By MARSHA MERCER
For Ronald Reagan’s first presidential inauguration in 1981, a candy company sent three-and-a-half tons of red, white and blue jelly beans to the White House.
The candy was such a hit that Reagan jovially offered jelly beans to guests in the Oval Office and on Air Force One for the next eight years. First lady Nancy Reagan traveled the country warning young people to “just say no” to marijuana and other illegal substances.
In those days, pot was the public enemy and sugar was just sweet. How quaint.
Today, the “evil weed” is seen increasingly as unthreatening, if not benign. Sugar is eyed as a gateway drug, blamed for everything from cavities and obesity to diabetes and heart disease.
That sugar and marijuana have traded places in the public eye says a lot about how our culture and attitudes have changed. Nearly four in 10 Americans have tried marijuana, and more than half approve of legalizing it, polls show. In 1969, the Woodstock year, only 12 percent approved, according to Gallup.
Twenty states allow medicinal use of marijuana, and voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot measures in 2012 that legalize the use, cultivation and sales of marijuana to people 21 and over.
Other states don’t want to be left out of the blossoming pot economy. Oregon and Alaska are expected to put full legalization to the ballot test this November. Just the other day, the city council of the District of Columbia voted to decriminalize small amounts of pot.
Proponents see pot not only as an adult, personal choice, like alcohol, but also as an economic engine and boundless source of state tax revenue. A TV ad that aired during the 2012 legalization campaign in Colorado showed a middle-aged mom who said she didn’t like pot but taxing it would mean money for schools and health care.
In Denver, an enterprising Girl Scout troop set up its annual cookie sales table right outside a pot shop. And that leads us to sugar.
If people are smiling on pot – at least for now – many have soured on sugar.
The World Health Organization says that our sugar intake should be no more than 5 percent of our total calories or about 6 teaspoons of sugar for women, 9 teaspoons for men. A soft drink has up to 40 grams – about 10 teaspoons -- of sugar.
In England, chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies said last week that she believes “research will find sugar is addictive” and that “we may need to introduce a sugar tax.”
Several medical studies say sugar triggers the brain’s pleasure centers much the same way cocaine or heroin does. A study last year found Oreo cookies are as addictive as cocaine. Nobody wants to criminalize sugar, but many think more stringent labels and a tax on sugary soft drinks are good ideas.
First lady Michelle Obama last month unveiled proposed nutrition labels that will warn consumers how much added sugar is in their food. San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., as well as Illinois are considering a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
When former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban large sugary drinks, the courts slapped him down. Still, the publicity may have dampened New Yorkers’ thirst. Soda sales in New York declined nearly 7 percent over the 12 months ending last November.
The sugar and beverage industry groups insist that soft drinks are a small part of what Americans eat and drink. They say more research is needed and it’s unfair to blame sugar for America’s weight problem.
Still, the potential tax revenue from sugar-sweetened drinks is, well, intoxicating. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University has a dandy calculator that shows how much each state could reap from a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. In Virginia, it’s $376.5 million a year.
If we can legalize and tax marijuana, we should debate taxing sugary drinks. Oh, and pass the jelly beans.
(C) 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.