The cracks in the American cannabis control system just got wider with the states of Washington and Colorado passing referendums legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults. It is nothing short of historic in a country that arrests over 850,000 people every year for possession of small amounts of pot – 50,000 alone in New York City. The marijuana arrest machine has been the leading edge of the war on drugs in the US because it’s the most widely used illegal drug and the easiest to detect. Unique to marijuana is its pungent aroma that makes detection by police an easy bust. And because THC metabolites can be found in the urine for up to thirty days, it’s more difficult to pass employer drug tests, which results in employees being fired or workers never being hired, and those on probation going back to prison.
There is a huge disconnect between what most Americans think about the recreational use of marijuana and official US government policy.
Millions of Americans from all social classes knowingly violate marijuana laws every year to buy and smoke marijuana. Unlike any other illicit substance, the prohibition of pot is greeted with contempt and incredulity because so many people have had positive experiences with the drug. Americans simply don’t believe drug war lies and hype about marijuana anymore, especially from hypocritical politicians in the Whitehouse, like Barack Obama, a former member of the pot smoking “Choom Gang.” If you can get stoned a lot, go on to edit the Harvard Law Review, graduate from Harvard Law School, teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and then become president of the United States, is smoking marijuana really that bad?
Popular culture has helped to break down the myths and lies about pot. The groundbreaking, award-winning Showtime series Weeds exploited the contradiction between how smoking a couple of joints to have fun and relax is no different than having a couple glasses of Chardonnay or a few Coronas. And most importantly, the show demolished the idea that only “bad” people in ghettos get high when in fact more white people use marijuana.
This shift in consciousness about marijuana usage was consciously blocked at every turn by government drug warrior’s hell bent on maintaining pot prohibition.
The U.S. government has expended enormous amounts of resources in the war against marijuana using a mix of deception, demonization and demagoguery.
Federal and state officials have periodically unleashed hysterical public campaigns against marijuana based on racism and scapegoating.
In the 1930s, the notorious Harry J. Anslinger, America’s first Drug Czar and the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, declared war on pot. With the help of a stenographic media, he whipped up a marijuana panic so full of lies and exaggerations you would have thought he was stoned out of his mind. The always hyperbolic Anslinger warned, “By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marijuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marijuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters.” He was a vile racist and targeted African American communities for buy and bust operations. Anslinger wanted to destroy the careers of famous Black jazz musicians and singers like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. He allegedly kept a file called “Marijuana and musicians.” He asserted with no evidence at all, “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 usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
The openly propagandistic film Reefer Madness, released in 1936 contributed to the backlash against marijuana. It made outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about the effects of marijuana saying that it caused insanity, instant addiction and drove people to commit murder and mayhem. The outlandish allegations of Reefer Madness are laughed at today, but they were taken seriously in the heyday of Anslinger’s war on marijuana that went on for over two decades.
No longer able to claim the “insanity defense,” the defenders of marijuana prohibition have turned to junk science and disinformation to convince people that marijuana is a dangerous drug. A small army of junk scientists have been deployed to spread fear and hysteria. They invented the theory that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to the use of harder drugs. It is not. Most marijuana users never ingest other illicit drugs and tobacco use it turns out, is a far better predictor of who will move on to use other substances.
With the “gateway drug” theory debunked, junk scientists are arguing that marijuana use is linked to the onset of schizophrenia in teenagers, causes Amotivational Syndrome, is more damaging to the lungs than tobacco, is highly addictive and more potent. No credible science backs up these claims.
The inconvenient truth that the drug warriors try mightily to deny with wild exaggerations and scare tactics is that recreational use of marijuana has far fewer negative consequences than the two most widely used psychoactive substances, alcohol and tobacco, which are legal.
Moreover, marijuana is medicine and is used to treat a range of health problems. It stimulates appetite, decreases nausea and vomiting and is used for pain control.
In its 1999 review of medical marijuana, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found that “The adverse effects of marijuana are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications. Dependence among marijuana users is relatively rare and appears to be less severe than dependence on other drugs.”
A double-blind, placebo controlled study in 1997 conducted by Dr. Donald Abrams of the University of California found smoked marijuana to be safe and effective at treating peripheral neuropathy which causes great suffering among HIV/AIDS patients.
Despite mountains of scientific evidence from the US and Europe, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continues to categorize marijuana as a schedule one drug. Drugs in this category are deemed to have a high abuse potential and no safe, accepted medical use. Other schedule one drugs include heroin, LSD and crack cocaine.
What planet is the DEA on?
This designation of marijuana as a dangerous drug is beyond ludicrous and would be laughable if so many people weren’t being prosecuted for growing and using marijuana both medicinally and recreationally.
Medical marijuana dispensaries and patients have been under relentless attack despite President Obama’s campaign promise back in 2008 to respect state medical marijuana laws.
Attorney General Eric Holder has given the green light to the DEA, local U.S. attorneys and even the IRS to harass and shut down medical marijuana dispensaries across the country.
In April of this year, federal authorities raided California’s Oaksterdam University, a leading medical marijuana provider and detained its founder, Richard Lee, who was a leading proponent of California’s 2010 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana.
Federal officials took legal action against 71 medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles County and in Colorado, 57 dispensaries were shut down.
Doesn’t law enforcement have better things to do than to raid voter approved, legal businesses that provide medicine to sick people? The answer is no, they don’t. Targeting medical marijuana growers and sellers is easy, low hanging fruit with a valid address, generates money for policing agencies through asset forfeiture and creates the fiction that tough-on-crime polices work.
Successive crime bills that make minimum mandatory sentences the law has dramatically increased the amount of time people spend in prison on marijuana charges and the penalties for those involved in transport and distribution. The crime bill passed under President Bill Clinton allows the death penalty for drug “kingpins” even when no deaths result from the crime. People who are convicted in federal court of a “continuing criminal enterprise” involving 60,000 kilograms of marijuana or 60,000 plants (or seedlings) are eligible for the death penalty.
The website Life For Pot features victims of the war on marijuana who have been given life sentences without the possibility of parole. They will live out the rest of their lives in cages for the “crime” of being involved in the marijuana trade.
Larry Duke has served 24 years of a life sentence for intent to distribute marijuana. A government informant with a previous arrest for marijuana set him up.
Leopoldo Hernández- Miranda is a 73-year-old Cuban fisherman. He has been in prison for 19 years for transporting marijuana on his fishing boat two times.
In 2011, at the age of 35, Cornell Hood was sentenced to life in prison. He had four prior convictions for marijuana possession with intent to distribute.
The legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado was the opening salvo in dismantling the cannabis control system that has destroyed the lives of millions of people. But something else is needed; a Marijuana Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate and punish the individuals and agencies within the U.S. government for it’s deceitful and violent war on marijuana. And most importantly, the prisoners of the war on marijuana should be freed.
Helen Redmond is an independent journalist and writes about the war on drugs and health care. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org