Tracking the Pot Wars


At a time when the War on Drugs is universally regarded as a pathetic failure and legalized marijuana is rapidly becoming the norm, the drug warriors seem determined as ever to keep prohibition alive. Vast resources still pour into the archaic federal drug bureaucracy, its work vigorously promoted by the usual suspects: the prison industry, the bulk of law enforcement, politicians of both major parties, Big Pharma. Demon weed lives, unfazed by full marijuana legalization in four states with several more to follow, medical pot in 22 states, and surveys reporting that 55 percent of Americans now want to legalize a substance once thought to be unredeemably evil.   The old myths and taboos have been shattered, to the dismay of an anti-drug apparatus that stubbornly clings to its decades-long holy crusade.

In the case of pot, the crusaders have reached a point where old scare tactics about untold damage to personal health simply no longer work, greeted as laughable by a generation of cannabis users that knows better from personal experience.   Consumed even regularly – though not to extremes, which is rare – pot is among the least harmful of drugs, with mild addictive properties compared to more widely used (legal) products like alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals. The horrors predicted through many years of anti-drug propaganda have never materialized. Yet the first drug czar Harry Anslinger’s hysterical warnings that marijuana was a source of “maniacal insanity”, a scourge leading to violent crime, out-of-control sexual behavior, and social breakdown, are still embraced (in different form) today by ideologues at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), and hundreds of state and local law-enforcement agencies.

The bulk of independent studies on cannabis demonstrate what has long been common knowledge to most populations of the world: pot has relatively minor side effects and adverse reactions, its overdoses rarely severe, its fatal episodes virtually unknown.  Still, the drug war continues along its futile but destructive path, cut off from empirical reality, driven by a view of pot as a dangerous Schedule I Substance as potent as heroin. The failures are almost too well-known to repeat, especially for CounterPunchers – more than $50 billion wasted yearly for funding, swollen jails and prisons, a bolstered security state, black-market related crime, millions of ruined lives (the vast majority blacks and Hispanics).   The War on Drugs itself has done infinitely more harm than any chemical substance, cannabis probably being the least visible of all.

The mechanism seems to have a life of its own, undeterred by the endless harm it produces.   On the faulty assumption that more “research” is needed to understand the workings of cannabis, biased studies keep appearing – determined to show that demon weed is among the most physically and psychologically dangerous substances. A recent pot study conducted by the U.C., Davis Medical Center (as lead venue) departed from the familiar health focus, instead purporting to show that regular use of marijuana is a likely source of downward social mobility and assorted everyday-life miseries. As California voters get ready to pass a measure that would fully legalize marijuana in November, they are cautioned to be alert: pot could be responsible for creating a new generation of slackers. (The research was carried out by an international team that included Avshalom Caspi and Terri Moffitt of Duke University.)

The study, reported as something of a breakthrough in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science (March 23, 2016), traced the lives of roughly 1000 New Zealanders from ages 18 to 38, including 173 participants – 18 percent — who ended up as regular, or heavy, cannabis users. Those habitual consumers, according to the findings, experienced significantly more life troubles – some combination of workplace conflict, severe debt, domestic violence, and general anti-social behavior. Heavy users (defined as imbibing four times weekly) tended to fall below their parents’ socio-economic level, the data indicating that “persistent cannabis users constitute a burden on families, communities, and national social-welfare systems”.   A rather harsh indictment of the drug: even if getting high on pot is not so threatening to one’s health, it can be rather destructive to one’s social life – and to society as a whole – in cases of long-term use.

Commenting on this study, the venerable Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton wrote (March 30) under a front-page headline that “smoking marijuana might make you a loser”.   Skelton referred to the electoral initiative that would make California the fifth state to completely legalize pot. Magdalena Cerda, lead researcher on the project and U.C., Davis professor of medicine, said that, while “cannabis is not safe for long-term users”, the conclusions were essentially neutral regarding legalization.   But Skelton ventured otherwise, consistent with some of his previous columns: “Why wouldn’t those red flags [negative social consequences] be an argument against legalizing the drug and making it easier and more tempting – because of advertising – to consume?”   While Cerda does not appear to be a hard-line warrior, it’s easy to see how Skelton’s logic might seem compelling (so long as the study’s validity is taken for granted).  Few people want a nation of slackers – or stoners.

The study, however, is awash in problems – one being that NIDA is one of the backers and presumably, as is customary, had to approve the main contours of the research.   As a NIDA spokesperson told the New York Times a few years ago, “Our focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use. We generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial effects of marijuana.” If indeed long-term dependency is the crucial issue, then by definition any such dependency will have similar (or probably worse) social outcomes than found here. Long-term habituation to alcohol, pain killers, sleeping pills, anti-depressants, amphetamines, even junk food is bound to cause not only social but physical and psychological harm, often extreme. So the question here is not so much dependency as such but the potency, or toxicity, of the substance being consumed, along with amount and duration. In fact the toxicity and addictive properties of cannabis are typically so mild that its psychological and social consequences are likely be comparatively benign – quite at odds with the research conclusions.

A deeper flaw is that the researchers have not provided any clear measures as to just how “persistent” or “frequent” consumption is to be calculated. At least four times a week? That is not very helpful, as plenty of space exists for large variations in type, degree, and intensity of use.   The study could readily veer toward more extreme usage – the most intensely addictive cases – but there is no way of deciphering this.   The difference between consuming one cup of coffee daily versus eight cups, two beers nightly versus a sixpack, or one joint every other day versus six joints daily should be obvious, yet is not accounted for in the research methodology.   Further, anyone familiar with pot culture knows that products vary enormously according to intensity, dosage levels, and modality (smoking, eating, drinking, inhaling, etc.).   Given such vagueness in use-patterns, the study turns out to be less than helpful, and that is being charitable. Is it possible that research conclusions, or just historical experience, might go in opposite directions? Could regular use of marijuana – at manageable doses – have strongly positive consequences, with uplifting psychological or social effects?   Might cannabis stimulate mental creativity and imagination in the realms of art, literature, and music, for example? Here authors of the study have overlooked a crucial element for any drug research: looking at consumption in realation to both the user’s mindset and social context, otherwise known as a phenomenological approach.

In his provocative book Smoke Signals, Martin A. Lee writes that marijuana was a powerful driving force behind jazz and blues culture from the 1920s onward, as well as Beat literature in the 1940s and beyond, the sixties counterculture, and rock revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.   As for the Beats, Lee observes: “These brash young writers believed that only the most daring commitment to personal creativity would overcome the stifling conformity of the early Cold War years. The use of illegal drugs was an integral part of their search for transcendence. They smoked marijuana and experimented with whatever else they could get their hands on. . . . often to the point of excess, in the spirit of Rimbaud, a poet the Beats greatly admired.” Lee adds: “John Kerouac and his cohorts got high together in small groups . . . conscious of their link to this great stoned lineage of European artists, which included the Dadaists, Surrealists, Symbolists, and others who defied convention and labels. Kerouac’s cabal loved the associational fluidity engendered by cannabis, how it loosened the powers of analogy and unleashed the spoken word.”   No abundance of slackers or losers in this crowd!

Lee relates that the Beats and their cohorts, including jazz musicians, “stayed up all night smoking fat marijuana bombers, listening to jazz, reciting poetry, and confiding their deepest secrets . . .”  It turned out that “marijuana was a truth drug, of sorts, for the Beats.” Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others within their circle refused to live by the oppressive rules and norms of a puritanical capitalist society. Railing against drug prohibition during the 1950s, Ginsberg said “I smoke marijuana every chance I get.”   Could the literary and musical greats of that era – and those that came later – have suffered devastating blows from regular cannabis use of the sort claimed by the U.C., Davis-led study? (Those who self-destructed – Lennie Bruce, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, et. al. — went down more often from the mixed impact of booze and hard drugs.)

In launching the contemporary War on Drugs, Richard Nixon and his group of warriors were interested less in health concerns than in crude politics, including racism. They saw moral corruption, the work of the devil, as endemic to “illicit” chemical substances. In the period leading up to his War, during 1971, Nixon was recorded as saying to aide Bob Haldeman: “You know it’s a funny thing. Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana are Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them?” Later, he continued: “You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they’re trying to destroy us . . . Goddamn it, we have got to stand up to these people.”

To justify keeping pot illegal with harsh penalties for selling and possessing, Nixon appointed Raymond Shafer to head a commission and issue a report that would, ostensibly, legitimate the new crusade. The investigation was based on more than 50 independent studies, a national survey of trends and opinions, and review of law-enforcement activities across the U.S. The result was a March 1972 report titled “Marijuana: a Signal of Understanding” – the most thorough study of cannabis in U.S. history.   Nixon, however, would be profoundly angered at its findings.   The Shafer report concluded that pot was rather harmless and recommended that simple possession or use of the drug be decriminalized.   It argued that any harm resulting from cannabis did not justify government intrusion into private behavior, adding: “Considering the range of social concerns in contemporary America, marijuana does not, in our considered judgment, rank very high. We would deemphasize marijuana as a problem.”

Nixon angrily refused to adopt any of his own commission’s recommendations, the report was quickly forgotten, and Nixon proceeded full-speed with a costly, hypocritical War on Drugs that ranks as perhaps the worst domestic policy of the twentieth century.   Its irrational, racist policies and laws – and outright fictions upon which they were based – persist to this day. Despite many reform efforts, pot remains at the top of the list of federally banned substances. And those touted marijuana studies that embellish the same myths, like the U.C., Davis research, still flourish today.

Across the intervening years drug-war hypocrisy has hardly declined in the face of contradicting evidence.  While moral panic over “drugs” has never actually waned, and the feds continued to demonize pot, pharmaceutical companies had the green light to synthesize the most potent cannabis ingredient, THC, in order to market it as a pill. The result was dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC patented and produced by Solvay and sold under the brand name Marinol.   The source of R&D funds?   None other than the federal government: the FDA fast-tracked and approved Marinol in 1985 as an anti-nausea medication for cancer patients – exactly what local dispensaries are selling marijuana for today!  Few people, however, choose the synthetic version where natural marijuana is available, for the simple reason it does not work as effectively. Legalizing Marinol has not deterred federal agencies from claiming, still today, that THC (or cannabis) is both dangerous and without any medical potential.

In a supreme ironical twist, the very week Skelton’s column appeared, the Los Angeles Times ran yet another front-page story on drugs – this one reporting a “sudden rush of overdoses” and deaths from legal painkillers at, coincidentally, the U.C., Davis Medical Center.   The main culprit in this case was fentanyl, manufactured by Big Pharma and considered to be 100 times stronger than morphine and lethal in very small doses, rendering it so much more toxic than cannabis that the numbers are off the charts.   According to the Times (April 2), in a single week 36 people were admitted for overdoses, nine fatally, mostly for street versions of fentanyl purchased at roughly five dollars a tablet. As the Times noted, “the rash of cases portends the move west of rampant fentanyl abuse that had largely been centered on the East Coast”, adding that “in Los Angeles County fatal overdoses related to fentanyl increased to 62 in 2014 [from 42 in 2011].”

In 2014 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 28,647 people died from overdoses of opioids, typically legal substances like fentanyl and Oxycontin sold by pharmaceutical companies. About 700 people died from fentanyl alone (or its derivatives) during 2013 and 2014.   The American opioid catastrophe is fueled by a massive increase in doctor-prescribed painkillers, increasing over the past decade, leading to a high incidence of opiate addiction heightened by a dramatic rise in marketing and advertising of legal painkillers across the corporate media.

While California alone has more than 1000 pot dispensaries with comparatively few reports of overdoses, adverse reactions, or violent crime, the warriors remain vigilant at their posts.   A recent NIDA statement, for example, claims that marijuana is just as harmful as alcohol, possibly more so – a preposterous assertion also embedded in the U.C., Davis study. While the CDC reports tens of thousands of deaths annually from alcohol, it provides no evidence of deaths from cannabis.    In 1994 two U.C., San Francisco doctors were asked to rank a number of substances according to their addictive properties, and found that pot ranked lowest behind everything measured: nicotine, heroin, cocaine, alcohol, even caffeine. A more recent study by psychologist Robert Gable at Claremont Graduate University found that marijuana is 100 times safer than alcohol or cocaine, assuming roughly equivalent intake levels. Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) said, referring to the NIDA claim, “this is gross negligence on the agency’s part and should be addressed immediately by the White House”, but one should exercise great patience in awaiting such a response.

Consulting the NIDA website, one finds in its main table of contents a specific reference to one targeted drug – marijuana. One can only conclude that the horrific toll from legal pharmaceuticals such as painkillers is not taken as seriously as the harm attributed to demon weed.   Of the estimated 10 million Americans who currently take opioids for chronic pain, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 2.1 million are strongly addicted, many likely to turn to the black market to satisfy their dependency. By now it is no secret that nearly 50 people in the U.S. die every day from prescription-opioid overdoses – a more frequent cause of death than violent crime or auto accidents. Big Pharma-related disasters are exacerbated by the FDA tendency to test for short-term safety of its approved drugs, as opposed to longer-term use that is closer to the norm for many pharmaceuticals. Doctors, patients, and regulators are often misled into believing opioids are both safe and effective.   In 2007 the Department of Justice fined Purdue for falsely telling doctors that Oxycontin was safer and less addictive than rival painkillers. Purdue , incidentally, also manufactures fentanyl.

The old distinction between legal and “illicit”, medicinal and “recreational” drugs has largely vanished at a time when pharmaceutical substances are widely used for every conceivable purpose, including simple intoxication.   Drugs of all sorts can be easily, and cheaply, ordered online – everything from sex stimulants to designer drugs, experimental drugs, club drugs, and “performance enhancers”.   Tens of millions of Americans routinely get their drugs in this fashion.  “Pill mills”, where doctors routinely dispense large amounts of pharmaceuticals, have proliferated in recent years. Indeed the U.S. today is habitat of the largest drug culture ever known, with pills available for hundreds of different “needs” and “diseases”. Against this backdrop, the repercussions of pot consumption seem hardly worth all the lavish attention invested by the warriors.

While Big Pharma rides high, the DEA continues to be extravagantly funded at a time of supposed austerity, all the more empowered to target cannabis shop owners and growers. In 2014, working with state and local police, the DEA eradicated more than four million outdoor plants and 400,000 indoor plants, making 6,310 arrests and seizing $27.3 million in cultivator assets, according to its own data.   Though pot arrests overall have sharply declined, 350,000 people remain incarcerated in the U.S. for possession or sales of illegal drugs.

Those “red flags” raised by the U.C., Davis study – even if taken seriously – cannot possibly match the harm routinely caused by Big Pharma, which is deeply embedded in every facet of the medical system. Highly-profitable painkillers alone are responsible for hundreds of thousands of overdoses, adverse reactions, accidents, hospitalizations, and fatal episodes. To this could be added similar outcomes for anti-depressants, statins, sleeping pills, amphetamines, and muscle-relaxants.   Despite everything, the feds’ irrational obsession with pot shows few signs of abating. In the midst of new legalization successes, obstacles to a just and humane drug policy persist: the continued threat of legal reprisals has a chilling effect, banking access is severely limited, and securing licenses for dispensaries and growers can be a byzantine process. Pot enterprises are far removed from the status long ago secured by wine, beer, and liquor businesses, thanks to the end of that prohibition.   This will be the case until, finally, the federal anti-drug apparatus is somehow dismantled and its funding channeled elsewhere.

CARL BOGGS is the author of several recent books, including Fascism Old and New (2018), Origins of the Warfare State (2016), and Drugs, Power, and Politics (2015).  He can be reached at