helping people, but after a while it seemed as if I could be doing a lot more. I worked in world hunger and mental health advocacy, but I wanted to be a bit more of a shit disturber. Once I had tenure, I could see that ending the drug war would be the perfect way to help people while maintaining the spirit of sticking it to the man.

Ladybud: Do you think your activism has hurt your academic career?

ME: It’s easy to get paranoid, but I doubt that activism has had much negative impact. Once when I was on the faculty at USC I had a student who worked in the President’s office who heard I’d been passed over for an award because my work was controversial. I couldn’t get the UAlbany media office to publish anything about my chairing the executive board at NORML, either. But the Provost defends me when people complain that I shouldn’t be molding the minds of youth. Colleagues in my department forward me relevant news stories.  I’d love to blame every rejected grant application or publication on my activism, but it’s unlikely.

In truth, activism has helped my career. I would probably end up on the inpatient ward if all I did was fill journal pages or classrooms, and I can’t have much of a career from a mental institution.

Ladybud: Do you have any favorite studies from your marijuana research?

ME: I’m always delighted to publish with my graduate students, in the hope that they’ll start amazing careers. I’m pretty happy about my work on the vaporizer, too. Sara Smucker Barnwell and I showed that vaporizer users reported fewer symptoms of respiratory problems than folks who smoked comparable amounts from joints, pipes, or bongs. Then Nicholas Van Dam brought folks into the lab who’d been coughing and wheezing and had them switch to the vaporizer for a month. They lost those symptoms and improved their lung function, too. Both those students are flourishing now with their doctorates in hand. It’s fun to watch.

EarleywineHeadshotLadybud: What about favorite moments on the path to the repeal of prohibition?

ME: Any time I see someone from the mainstream media saying the stuff that only activists used to say, I’m thrilled. When two women from CNN– two who never had me or anyone I know on their show– suddenly explained to Kevin Sabet that you can’t keep the plant out of kids’ hands if you keep the underground market going, well, it feels like I’m not all alone in this fight.

Ladybud: What changes have you noticed since you first joined the drug reform movement?

ME: The quality of the questions that people ask has improved markedly. Ten years ago I’d end up on the radio explaining that marijuana didn’t lead to aggression or that glaucoma wasn’t the only condition that responded to medical use. I rarely get that sort of question now. I still have the occasional query about amotivational syndrome and gateway theory, but they’re less frequent. My High Times readers are super sophisticated. It’s to the point where it’s hard to answer their questions briefly. I had a pretty complicated PTSD question recently and editor Dan Skye let me turn it into a whole article.

Ladybud: Do you ever want to chuck it all and quit?

ME: Now that we’re making such progress, it happens less and less. A few years ago I had debated a cop at one of the local high schools who still believed in gateway theory and I was feeling pretty discouraged about how little progress we were making, especially in New York. I was going to give it all up and write one of those boring grants designed to get fraternity boys to drink less alcohol. I figured that at least the dean would hate me less if I brought in a bunch of cash. But the next day was teacher-parent conferences at my kid’s grade school. All the students had created posters about their heroes. A bunch of them had said that their mom was their hero because she was so nice, and other sweet stereotypical stuff like that. My daughter had written that I was her hero because I stood up for what I believed in. I knew I could never leave the movement after that.

EarleywineNORMLheadshotLadybud: Where do you want to see NORML head?

ME: All I really want to do is reach all the people who think that they don’t make a difference. Every time we get a new proposal on the ballot or a new law on the books, I want all of us to feel like we deserve some credit. If we sit around waiting for the Ph.Ds or the politicians or the millionaires to do everything, nothing will ever get done. But anybody can make a donation to NORML, write a letter to the local paper, or drive a pal to the voting booth. And the more who do it, the better. The vast majority of us agree that nobody should go to jail for owning a plant.  If we each do one small act, we’ll be done with prohibition soon. And we’ll all get to brag about it in the end.

Ladybud: Well, how much time do think prohibition has left?

ME: I don’t want to predict that it’ll end soon if that might lead us to rest on our laurels. If we don’t do anything, we could lose all our gains by 2018. But if we all pitch in, we could have medical cannabis in every state equally fast. Legal markets would follow. The end of prohibition is within our reach. Let’s make it happen.