It’s not just a pipe dream anymore. The movement to reform marijuana laws has gone global, and the chance to rewrite draconian drug policies has never been better. From Latin America to Europe, and 14 states that have legalized marijuana for medical use, the tide is turning.
A growing body of scientific evidence confirms what marijuana reform activists have been saying for decades: marijuana is not physically addicting and there has never been a case of marijuana overdose, its use is not nearly as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco, and it is effective in treating many symptoms of MS, Parkinson’s Disease, cancer and AIDS, as well as relieving chronic pain.
After four decades and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, there is a growing awareness that the “War on Drugs” has been ineffective in reducing demand for marijuana and other drugs. Many say that the social costs of this so-called war are too great to sustain.
The history of pot. Marijuana, also known as hemp, was used in ancient Egypt and China. Since the dawn of civilization, the plant has been widely used for its medicinal properties.
In addition, hemp has been used for centuries in the making of paper, rope, and sails. In the United States, the first law concerning marijuana was enacted by the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1619 and required all farmers to plant hemp, so essential were its fibers to the economy. By the 1800s cannabis, which grew wild in many parts of the U.S., was used in a variety of medications.
The story of marijuana prohibition touches on the worst aspects of American political culture, including racism, imperialism, anti-immigrant hysteria and corporate greed. As a result of the Mexican-American War of 1846, the U.S. annexed Mexican territory (and its inhabitants!) throughout what is now the Southwest. It was these new Mexican Americans who introduced the recreational use of marijuana to the dominant culture.
Efforts to prohibit pot were not far behind. By the 1920s, nine western states had enacted such laws that were blatantly anti-Mexican. The Hearst newspaper dynasty, which was adept at fanning the flames of racism, had already whipped up public sentiment against the Spanish and the “Mexican Menace,” soon mounted a lurid campaign against the evils of marijuana.
The African American connection. Meanwhile, marijuana use was spreading. From New Orleans, pot mixed with the new art form jazz and traveled to Chicago and Harlem, introducing Blacks to the drug. Predictably, the anti-marijuana forces incorporated blatant racism into their campaign. It was claimed that marijuana use made white women desire to sleep with black men and caused “darkies (sic) to think they are better than whites,” according to Harry Anslinger, the first anti-drug czar.
Based entirely on unproven claims by Hearst writers and others, and against the recommendation of the American Medical Association, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 that taxed marijuana so heavily as to effectively make it illegal.
A war is launched. The effort to outlaw marijuana was led by Harry Anslinger, who headed up creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger built his career on the criminalization of marijuana. For 30 years, he expanded and consolidated his powers by wildly overstating the dangers of pot.
By 1973, the bureau had morphed into the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. In a neat bit of political sleight-of-hand, the War on Poverty was abandoned in favor of the War on Drugs. In 1986, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, instituting mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. With this piece of legislation in place, the stage was set for an explosion of new prisons as more and more drug offenders were sentenced to ever longer prison terms.
Prison, Inc. The U.S. incarcerates about two million citizens, more than any other country, and about a fourth of all inmates are serving time for drug offenses. In just the first quarter of 2010, over six billion dollars was spent by the federal government to finance the War on Drugs. This money, in turn, is diverted from education and social services to build more prisons.
The damage is not just financial. Every year thousands of men and women are disenfranchised, stripped of their right to vote because they have been to prison. And the difficulty of finding work with a record is creating a vast underclass with no hope of a future.
Nowhere are the devastating social consequences of this war more apparent than among people of color. Although whites use drugs at rates similar to people of color, more than twice as many Latinos as whites are incarcerated, and Blacks are locked up at rates six times that of their white counterparts. Meanwhile, it is estimated that as many as 8.5 million people are in need of substance abuse treatment, but programs are few and expensive. The deep slashes in social services affects the poor and people of color disproportionately.
A radical solution. There is no rational basis for marijuana prohibition. Theories about pot being a “gateway” to more dangerous drugs have been debunked. Instead of criminalizing drug abuse, we need to treat it as a public health issue. Current ballot initiatives in California and Washington would legalize pot for general use. But we need to call for the full legalization of all drugs and an immediate halt to prison construction.