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A War on Reason
Legalization of Marijuana, according to Grim, for the first time since the Nixon Administration, is now favored in a recent Zogby Poll by 52% to 37% nationally. Nearly a dozen states have moved to legalize medical marijuana, many of which offer licensed marijuana dispensaries, and several are expecting referendums to appear on the 2012 election ballets legalizing marijuana outright. So why, in the face of what can best be described as a tsunami of change in public opinion, do our political leaders appear so awfully behind? And why, in the age of free information and scientific validation, can politicians and law enforcement agents still spew lies and disinformation without any challenge by the press?
Because Marijuana prohibition has existed for so long that its enforcement apparatus is now an institution, acrobatics of hyperbole are now sensible, albeit dogmatic, wisdom, and old, bad laws are defended for no other reason than that the laws have existed for so long. In American politics, the largest hurdle in repealing laws is generally not fact or public opinion, but rather the viscous mucous of the American political system.
To understand why marijuana should be legal, it’s important to understand how it became illegal in the first place. Initially, cannabis, the botanical term for marijuana, was a legally used, popular, low-side-effect medication used to treat many ailments. Also, as noted in Sloman’s History of Marijuana, hemp, the non-psychoactive variety of the plant, was such an integral part of early American life that it was actually illegal not to grow it in Virginia throughout the 18th century. In fact, the US Census of 1850 records over 8,300 hemp plantations. What changed was an influx of Latin-American immigrants and the African-American community discovering an identity separate from slavery.
With the 1910 Mexican Revolution, many immigrants fled to the US for cheap farming work. With them, they brought the recreational use of marijuana. Because of the racial tension their presence caused and the resentment many whites felt towards Mexicans for taking already scarce jobs, marijuana prohibition became a response to the "immigration problem". Laws began to pass firstly in the states that border Mexico, banning the plant and ascribing it with the name "Loco Plant" and "Marijuana" instead of the better known and less stigmatized cannabis. A quote from a state legislator of Montana when marijuana was made illegal there in 1927 that appears in Abel’s Marijuana: The First 12,000 Years demonstrates the anti-Mexican racism that played a significant role in criminalization of the plant:
"When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this stuff...he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out to execute all his political enemies" It was this sort of racial fear which prompted much of the initial anti-marijuana sentiments.
Marijuana also became an integral part of the Jazz scene with notable musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway performing such hits as "Muggles" and "That Funny Reefer Man". Because of the popularity Jazz music had with many white youths, some regarded jazz and marijuana as immoral and leading to the social and sexual mixing of the races. Nowhere is this link most exploited than in the writings of the first Commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races… Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death…Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing…You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother…Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
Anslinger is infamous for writing many similar reports on the dangers of marijuana. Most of the stories are completely un-sourced and rely more on hysteria than scientifically verifiable fact.
In the newspapers of Henry Randolph Hearst, the 20th century's version of Rupert Murdock, many of the lies and propaganda about marijuana found a larger audience. In his papers, Hearst featured many editorials by Anslinger along with a varied set of un-sourced articles documenting unspeakable acts of degradation, violence, and psychosis, all as a result of marijuana use. Of course, no mention at the time was made of Hearst owning substantial stock in the timber industry, an industry whose profits Sloman suggests hemp would have cut into considerably. In this way, powerful business interests conspired with politicians seeking to solve the "minority problem" to make marijuana illegal, despite all medical evidence to the contrary.
In 1973, Nixon commissioned the Shafer Study into the dangers of marijuana in an effort to give scientific credibility to a prohibition drive that was already tinged with accusations of racial and cultural bias. The findings of the commission were this:
"Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety, Therefore... [the] possession of marijuana for personal use [should] no longer be an offense, [and the] casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration [should] no longer be an offense.
Even in light of this much awaited study, Nixon and congress still pushed forward with making marijuana illegal. This trend of ignoring scientific studies and research into drugs continues into the present with Obama's Drug Czar Kerlikowske recently stating that "Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit". That the US top authority on drugs could say this is troubling in light of the fact that the DEA's page on marijuana makes clear that marijuana has never caused an overdose death and that its most severe effects are a short-term sense of euphoria and loss of memory. How can a drug that is impossible to overdose on and has no long-term side effects be dangerous? Also, how can a drug that has been shown to help AIDS patients put on weight and, as cited in a recent US News and World Report article, to kill cancerous brain cells not have medical benefits?
Why in the case of drugs do we allow our politicians to lie to us? Why does scientific rigor and independent thought take a back seat to what amounts to the paranoid ramblings of the town drunk? And what is the human cost of this predicament? As with the prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century, the US obsession with ridding the world of all psychoactive drugs has done more harm than good. Since the 1980s, when drug sentencing became much stricter, our prison populations have exploded to 2.5 million, or something close to 1 in every 100 people. We now have the largest prisons in the world, and most inmates are non-violent drug offenders or were convicted for their first criminal offense, until the exposure to more violent prisoners mixed with a profound lack of opportunity once out took its toll. Also, the entire Mexican government is crumbling as it attempts to fight drug lords bent on exporting their product to the US. Even in Afghanistan, our obsession with exterminating opium is creating more hostility to us as we burn away a very lucrative cash crop for a very desperate people.
We need a saner drug policy that respects science over paranoia. Currently, our drug policies seem arbitrary as are the sentences. For instance, someone caught using crack cocaine will face much harsher sentences than a person using powder cocaine, even though these substances are effectively the same. The only real difference is that coke is a drug of the affluent and crack a drug of the poor.
It is similar with marijuana. While most studies show whites smoke marijuana at higher rates than blacks and Latinos, blacks and Latinos make up over 80% of those sentenced. Just from my own personal experiences I have noticed that my suburban white friends consume substances with a level of candidness that is not often found among minority groups, where significant anti-drug policing is focused. Also, this says nothing for the several legal drugs such as caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol that a British House of Commons' study described as far more dangerous than marijuana. In fact, from a more detailed look at the study that focused on ranking the 20 most common drugs in order of most to least dangerous, Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana, and Ecstasy are classified as 5th, 9th, 11th, and 18th respectively. It is clear that our sentencing guidelines have less to do with science and more to do with socioeconomic and racial stereotypes. For this reason, it could be argued on constitutional grounds that marijuana sentences represents a cruel and unusual punishment, as do the sentences for the use of many drugs. The House of Commons study implies as much when it states that while it would be "unfeasible to expect a penalty-linked classification system to include tobacco and alcohol there would be merit in including them in a more scientific scale".
If all accounts prove alcohol and tobacco to be particularly dangerous drugs, and yet these drugs are legal, how can the state reason leveling such harsh punishments on the use of a drug that is impossible to overdose on and is only effective in creating violence against a bag of cheetohs?
Punishments should fit the crime. Same as Trop v Dulles ruled that the definition of capital punishment should evolve with the sophistication of society, so should lesser punishments (Trop). In an age of information, laws should be based on verifiable fact. If the state views marijuana as posing a strong enough threat to be made illegal, then more dangerous drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes must carry harsher sentences; the law must respect logic and reason.
I find myself advocating this position as someone who grew up in one of those redneck towns where people continuously died from drunk driving accidents. My uncle wouldn't be caught dead driving his pickup without a beer in one hand. Having been in the MIT frat system, I have also had to clean up far too much vomit, console far too many depressed drunks, and clean up far too much blood from male rough-housing gone wrong, to be much in favor of alcohol. While I don't advocate making it illegal, as I sincerely believe prohibition is an affront to personal liberties and does more harm than good, I find it hard to reason its use. It’s so easy to overdose on; waking up with a pounding headache is never enjoyable, and yet, this drug that often brings out the worst in people, is the drug of choice for our nation. It is for these reasons that I have always been an advocate for marijuana legalization. I do not advocate it because I think everyone should use it, but more as an alternative to other substances. As many sociologists who study drugs would attest, societies never eradicate drugs; they simply switch to new ones. Same as the runner gets his fix from self-created chemicals; others rely on chocolate, caffeine, marijuana, or alcohol. If people will use substances recreationally, then why not one that you can't die from, that decreases stress, and, with the right potency, creates near-religious experiences of profound thought and self-reflection. Why not a drug that encourages people to share and listen to artistic music rather than the latest Britney Spears song. Why not something that, while illegal, offers the college student a safer, healthier, more thought-provoking experience than stumbling around burping up vomit?
My goal is not to take on the role of the nefarious drug lord from a 5th grade D.A.R.E. exorcise and sell anyone on the use of a particular drug. I do however feel that part of the human experience is exposure to drugs, as everything we are able to sense either creates or elicits a chemical response in the brain. Therefore, if everything is a drug that affects brain function, then isn't it time to have an honest discussion of the dangers or benefits of various drugs? Everyone should have sovereignty over what goes into his/her bodies. If congress would like to regulate drugs, by all means tax them, make sure potency and ingredients are on every package, criminalize dangerous actions while under the influence (ie: driving, operating heavy machinery, etc), provide rehabilitation for addicts, but don't turn the millions of healthy, well-adjusted, productive citizens who just don't like alcohol or cigarettes into criminals over a war on Drugs that no one believes in, but far too many are afraid to end.
Abel, Ernest, Marihuana: The First 12,000 Years
"Active Ingredient in Marijuana Kills Brain Cancer Cells - US News and World Report." Health News Articles - US News Health. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/healthday/2009/04/01/active-ingredient-in-marijuana-kills-brain-cancer.html>.
Famous Quotes / Quotations about Liberty. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <http://quotes.liberty-tree.ca/quotes_by/harry+j.+anslinger>.
Grim, Ryan. "Majority Of Americans Want Pot Legalized: Zogby Poll." The Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington, 5 June 2009. Web. <huffingtonpost.com>.
"House of Commons - Science and Technology - Fifth Report." United Kingdom Parliament home page. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmsctech/1031/103102.htm>.
"Marijuana." U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. United States of America. Web. <http://www.justice.gov/dea/>.
United States of America. The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. Comp. President Richard M. Nixon. 1972. Print.
Parker, Don. "Outlaw Mother's Milk Says Drug Czar" The Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington, 23 July 2009. Web. <huffingtonpost.com>
Sloman, Larry. Reefer madness the history of marijuana in America. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1998. Print.
"Trop v. Dulles." LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0356_0086_ZO.html>.
United States of America. The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. Comp. President Richard M. Nixon. 1972. Print.