How a respected economist became St. Louis' No. 1 advocate for legalizing pot

Nov 17, 1999 at 4:00 am

Fred Raines stands in his University City apartment and maneuvers through the clutter. Lacking any semblance of a filing system, Raines simply stacks his possessions. From the numerous CDs strewn across the floor and on an end table to the thousands of articles and printouts about the current drug situation in America, the place is a scene of chaos.

But this chaos serves as Raines' hobby. When he's not teaching economics at Washington University, Raines is listening to music and figuring out ways to fight the "drug war." At the age of 66, he's tall, with a broad frame and gray hair parted to the right. At first glance, many images come to mind, perhaps the last of a man who has outlived a prognosis by 18 months.

After a series of blood tests in 1993, a hematologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital told Raines he had refractory anemia. "I was given a life expectancy of about 42 months, based on medical studies," he says. "I was told it would never go away and it would deteriorate over time."

He reports taking a series of prescription drugs, ranging from Prozac to lithium carbonate. But these drugs, prescribed to curb his depression, made him more depressed, he says. In addition, he lost some control of his body and stumbled when walking, always feeling dizzy.

So he turned to the ol' faithful: a little marijuana to calm the nerves.

Raines was on sabbatical in England in the early 1990s, and a couple of friends were about to make a trip to the Netherlands. "I asked them to bring me back a little something, and I've been an occasional smoker since. I decided whatever depression I had wasn't being lessened by medication," he says. "I'm not giving marijuana credit, but it surely hasn't hurt me."

Raines says he logs 4,000 miles a year on his bike, 3,000 in his car. He often wears a hemp hat adorned with a big marijuana leaf, accenting his blue-beaded hemp necklace. He also likes to get stoned on occasion and is a music enthusiast; his favorite group of late is a band of British anarchists, popular with the youth, called Chumbawamba (they of the highly overplayed song "Tubthumping").

Recently Raines' hobby of studying -- and being outraged by -- the drug war has become more of a vocation: He was named executive director of the St. Louis chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

Raines says that rather than make it so that anyone can get high at will, his primary motivation to legalize pot is that legalization makes a lot of social and economic sense: It would significantly improve the justice system, promote racial equality and save taxpayers money, he says. But he also believes that if he wants to roll a joint, it ought to be his constitutional right.

"To me, the foundation of the drug war is a war on marijuana, because half of the drug-related arrests are marijuana arrests," Raines says. "And since there have been no documented cases of people dying from marijuana like there have been from alcohol, it has the best case to be made for legalization."

An opinionated man, Raines speaks about reform with tremendous zeal and with a great deal of knowledge. In fact, he is knowledgeable almost to a fault. Asked the simple question "What made you decide to get involved with NORML?", Raines' reply is 20 minutes long and goes off on extreme tangents. He opines that the plight of African-Americans in the U.S. is a local form of genocide and notes that marijuana is classified as a Schedule I narcotic (worse than cocaine and heroin, which are considered Schedule II substances) because in 1972, President Richard Nixon said that marijuana is addictive and has no medical use. "There have been documented cases that marijuana was used medically in China since 3500 B.C.!" Raines exclaims.

But when he does get back on track, he speaks eloquently -- and passionately -- about injustice and how the economy would be more stable and prisons less crowded if marijuana were made legal. "People of color are more likely to live in impoverished neighborhoods," he says. "These areas are associated with high drug use, but higher-income white areas have more money and therefore can purchase more drugs, but those aren't the people going to jail." After a moment's pause, he says, "I live and breathe this stuff."

And he continues his litany of statistics: Blacks are seven times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana possession and use; blacks make up only 13 percent of the country's population but account for double the number of whites in prison. Law-enforcement officials are "clearly looking to arrest blacks for these crimes," he says.

Raines says he first inhaled on the campus of Wash. U. in 1968, at the age of 35. He was a professor, and some of the graduate students had a nice little scene going, complete with incense and rock & roll. They were passing a joint, and he indulged. "We used to have a little group of grad students and young faculty members that would smoke some dope and then go to Blueberry Hill," he says. "I smoked on and off from 1968-1991."

Born in New York City, Raines went to high school in Easton, Pa. He entered Harvard University in 1951, pursuing a degree in physics, but, he says, was in trouble almost from the outset for lack of studying. "I was on a formal probation and, at the end of sophomore year, dropped out," he says. "I worked a couple of jobs in New York City, got bored, teamed up with two buddies, and we drove to LA."

Raines picked up a job at McDonnell Douglas, working at Edwards Air Force Base in California. After seven or eight months, he was transferred to the company's Santa Monica division, where he met his wife, Jean. They were married in San Francisco in 1954, and even though they were divorced after 24 years, Raines still considers her a good friend. Shortly after their wedding, he returned to Harvard with a new major: economics. After graduation, he earned his master's and doctoral degrees in economics from the University of Wisconsin and, in 1963, became a junior staff member on the President's Council of Economic Advisors in Washington, D.C.

Raines teaches upper-level undergraduate as well as graduate courses in labor economics. He is currently the only full-time labor economist on staff at Washington University and has been teaching there since 1965. Raines has been a consultant and expert witness locally for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and private attorneys in several race-, sex- and age-discrimination cases.

But marijuana and the drug war remain his passion. Though Raines has tacked up stats on his Wash. U. office door about how much money is spent on prisons, he never uses class time to discuss his favorite topic. His colleagues are also well aware of his viewpoints, but they too say that while behind the podium, Raines is all business. "We listen to him, but he doesn't spend a lot of time proselytizing about this stuff," says fellow economics professor Lee Benham. "He is also a very knowledgeable economics professor who excels with his students in one-on-one situations."

Dr. Steven Fazzari, chairman of the economics department at Washington University, has known Raines for 17 years. He reiterates that Raines is a dedicated professor and adds that though he is unaware of whether Raines brings his ideas on marijuana reform into the classroom, the issue of drug legalization has an interesting economic dimension to it.

Ben Cohn, a former local NORML president, says, "Fred is a great example of why you shouldn't judge people by their appearance. At first glance, with his tousled hair, ragged army jacket and blue jeans, you might mistake him for a homeless man or an outpatient from a mental clinic, rather than a tenured professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Only when you talk to him do you realize the keen intellect and depth of knowledge he possesses ... he's a walking contradiction."