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Pot, Music and the Feds


Oxford, Miss.

The War on Drugs was still just a twinkle in Richard M. Nixon’s evil eye when the great John Lennon released his classic recording called “Imagine.” That was in 1971, and Nixon launched his horribly misconceived attack on recreational drug users the following year as part of the re-election campaign headed by the aptly named Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP).

My fantasy of late has been to imagine an America without a War on Drugs — a place where the cynical, old, rich, white men who dominated the United States Senate, and their feral sidekicks in the House of Representatives, had never succeeded in hoodwinking the public into welcoming their rhetoric about the dangers of getting high and the sick, draconian measures they enacted to interdict and punish the millions of recreational drug users among our citizenry.

Forty unrelenting years of this inhuman campaign founded in a passel of lies, untruths and severe misrepresentations has transformed our country from a flawed but still idealistic democracy to an ever-burgeoning police state with a gigantic, self-perpetuating, taxpayer-funded apparatus of persecution and doom directed at everyone who refuses to accept the vicious anti-drug mythology that’s been enacted into law.

Let’s imagine that the White House and the federal legislative bodies had simply rejected the specious argument advanced by empire-building bureaucrats like Harry J. Anslinger that marijuana was a narcotic with no conceivable medical application and its users presented a clear and present danger to the social order.

What if, instead, they had conducted an unfettered scientific investigation into the actual properties, patterns and methods of usage, physical and mental effects, documented medicinal uses, economic potential, and overall impact of marijuana on the fabric of American society, resulting in the reasonable conclusion that cannabis causes virtually no harm to its users nor to society in general.

With respect to other recreational drugs with certain detrimental effects on their users, the relatively enlightened lawmakers might well have concluded that the resultant problems were likely medical and/or psychological in nature and demanded treatment of some sort to reduce the potentially negative impact on the drug users and, by extension, on the social order itself.

Nowhere would such an informed approach dictate legal sanctions against recreational drug users of any sort. If their behavior were to cause problems in the workplace or in social settings, the usual remedies — demotion, firing, suspension from duties and the like — would be applied to resolve any discrepancies. If laws were broken as a result of their drug use, the mandated responses — arrest, prosecution, conviction, punishment — would be effected as for all similar violators.

The idea of segregating recreational drug users from their fellow citizens as a class unto themselves and punishing them for getting high in their chosen ways would be seen as indefensibly stupid and entirely without basis under our system of jurisprudence and its guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — like arresting and jailing persons for smoking a cigarette or drinking a bottle (or even an entire case) of beer.

Not only could there be no finding suggesting that recreational drug users constitute a criminal class to be treated in the same manner as armed robbers, arsonists, rapists and murderers, stripped of their lives and livelihoods and sentenced to long terms in prison, but it is indeed likely that testimony solicited during the course of such scientific investigations would indicate that there are many positive effects from getting high on drugs and that drug users have made many valuable contributions in the areas of medicine, psychology, philosophy, poetry, literature, painting, cinema and music of many descriptions.

A short list of such exemplars crucial to the development of “America’s only original art form” would include Louis Armstrong, the pioneer of jazz improvisation, Lester Young, the president of the tenor saxophone, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, originators of modern jazz, and Miles Davis, perhaps its greatest avatar, as well as sonic explorers like Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Marion Brown.

With respect to the giants of jazz, the record indicates that a wildly disproportionate number of musical creators were forced to serve lengthy prison terms as a consequence of their arrest for use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other illegalized substances — a list that includes Mezz Mezzrow, Prez, Dexter Gordon, Hampton Hawes, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and the great tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, who served a seven-year stretch in the Illinois penitentiary for being a heroin addict.

More familiarly, the popular music of the past 50 years now known as “classic rock” was created and advanced by people deeply steeped in marijuana smoke, LSD and other chemicals, including such originators as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and many others who succumbed to the fatal effects of their habitual drugs of choice.

Further, with regard to popular culture, it’s hard to imagine any film or television production that has been realized without the participation of writers, directors, actors, producers and crewmembers under the influence of illegal drugs of some sort. The ranks of record producers, entertainment executives, concert promoters, artists’ managers, booking agents and other industry operatives are rife with drug users of every description, yet the show goes on and the profits roll in to the coffers of the corporations who utilize their drug-addled services.

But we’re only making little scratches on the surface of the fabric of modern American society. The fact is that millions of people use illegal drugs on a regular, daily basis and suffer primarily from the efforts of the insanely dedicated minions of law and order who are bent on enforcing the letter of the law that proscribes getting high without a prescription and mandates elaborate punishment schemes for those unlucky enough to be apprehended.

Imagine that it’s OK to get high and that you could acquire your drug or drugs of choice across the counter at a reasonable cost from a licensed dispensary. Imagine that the police and legal authorities had no stake in what might be going on in your head as long as you weren’t hurting anyone or breaking the established codes of social conduct. Imagine that the people who grow, manufacture and supply your drug needs are treated like producers of other essential goods and services, allowed to make a reasonable profit and pay the appropriate taxes into the public treasury.

Imagine that the police had absolutely no power of arrest with respect to recreational drug users unless we were to commit some sort of actual crime. Imagine that they weren’t allowed to tear your car or your home apart looking for drugs or the attendant paraphernalia. Imagine the vast number of closed police stations, courtrooms, jails and prisons, the shuttered probation and parole offices and drug treatment centers. Imagine that those police forces that remained were directed toward detecting and confiscating unregistered or illegal weapons of human destruction.

Then imagine the resultant savings in tax dollars and the massive redirection of tax revenues to underwrite music and arts programs in schools, free health care for the sick and damaged among us, expanded human services of every kind instead of money wasted on the idiotic War on Drugs. Imagine a society where you can get high and go about your business without fear of persecution, arrest or punishment of any kind except that which you may inflict upon yourself in the course of your experimentation and habitual use of your drugs of choice.

In the immortal words of the bard (who, by the way, smoked the stuff):

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

JOHN SINCLAIR, founder of the White Panthers, is a poet. His latest book is It’s All Good.

This article originally ran in the Metro Times.


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