Jul 1, 1980
Marijuana Freedom is the Issue
“Only one serious, major candidate for President in this election year…is also unequivocally in favor of total marijuana decriminalization.”
Life imitates art, said Wilde, and he was right. If it seems otherwise a good deal of the time to those of us who are living it, this may reflect not so much the randomness or unpredictability of life as the incompleteness of our own reading. Life picks some pretty obscure works to imitate sometimes, and if we aren’t widely enough read, we’ll miss all the obvious allusions and fail to see the design in many of the events that befall us—not only as individuals, but also as a society.
Consider, as a case in point, the long and singularly witless history of marijuana in American society. Here, it would seem, is a narrative in which the main actions of the leading characters—our journalists, politicians and law enforcement officials—have been so utterly without sense or pattern of any kind that no fiction writer could ever possibly have invested them with the kind of unifying coherence which is the sine qua non of true art. Surely, we must think if we study the record, in this case life does not imitate art.
But we are wrong. Wilde was right. The evidence is to be found in a little known, little read, almost entirely forgotten novel of more than fifty years ago called Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees—a satiric fantasy about the attempts by the government of a country called Dorimare to stamp out “the vice of fairy fruit-eating” within its borders.
“The free state of Dorimare,” as Mirrlees described it, was a rather prosaic little country, flat, monotonous, and almost utterly without distinguishing characteristics—altogether, exactly the right sort of environment for the narrowly literal-minded burghers who made its public policy. Yet not all of Dorimare was like this, for “toward the west, in striking contrast with the pastoral sobriety of the central plain, the aspect of the country became … distinctly exotic. Nor was this to be wondered at, perhaps; for beyond the Debatable Hills (the boundary of Dorimare in the west) lay Fairyland. There had, however, been no intercourse between the two countries for many centuries.”
Once, of course, it had been otherwise. The proof was “on the painted ceilings of ancient houses, in the peeling frescoes of old barns, in the fragments of bas-reliefs built into modern structures,” and perhaps most commonly of all in the designs of the old tapestries which still hung everywhere in Dorimare and “in the tragic funereal statues of the Fields of Grammary,” the “picturesque old graveyard” which served its capital city, Lud-in-the-Mist. For in all these places were elaborate “illustrations of the flora, fauna and history of Fairyland.” Moreover, everyone in Dorimare knew that in centuries past, “fairy things had been looked on with reverence, and the most solemn event of the religious year had been the annual arrival from Fairyland of mysterious, hooded strangers with milk-white mares, laden with offerings of fairy fruit.”
Yet by the time of our story, the illustrations on the ceilings and frescoes and bas-reliefs and tapestries and tombstones, the illustrations which were so obvious as to seem undeniable, had come to be denied by the majority of Dorimarites—or, at any rate, to be systematically ignored. And what everyone once knew about the days when “fairy things had been looked on with reverence,” everyone had since conveniently forgotten. The people of Dorimare had help in their forgetting, to be sure—their freely elected rulers passed appropriate legislation so that thereafter, “[i]n the eye of the law, neither fairyland nor fairy things existed”—but their memory lapse was doubtless due as much to their own powers of self-delusion (which, like those of most human beings, in books or out of them, were prodigious) as to the efforts of their government officials.
At any rate, slowly but surely, “an almost physical horror came to be felt for anything connected with the Fairies and Fairyland, and society followed the law in completely ignoring their existence. Indeed, the very word ‘fairy’ became taboo, and was never heard on polite lips, while the greatest insult one Dorimarite could hurl at another was to call him ‘Son of a Fairy.’”
Despite this striking about-face in public opinion and public policy, however, the commerce between Dorimare and Fairyland did not end entirely. No shift in public opinion is ever unanimous; no public policy is without its defiant enemies. And so it was that although fairy fruit, the ancient religious sacrament, “was no longer brought into the country with all the pomp of established ritual, anyone who wanted it could always procure it in Lud-in-the-Mist.” In fact, the trade in this legally nonexistent substance flourished, “and all the efforts of the magistrates to stop it were useless.” But then, these efforts had been rather lackadaisical for many years, during which the magistrates had never even bothered to try “to discover the means and agents by which it was smuggled into the town: for to eat fairy fruit was regarded as a loathsome and filthy vice, practised in low taverns by disreputable and insignificant people, such as indigo sailors and pigmy Norsemen. True, there had been cases known from time to time … of youths of good family taking to this vice. But to be suspected of such a thing spelled complete social ostracism, and this, combined with the innate horror felt for the stuff by every Dorimarite, caused such cases to be very rare.”
As time passed, however, such cases became noticeably less rare—especially in the country districts west of the capital, where Dorimarites, living close to the border, had more direct daily experience with fairy things. Ultimately, during a period known as the Great Drought, they ceased to be rare at all, and “an ever-increasing number of people succumbed to the vice of fairy fruit-eating,” while “every day fresh rumours reached Lud-in-the-Mist (it was in the country districts that this epidemic, for so we must call it, raged) of madness, suicide, orgiastic dances, and wild doings under the moon.” Knowing a dangerous drug when they saw one (on top of everything else, fairy fruit had “always been connected with poetry and visions”), the magistrates of Dorimare moved to prohibit its sale, possession and use. “In vain they invented a legal fiction … that turned fairy fruit into a form of woven silk and, hence, contraband in Dorimare; in vain they fulminated against all smugglers and all men of depraved mind and filthy habits—silently, surely, the supply of fairy fruit continued to meet the demand.”
And then, one day, the respectable citizens of the capital city itself awoke in their beds to find the epidemic of fairy fruit-eating in their own backyards—or, to be more accurate, in the bedrooms and favorite gathering places of their adolescent children.
Lud-in-the-Mist was originally published in 1927, at a time when booze (or “spirits,” if you prefer the more refined term) was the fairy fruit of the moment. But the details of its story actually correspond much more closely to the details of our national experience with marijuana than to the details of our mercifully brief fling with the prohibition of potable alcohol. In fact, they correspond with an almost eerie exactness to the details of the marijuana story—from that story’s shadowy beginnings in the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to its climax in the 1970s when “pot” became the preferred pleasure drug of tens of millions of otherwise respectable, upstanding, law-abiding Americans.
Like fairy fruit, marijuana was once very highly esteemed. Under its original name, Cannabis sativa, “cultivated hemp”—the name by which it has always been (and properly ought still to be) known throughout the English speaking world—it was arguably the major agricultural product of the American colonies from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the Revolution at the end of the eighteenth. So important a product was hemp that the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted legislation in 1762 imposing penalties on anyone who did not cultivate it. It remained important for more than 150 years after the Revolution too—all the way into the late 1930s, when, in the year which saw passage of the first federal anti-marijuana law, there were still 10,000 U.S. acres under commercial cultivation in hemp.
Hemp was so important a crop because, like fairy fruit, it was useful for a number of purposes. The Dorimarites used fairy fruit as a religious sacrament and as a fertilizer; the American colonists used hemp as a source of fiber from which they could weave exceptionally long wearing cloth of whatever degree of fineness they desired, anything from burlap to fine linen, and from which they could twist rope of exceptional strength and durability. Most seventeenth and eighteenth century Americans wore clothing of hempen fabric all their lives long. The rope that rigged the ships that made possible their colonization—and the international trade that sustained it—was made from hemp, as was the rude cloth which covered the westward moving wagons of the first American pioneers.
And the descendants of those pioneers found even more uses for the versatile hemp plant. Nineteenth century Americans used hemp fiber to make cloth and rope as their ancestors had, but they also used it to make durable, long-lasting paper, most notably for bibles and for paper currency. They used hemp seed as feed for birds, having discovered that it contains various important nutrients and can improve both the plumage and the singing of many songbirds. They burned hempseed oil in their lamps and used it also to manufacture soap and furniture polish and quick-drying paints and wood stains. They even took what little remained of the plant’s stalk and branches after all the fiber had been extracted and used it for fishbait and, like fairy fruit, as fertilizer.
Most important of all, however, were the uses nineteenth century American physicians found for the leaves and flowering tops of the hemp plant—the parts which, today, after they have been dried and crumbled into a smoking mixture, we call “marijuana” (though they didn’t so much “find” a number of these new medical uses, really, as enthusiastically embrace them and follow them up, after others, notably in India and England, had “found” them). “The United States Pharmacopeia,” writes Edward Brecher in Licit and Illicit Drugs (Little, Brown, 1972), “which through the generations has maintained a highly selective listing of the country’s most widely accepted drugs, admitted marijuana as a recognized medicine in 1850 under the name Extractum Cannabis or Extract of Hemp, and listed it until 1942.” Among the disorders for which it was commonly recommended (and later prescribed) were “neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea, hysteria, mental depression, delirium tremens, insanity [!] and uterine hemorrhage.” (United States Dispensatory, 1851, pp. 310-311)
“To meet the substantial nineteenth—and early twentieth—century medical demand for marijuana,” writes Brecher (p.406), “fluid extracts were marketed by Parke-Davis, Squibb, Lilly, Burroughs Wellcome, and other leading firms, and were sold over the counter by drugstores at modest prices. Grimault and Sons actually marketed ready-made marijuana cigarettes for use as an asthma remedy.”
All this, of course, has long been forgotten—just as the truth about fairy fruit was forgotten in Dorimare. The Dorimarites had their ancient tapestries and painted ceilings and bas-reliefs to remind them of the lost glory of fairy fruit, yet they forgot. Americans have a plenitude of exactly similar reminders—in Kentucky, where hemp farming used to be the principal industry, there are public buildings decorated with stone carvings of marijuana leaves, and the Second National Bank in Lexington is decorated with a large hempfield mural behind the tellers’ cages—yet they too have forgotten.
And as in the case of fairy fruit, this collective amnesia first took hold of the populace during the heat of a patriotic campaign against the despised people of a neighboring country. For the pophlace of Dorimare, the neighboring country was Fairyland. For the populace of the United States, it was Mexico.
Look as one might through history, it is difficult to find a time when Mexicans were not personae non gratae in the United States. For nearly three decades after the Republic of Mexico became independent of Spanish rule in 1821, the U.S. government refused to recognize its existence—just as the magistrates of Dorimare refused to acknowledge the existence of Fairyland. At the midpoint in this period, circa 1836, the Americans helped engineer the “revolution” which created the Republic of Texas and cut the Republic of Mexico back to about two-thirds of its former size. At the end of the period, 1848-1851, they annexed the Republic of Texas and waged war on the Republic of Mexico to make possible the further annexation of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona. The Mexican War of 1846-1848 was the United States’s first war of imperial conquest—her first effort to mimic the foreign policy of the European nation-states to which she had always claimed to represent an alternative—and it was highly controversial even while it was fought. Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes to support it, and in his famous essay on “Civil Disobedience” (1849), disassociated himself with the U.S. government on account of it. “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?” he asked. “I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
The war cut Mexico in half, with the richer half, the half which included California, where gold had already been discovered and farmland was more plentiful and more productive than anywhere else in North America, going to the United States. Little wonder then that Mexico found it necessary only five years after the war had been settled to raise funds by “selling” another thirty thousand square miles of territory to the United States under the terms of the Gadsden Purchase. And little wonder that the Mexicans who lived, and in many cases had lived for generations in the North American Southwest, came within a matter of a few years to feel (or rather, to be made to feel) like outsiders, members of a despised minority, in what had been their own country. Norteamericanos flooded into the newly conquered territory—especially the “Mediterranean” sea-coast, gold-encrusted mountains, and fertile inland valleys of California—and quickly overwhelmed the comparatively meager numbers of the Mexicans. And thereafter, in states like California and Arizona and Colorado and Texas, words which denoted Mexicans, words like “spic” and “wetback” and “beaner,” were used only to express the profoundest contempt—just as, in Dorimare, “the greatest insult one Dorimarite could hurl at another was to call him ‘Son of a Fairy.’”
Among the alien customs which made the newly conquered Mexicans seem so contemptible (and which also tainted those of their countrymen who moved into the area from south of the new border during the next two decades to help the Chinese and the Irish do the manual labor of the United States’s feverish westward expansion) was marijuana smoking. But the people of the Southwest saw no need at first to pass laws restricting marijuana smoking itself. It was a disgusting and dangerous habit, of course, but it was confined to the despised Mexicans who were no longer, by comparison with their conquerors, very numerous, and whom no one of any breeding or self-respect ever associated with anyway. Moreover, some of the conquerors, those who had lived previously in Southern states like Kentucky, had encountered marijuana use before—among the black slaves who worked the hemp fields and who were occasionally seen taking breaks from their work, during which they loaded their pipes with dried flowering tops of the plants and smoked them—and these observers had some reason to believe that, revolting as it undeniably was, hemp smoking probably wasn’t really all that dangerous. The slaves had been doing it for years, hadn’t they? They even gave it to their children, some said. And it hadn’t done them any harm, had it?
In fact, they had been doing it in Africa for centuries, using marijuana as a religious sacrament, as an intoxicant, and as a folk medicine—just as, in Western society, we have traditionally used wine. Most commonly, the Africans smoked their hemp exactly as we do today (they are the inventors, in fact, of a device called the water pipe, which is still among the most popular instruments for smoking marijuana), though they also used it as an ingredient in foods and beverages just as the Hindus and Moslems had done before them. As slaves to the sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish and Portuguese invaders of the New World, the Africans introduced marijuana smoking to Brazil, Colombia and the Caribbean islands and raised it to a previously unknown popularity in Mexico, where it had been practiced by the Indians since the days (1480-1520) of the Aztec ruler Montezuma II, if not before.
There is some evidence of marijuana smoking from precolonial times among certain North American Indians of the Mississippi Valley as well, and some European-American pioneers doubtless first encountered the practice in their dealings with the Indians they found on the sites of their first settlements in the wilderness that was seventeenth century Ohio and Southern Illinois. But hemp smoking among Indians never provoked full scale political retaliation from the European-American colonists, just as hemp smoking among slaves never provoked it from the white Southerners who owned the Kentucky hemp plantations, and just as hemp smoking among Mexican-Americans didn’t provoke it from their more numerous “white” neighbors—at first. Indians, Negroes and Mexicans weren’t important enough to merit political action on their account. Not only were they inherently unimportant—inferior, little better than animals, really—but they were also unimportant numerically. They were too few to matter. As the respectable citizens of Dorimare ignored the vice of fairy fruit-eating while it was only “practised in low taverns by disreputable and insignificant people, such as indigo sailors and pigmy Norsemen,” so the respectable citizens of the United States ignored the vice of marijuana-smoking while it was only practiced in Indian villages and slaves’ quarters and barrios by disreputable and insignificant people, such as Indians and Negroes and Mexicans.
The problem was, the Negroes and the Mexicans wouldn’t stay insignificant. After the slaves were freed and it was no longer possible to control the movements of the Negroes, many of them began leaving the plantations and moving into the cities, taking their marijuana habits with them and also alarming their new neighbors by choosing to live close to one another and settling into neighborhoods in larger concentrations of their kind than most urban Americans had ever seen before. Mexicans, meanwhile, were coming in from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California to take the jobs the blacks had left behind in the rural areas of the South and the jobs the Chinese could no longer fill (after passage of the 1875 Federal prohibition of imported Chinese contract labor, which greatly discouraged further Chinese immigration, and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which ended it) in the West. And these Mexican newcomers brought the vice of marijuana smoking with them too. What was worse, the years that followed saw the administration of Porfirio Diaz (who, as the first of the many military dictators propped up by the U.S. government in Latin American countries, ruled Mexico almost continuously from 1876 to 1910) make life so unendurable for so many Mexicans that more and more of them with every passing year chose to enter the United States, bringing their marijuana with them.
With 1910 came the Mexican Revolution, a revolution which raged more or less continuously for most of the next ten years and left the surrounding countryside desolate and barely inhabitable: crops and buildings burned, animals slaughtered, dispossessed peasants left to wander without either means or prospects of survival. And still the land reform which the Revolution had promised was nowhere to be seen. “Reaction against the Revolution grew in the countryside,” write Paul R. Ehrlich, Loy Bilderback and Anne H. Ehrlich in The Golden Door: International Migration, Mexico, and The United States (Ballantine Books, 1979), “and many peones … began looking north for refuge and employment. This was the beginning of Mexican migration to the United States.” From 1911 through 1917,120,000 Mexicans entered this country. From 1917 to 1924, that number grew to more than 300,000.
And by 1924, of course, the Great Drought was upon us—the great drought called Prohibition. “It was a change in the laws rather than a change in the drug or in human nature,” writes Edward Brecher, “that stimulated the large-scale marketing of marijuana for recreational use in the United States. Not until the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act of 1920 raised the price of alcoholic beverages and made them less convenient to secure and inferior in quality did a substantial commercial trade in marijuana for recreational use spring up.
“Evidence for such a trade comes from New York City, where marijuana ‘tea pads’ were established about 1920. They resembled opium dens or speakeasies except that prices were very low; a man could get high for a quarter on marijuana smoked in the pad, or for even less if he bought the marijuana at the door and took it away to smoke. Most of the marijuana, it was said, was harvested from supplies growing wild on Staten Island or in New Jersey and other nearby states; marijuana and hashish imported from North Africa were more potent and cost more. These tea pads were tolerated by the city, much as alcohol speakeasies were tolerated. By the 1930s there were said to be 500 of them in New York City alone.” (p. 410)
In the Southern and Southwestern states, of course, where the black and Hispanic populations were even more numerous, marijuana use became even more common. And so it was that the first “epidemics” of marijuana smoking in the United States (and the first state laws prohibiting it) broke out during the 1920s in places like New Orleans and Austin and Denver—just as the first epidemics of fairy fruit-eating in Dorimare (and the first laws prohibiting it) broke out in the country districts along the border with Fairyland.
And as the magistrates of Dorimare moved against the fairy fruit menace by “inventing a legal fiction that turned fairy fruit into a form of woven silk and, hence, contraband in Dorimare,” so the legislators of the United States moved against the marijuana menace by inventing a legal fiction that turned marijuana into a narcotic drug and, hence, contraband in the United States. By the time the first federal anti-marijuana law was passed by Congress in 1937, 46 of the 48 states and the District of Columbia had already outlawed the “weed with roots in hell,” as it was called in a memorable mid-’30s media fear campaign. This campaign, one of the most important events in the history of marijuana in America, seems to have been strongly and directly influenced, if not actually launched and directed, by Harry J. Anslinger, the former Prohibition agent who in 1930 had become the first Commissioner of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
It has often been suggested that Anslinger’s enthusiasm for a federal law prohibiting marijuana use (an enthusiasm which first surfaced in 1932) was born of his desire to make sure he and his fellow former Prohibition agents would still be able to find work after Repeal came in 1933. It has been suggested that certain powerful figures in the newly-reestablished liquor industry worked behind the scenes for federal marijuana prohibition in order to eliminate competition from a rival drug which was rapidly growing in popularity; it is certain that the liquor industry testified on Capitol Hill in 1937 in support of the Marihuana Tax Act and otherwise lent its influence to the anti-marijuana movement. And while it is doubtless true that a spirit of bureaucratic self-preservation among Prohibition and narcotics agents and a spirit of monopolistic protectionism among liquor manufacturers were among the factors which led to national prohibition of marijuana, it seems clear from the record that the major factor was a widespread racist fear of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
No real effort was made at the time to conceal this fact. A group called the American Coalition, which advocated strict bars on Latin American immigration so that mixture with an “inferior race” would not lead the white American majority down the road to “race suicide,” was among the loudest and most enthusiastic of the handful of genuinely influential organizations which favored national marijuana prohibition in the ’30s. An American Coalition spokesman told the New York Times in 1935 that “marihuana, perhaps now the most insidious of our narcotics, is a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration.” Commissioner Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics took a very similar position in his 1937 testimony before Congress on the need for prohibition of the weed. In evidence he submitted a letter from the civic-minded editor of the Daily Courier in Alamosa, Colorado, a city which had lately been on the receiving end of a good deal of this “unrestricted Mexican immigration.” The editor solicited federal assistance in local efforts to stamp out marijuana abuse, which, he said, had become so menacing that it beggared his powers of description. “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish speaking residents,” he wrote. “That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish speaking persons, most of whom are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.” Harry Anslinger didn’t need to be shown, of course. He already knew about the degeneracy of Latin Americans. In a magazine article only a few years before, he had himself written about dope smugglers’ “vessels sailing from filthy Central American and West Indian ports, having the lowest scum of the earth as members of the crew,” and about how these crew members come ashore in this country bringing dangerous drugs and also “contaminating the people of the shores with whom they mingle with contagious and loathsome diseases.”
If it seems preposterous to us that Americans of less than half a century ago should have taken such claptrap seriously, we have only to reflect that scarcely twenty years before that, Professor Lewis Terman of Stanford University, whom Ehrlich, Bilderback and Ehrlich rightly describe as “one of the most eminent psychologists of the day,” had announced “that Mexicans were an inferior race, and that the inferiority was genetic and not correctable by education. Terman was upset by the reluctance of society to stop such people from breeding since their children would be ‘… uneducable beyond the merest rudiments of training. No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable citizens…’.” (The Golden Door, pp. 220-221)
Two decades later American society was still reluctant to impose forcible sterilization on the Mexicans, but relations hadn’t really warmed up; in fact, they’d deteriorated. The Great Depression made jobs scarce for everyone; and Mexicans who had flocked into cities like Tucson and San Diego to fill jobs no one else wanted suddenly found themselves a resented surplus in a market from which demand for labor of any kind seemed to have almost entirely disappeared. Americans who had only hated Mexicans in the ’teens and ’twenties decided in the ’thirties that their continued presence in this country could not be tolerated and that they must therefore be induced to “go back where they came from.”
There was no legal (much less constitutional) basis for a mass deportation, however; the desired exodus would have to be voluntary. Accordingly, the Americans passed laws paying the travel expenses to Mexico of any Mexicans who wanted to return there. Then they passed other laws designed to make the lives of the Mexicans here even more miserable. Chief among these latter laws were the new laws against marijuana smoking. Already impoverished and malnourished by months of unemployment, already fearful and abject from months of enduring the newly virulent hatred and occasional violence directed at them by the white majority, the Mexicans were now expected to endure police harassment and possible imprisonment for smoking marijuana—something which many of them had done for generations and which played the same role in their lives which coffee, tea, tobacco and alcoholic beverages played in the lives of their oppressors. Of course, they were always free to pack up and leave and go live with their own kind in some other country where their habits weren’t against the law of the land…
The strategy was a time-honored one. It had, in fact, been invoked more than a half-century earlier when the very first drug laws in American history were passed in San Francisco. By the late 1870s, the people of that city had begun to hate and fear the Chinese who seemed to become more numerous every day and who were widely believed to compete “unfairly” (that is to say, with too much success) for jobs with whites. To discourage further Chinese immigration to San Francisco and encourage those Chinese already there to consider moving elsewhere, the city simultaneously outlawed the carrying of baskets suspended from poles across the shoulders (which was how Chinese laundrymen transported dirty clothes), the wearing of pigtails by men, and the smoking of opium.
Could the 19th century San Franciscans (and their comrades in spirit throughout the rest of the country who joined anti-opium movements in the next two decades) have acted, not from bigotry, but from the conviction that opium was dangerous? No. Such a hypothesis runs into a number of difficulties, not the least of which is the fact that many of the early anti-opium laws in this country (including the Federal statutes of 1887 and 1890) prohibited the substance only for the Chinese, leaving it freely available to everyone else.
Similarly, there is little evidence to suggest that most Depression and World War II-era Americans really believed marijuana itself (as opposed to the Mexicans who smoked it) was dangerous. They were told that it was dangerous by the more sensational newspapers and magazines, but they were also told by other organizations, including ones as respectably influential as the American Medical Association, to disregard all this yellow journalism and relax—there was no marijuana menace. Moreover, they somehow found it possible to forget all the “reefer madness” nonsense entirely for a few years (1942-1945) when the Japanese occupation of the Philippines cut off the supplies of manila which the U.S. had been using instead of hemp to make rope—a vital war effort commodity. At this point, writes Pamela Lloyd in a recent issue of High Times, “… hemp became a strategic war crop, and the Department of Agriculture advised farmers in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky that by growing hemp they could ‘serve their country,’ ‘have good prospects of profit for themselves’ and avoid the draft as a fringe benefit. In fact, Fred E. Coulter of Grundy County, Iowa, said he made ‘more money than has ever been made before on an equal number of acres of land in Grundy County in one year’ when the government paid him nearly $20,000 for his 270-acre 1944 hemp crop.
“While a few years earlier the government had reviled marijuana as the ‘assassin of youth,’ it now encouraged 4-H clubs to grow the ‘demoralising dope.’ And in 1943 the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Extension Service obligingly published leaflet number 25, Hemp Seed Project for 4-H Clubs, encouraging youngsters to grow hemp and telling them how to do it. ‘Uncle Sam has asked Kentucky to produce … the hemp seed for the nation,’ it began. ‘Growing hemp gives 4-H Club members a real opportunity to serve their country during wartime. It requires a small amount of fertile land and little or no special machinery; labor requirements do not interfere with school work…. Grow at least half an acre; one to two acres would be better.’” (High Times, March 1980, p. 71)
These same years saw publication and wide discussion of two authoritative reports which debunked the “reefer madness” concept of marijuana: “The Marihuana Bugaboo” (1943) by Colonel J. M. Phalen, editor of the Military Surgeon, and The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York (1944), the famous LaGuardia committee report. Yet war’s end saw no change in public marijuana policy. The newly recreated hemp industry disappeared as fast as it had appeared, and prohibition continued.
Prohibition doesn’t work, however, either in Dorimare or in the United States. The prohibited substance, whether fairy fruit or marijuana, merely goes underground, onto the black market, where it goes right on finding new customers and winning new popularity until one day, perhaps, it re-emerges into the respectable, above-ground world, still an outlaw but also the latest fashion. A generation after the Great Drought, when the magistrates of Dorimare first placed a national ban on fairy fruit, the vice of fairy fruit-eating popped up again as the newest craze among the well brought up children (including even the mayor’s son) of the leading citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist—just as, a generation after the Great Depression, when the legislators of the United States first imposed a nationwide ban on marijuana, the vice of dope-smoking popped up again as the newest craze among the well brought up children (including more than a few mayors’ sons) of the leading citizens of virtually all the major cities in the U.S. In Dorimare, one of the worst outbreaks occurred at a fashionable school, Miss Primrose Crabapple’s Academy for young ladies, where an unscrupulous physician named Endymion Leer gave fairy fruit to the students and a good many of them forthwith ran away from home and headed West toward Fairyland and, presumably, a new way of life. In the United States, as we know, one of the worst outbreaks of the new epidemic of marijuana use occurred at a fashionable school, Harvard College by name, where an unscrupulous psychologist named Timothy Leary gave marijuana and LSD to the students and a good many of them forthwith left their homes and headed West toward California and a new way of life called the counterculture.
These flower children are now in their 30s, of course, and a great many of them are still smoking dope. Not a few of them have kids who are smoking dope, and many more have recently begun worrying about smoking in front of the kids and about how they’ll handle it when the kids want to start smoking. Meanwhile, as their generation has gradually, inexorably, come to hold a position of influence and leadership in society at large, their values have infiltrated society at large, and marijuana use has come from the depths of disrepute to the very threshold of respectability. One American in ten (in California, it’s one adult in four) is a regular user of the devil weed, which means that what used to be called “marihuana addicts” are now about as numerous as joggers, homosexuals, and the left-handed. One American in three has tried the stuff. And in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco it is now common to see it smoked publicly—especially in hotels, restaurants, theaters, and parks.
Yet it remains an illegal drug. Nearly half a million Americans learn this the hard way every year by “being busted” on marijuana charges. More than three million Americans have been busted for marijuana in the past seven years, nearly 90 percent of them for possession of an ounce or less. Not all three million went to jail, of course, but even the luckiest of them was subjected to the indignity and humiliation of arrest and arraignment, and to the cost—seldom less than $1,000—of hiring an attorney and arranging to qualify for “diversion” from the prison system to a tax-supported “drug rehabilitation” program. And some do go to prison. There are approximately 6,000 people incarcerated in federal institutions alone today for offenses involving marijuana and other illicit drugs. This is almost 25 percent of the total federal prison population. Among them are such prisoners as Jerry Mitchell of West Plains, Missouri, who was sentenced in 1975 at the age of nineteen to twelve years in the state penitentiary for the “crime” of selling $5 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop (the sentence was later reduced to seven years). The judge in his case commented about Mitchell—a college freshman with an excellent scholastic record and no previous record of trouble with the law—that “most crimes are one on one, one person robbing, killing or assaulting another… a pusher has the means to poison the whole community.”
Libertarians, of course, decry the injustice of cases like Mitchell’s—and the injustice of the laws that make them possible. But their calls for abolition of these laws are too often perfunctory and half-hearted, as though they can’t really summon much more than an academic or theoretical interest in the matter. “It’s true,” they seem to say, “that government has no right to regulate or prohibit any peaceable behavior, however deviant or personally debilitating it may be. People have a right to harm themselves, even destroy themselves. They have a right to be different. But the laws against marijuana only hurt a few people, the people who want to lead the particular lifestyle they prohibit. And in most cases, the laws don’t actually make this lifestyle unachievable for them, only more expensive. This doesn’t make it all right, of course; it’s all wrong. But it’s only common sense to worry about abolishing the marijuana laws after you’ve done what you can about the problems that hurt everybody—after you’ve cut taxes, deregulated business, trimmed the bloated “defense” establishment, and stopped inflation. Marijuana reform is just a lower priority issue, right?”
Wrong. Marijuana reform should be a very high priority issue for libertarians for precisely the reason that, like inflation, like souped-up “defense” spending and the risky, interventionist foreign policy adventures it subsidizes, like the stifling government regulations that keep the economy down by keeping small business down, and like the no-longer-bearable tax burden which now keeps us all working until early summer each year earning the tithe we owe our freely elected masters, prohibition of marijuana is a public policy which hurts everyone.
How? Let me count the ways. First, there’s the direct cost to the taxpayer of paying the salaries of all the cops and bureaucrats and lawyers and doctors and drug abuse counsellors who work full time at the business of harassing marijuana users, and the cost of housing and equipping all these people, and the cost of housing and feeding the marijuana users they decide to lock up in prisons for their “crimes.” The annual cost of this taxpayer-supported Marijuana Abuse Industrial Complex is variously estimated from around $600 million to more than $1 billion dollars. And aren’t we all looking for places to cut the budgets of our local, state and federal governments, so we can once again have enough after-tax income to live?
Then there are all the indirect costs which any government interference in market processes invariably imposes on all the buyers and sellers in the affected marketplace. Libertarians (and even conservatives) know all about these costs and talk about them incessantly when they discuss the depressing effect government regulation of business has on the economy, but they almost never bring them up in connection with marijuana. Are they unaware that marijuana is a business too? It’s quite a big one, in fact. According to the DEA, it’s the number one business of any kind in Colombia (where it passed coffee years ago) and in Hawaii (where it has also passed sugar, pineapple and coconut); the number one agricultural business in California (where it has only recently passed grapes); and, according to government figures, the number three business of any kind in the United States (right behind General Motors and Exxon, just ahead of Mobil, Texaco, Standard Oil of California, IBM, Gulf, General Electric and Chrysler). If government were trying to put Mobil or Texaco out of business, if it were using special herbicides and federally financed paramilitary outfits to burn and destroy the California grape crop or the Hawaii pineapple crop, you can bet there’d be plenty of outraged protest—and not only on the grounds that government was violating the civil liberties of the businessmen and farmers involved, either. In fact, it’s likely that the civil liberties-freedom of lifestyle argument wouldn’t even come up in such a context. The outraged protesters would be shouting instead that this insane attempt to put an entire industry out of business was going to put thousands upon thousands of people out of work and have a depressive effect on the entire economy, all because of somebody’s irrational prejudice. Where are such protesters among libertarian advocates of legal marijuana?
And all this only scratches the surface. Suppose that in addition to attempting the suppression of the grape trade, the government attempted also to stamp out the wineglass industry and the decanter industry? It is doing the equivalent today when it attempts to stamp out not only the marijuana industry but also the paraphernalia industry which thrives upon its success. The government estimates that manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers of bongs, water pipes, rolling papers, smoking stones, and roach clips did about half a billion dollars worth of business last year. The paraphernalia industry is now big enough that it has two competing trade magazines serving it, employs thousands of people, and provides the merchandise to stock more than 15,000 “head” shops all over the country. In the last year and a half, at least twelve state governments and hundreds of counties, cities and towns in 43 states have enacted laws designed to put these head shops, and the multi-million dollar business that supplies them, out of business. Most of the laws are patterned on a “Model Drug Paraphernalia Act” drafted last year and now being peddled by the DEA. Many of the local ordinances and statutes have been struck down as unconstitutionally vague in their definition of what constitutes paraphernalia. But a great many remain in effect. And new ones join them almost weekly. Yet where are the defenders of free enterprise to protest this bigoted holy war against an entire industry?
It is worth noting in this connection that those who are waging it do not mean for their war to stop with the destruction of the paraphernalia trade. One of the loudest and least euphemistic of its generals, Dr. Mitchell S. Rosenthal of the privately funded drug abuse treatment program Phoenix House, told the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control last November, “I do not believe we can guarantee press freedom to publications that proselytize for drugs.” Also testifying before the committee was a spokesperson for a DeKalb County, Georgia parents group called Families in Action who demanded a full, federal criminal investigation of High Times, the marijuana world’s largest and most influential magazine. In late May, a bill was still under consideration in the California legislature which would ban sale of High Times in the nation’s most populous state. Yet where are the defenders of freedom of the press, libertarian or otherwise, to decry this inevitable consequence of our marijuana prohibition?
But let us not leave our previous topic, of how that prohibition victimizes all of us through its economic consequences, until we have at least briefly considered the hypothetical benefits of a free market in hemp which it now denies us. As has been noted, hemp fiber was once extensively used as a raw material, especially for the manufacture of cloth and paper. This situation changed gradually over the course of the nineteenth century as the result of a series of major technological advances, the invention of the cotton gin and of other labor-saving cotton and wool machinery, the development of synthetic fibers, and the development of a chemical wood pulping process for papermakers being chief among them. None of these advances killed the hemp fiber industry entirely, mind you, but only reduced its share of the market. Certain other advances, including periodic improvements in the performance and efficiency of the machine hemp brake, which separated the fiber from the rest of the plant, even helped to keep hemp competitive—if somewhat lamely by comparison with the days when it had dominated the textile market. And a great many American hemp farmers were anticipating a massive new increase in demand for their produce as late as the mid-1930s because of the then-recent perfection of a machine-operated “hemp decorticator” which would make the plant much more competitive with wood as a source of fiber for paper. Paper companies in Minnesota and Illinois had already begun manufacture of hemp paper when nationwide prohibition of marijuana nipped their new growth spurt in the bud.
Today, almost half a century later, wood is even less competitive with hemp as a source of paper—or would be, if commercial cultivation of the hemp plant weren’t illegal. The unending forests which made wood so cheap and abundant a material a hundred years ago have largely disappeared. It can take 25 to 50 years or more for a new crop of trees to replace the ones you’ve cut down, and if you spend that 50 years continuously cutting down more trees, the day will inevitably come when you have to find another source of fiber or start paying higher prices for your wood. That time has now come. The paper industry can no longer find sufficient numbers of affordable trees to produce the pulp it needs to supply our nation’s insatiable and growing demand for paper. The industry is buying more and more pulp abroad, which is driving up the cost of paper but is still not meeting the demand. Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have complained publicly in the past few months that they are unable to find adequate supplies of newsprint to assure continued publication. And almost every other publisher has a similar story to tell. The biggest factor in the mammoth increases we have all noticed in the past decade in the retail prices of books, magazines, and newspapers is the skyrocketing cost and unsteady availability of paper.
What makes matters worse for the paper manufacturers is that further pressure is being put on the forest products industry by other large-scale users of wood, like the construction industry and the energy industry. And this competition for an already scarce (and growing scarcer) product drives prices up even more—in all three industries. According to the National Association of Homebuilders, wood prices have gone up so far that lumber now accounts for an unprecedented 15 percent of the total cost of building a new single family dwelling. And the new high cost of firewood, yet another consequence of the shrinking supply of and growing demand for trees, is wreaking the same kind of havoc in one small but significant sector of the energy industry which is being wrought in society at large by increasing oil prices. According to the Department of Energy, wood currently supplies about 2.5 percent of total U.S. energy consumption—about half what we get from nuclear power. Most of this is for home heating, but some is industrial: pulp and paper mills, for example, derive nearly 50 percent of their operating power from burning scrap wood. In theory, according to the DOE, wood could supply 10 percent of our national energy needs, if there were enough of it. There isn’t, however, because too many other people want it for too many other uses (and because it takes 25 to 50 years or more for a tree to grow back after you’ve cut it down, so that the faster we cut, the faster we run out). Even so, the demand for wood as fuel is growing. Scarce as it’s becoming, it looks good next to the fast-developing, government-exacerbated shortage of affordable oil.
That shortage, which has led to higher prices for gasoline, motor oil, diesel fuel, and a number of other products which everybody knows are made from petroleum, has also led to higher prices for such synthetic fibers as dacron, rayon, and polyester. They are also made from petroleum. The Los Angeles Times reported early in May that these higher prices for synthetics had led to a short-lived boom in cotton—a boom which had fizzled when the would-be investors had learned about the amount they’d have to spend on petroleum products, especially fuel for machines, and synthetic fertilizers and insecticides, in order to bring a cotton crop to harvest.
Hemp cultivation does not require such expenditures. Hemp will grow in more varied soils and climatic conditions than either cotton or trees. It provides a new, fully mature crop every few months. It provides as much fiber to paper manufacturers for every cultivated acre as four acres of woodland. It needs no synthetic fertilizers and may be harvested and prepared for use by fewer, more fuel-efficient machines than are required by cotton. If it is being raised for smoking as well as for fiber and seed, the use of synthetic pesticides to contain the few insects which bother it is specifically contra-indicated. Cloth woven from hemp fiber is nearly as durable as cotton and much less expensive. Paper made from hemp fiber is much more durable than wood pulp paper as well as being less expensive. If we used hemp in the manufacture of these products, we would not only pay less for our clothing and our linens and our books and magazines and newspapers, we would also have more wood available for use as fuel and as lumber, and more trees which could remain standing for the satisfaction of environmentalists. Moreover, we would free petroleum from certain of its present uses in the textile and agricultural industries to do more work where it is most needed—as a fuel for private and commercial vehicles and power generating equipment. Is marijuana prohibition, the public policy which forbids our doing any of this, a policy which hurts only a few potheads?
But the costs of pot prohibition are not only economic. They are medical as well. Marijuana has been proved useful as an analgesic for treatment of various kinds of pain, including the kinds associated with childbirth, menstrual cramps, and post-operative convalescence. It is also useful in the treatment of hypertension, depression, loss of appetite, convulsions, multiple sclerosis, and glaucoma, and it may be used to fight the nausea caused by chemotherapy treatment for cancer. In the past two years, nearly half of our state governments have enacted some modification in the law to permit use of marijuana in one or more of these medical contexts. But the federal government and most of the other states have refused to budge. Is the public policy which denies this helpful drug to the ill and suffering a public policy which hurts only a few potheads?
And let us not forget the costs which marijuana prohibition has imposed on our foreign policy. As we have seen, it has been bound up in foreign—especially immigration—policy since the beginning. And as the years have gone by, the binding has tightened, not loosened. It wasn’t long before U.S. efforts to stamp out the trade in hemp led to U.S. efforts to stamp out the cultivation of hemp in the countries which supplied it to the American market. Hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. foreign aid to Latin America over the past three decades have been contingent upon creation and enforcement of U.S.-style anti-marijuana laws in countries like Mexico, Panama, Cuba (under Batista), and Colombia. Some of this money has been used to arrest, jail and torture American citizens who go South for smuggling purposes—after all, why satisfy the Americans by arresting your own people for what they regard as a harmless vice, when you can satisfy the Americans by arresting their people instead? But not all of it has. The lion’s share of it has gone to build up the police powers of the military dictatorships and oppressive “democratic republics” which the U.S. has seen fit to establish all over Latin America as a “bulwark against communism.” And since the 1960s when media exposure forced CIA agents to stop training these butchers in the arts of torture and murder, DEA agents have taken over that job as well. (See Penny Lernoux, “Corrupting Colombia,” Inquiry, September 30, 1979.) If the U.S. is hated throughout the Third World as an imperialist warmonger and a hypocritical violator of human rights, it is in part the doing of our laws prohibiting marijuana and other “dangerous drugs.”
Repeal these laws we must, then—and the sooner the better. Yet, what’s that I hear? A plaintive voice wondering about all those stories that’ve been in the papers and on radio and T.V. lately reporting on the “new evidence” of health hazards and the spread of marijuana smoking to school kids? Isn’t it rather a singular omission to have devoted eight thousand words to discussing marijuana, as I just have, and never once to have raised the issue of whether a free market in hemp wouldn’t destroy the health of America’s youth?
Well, no, as a matter of fact, it isn’t. The fact is that the “health issue” is hardly worth discussing. It’s a phony, a red herring, from beginning to end. There is not now and never has been any reputable evidence to support the claim that marijuana use is harmful to the health. The regular inhalation of smoke from any burning substance is capable of causing various upper respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, but this problem is easily avoided by tens of millions of regular marijuana users in India and Asia Minor who eat the drug in cookies and sweetmeats instead of smoking it. No one has ever succeeded in establishing the likelihood of any other serious health problems resulting from marijuana use. And there have been many attempts. Contrary to the frequent assertion that “the evidence isn’t yet all in on marijuana, it hasn’t yet been studied enough to be given a clean bill of health,” the evidence is all in. We will doubtless learn more in the future about the effects of the hemp plant upon human users, but we know all we need to know right now to say that marijuana is one of the least toxic substances known to modern medicine.
“It is often said,” wrote Edward Brecher nearly a decade ago, “that little is known about the psychological and physical effects of marijuana on the human user. This is a simple error of fact. In addition to many hundreds of significant papers reporting marijuana research through the last century, an impressive series of official investigating bodies have reviewed all of the available evidence and have presented their findings at length.” Brecher lists as “the most important of these official marijuana investigation reports” the following five:
1) The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report of 1894, a 3,281-page, seven-volume document, prepared in India, where marijuana use has been for centuries what coffee drinking is in the U.S., by a British commission of seven—four Englishmen and three Indians, including one rajah. They studied marijuana users who had been using from childhood and found that “small doses of hemp were beneficial,” and that moderate use, “even if regular, had no significant injurious mental, physical or moral effect.” (Michael R. Aldrich, “A Brief Legal History of Marihuana,” Do It Now Foundation, 1971, p. 12) They concluded that “[t]otal prohibition of the cultivation of the hemp plant for narcotics, and of the manufacture, sale, or use of the drugs derived from it, is neither necessary nor expedient in consideration of their ascertained effects.” (Volume I, p. 264)
2) The Panama Canal Zone Military Investigations, conducted by the U.S. Army from 1916 to 1929 and reported in the Military Surgeon in 1933. According to Lester Grinspoon (inMarihuana Reconsidered, Harvard University Press, 1971), the Army found it was “not possible to demonstrate any evidence of mental or physical deterioration” in users.
3) The LaGuardia Committee Report of 1939-1944, prepared by eight physicians, a psychologist, and four New York City health officials, at the request of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who wanted to get to the bottom of “The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York” (as the Committee ultimately entitled its report). The LaGuardia Committee found that “those who have been smoking marihuana for a period of years showed no mental or physical deterioration which may be attributed to the drug.”
4) The Baroness Wooton Report of 1968 prepared by a special subcommittee of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence of the United Kingdom Home Office. As Brecher puts it, the report of the subcommittee “confirmed in all substantial respects the findings of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, the Panama Canal Zone investigations, and the LaGuardia Committee report.” (p. 452)
5) The Final Report of the Canadian Government’s LeDain Commission, published in 1972. The Commission found that the short-term physiological effects of marijuana smoking “are usually slight and apparently have little clinical significance,” and that in the long term, “[t]he individual and social harm (including the destruction of young lives and growing disrespect for law) caused by the present use of the criminal law to attempt to suppress cannabis far outweighs any potential for harm which cannabis could conceivably possess.” (Brecher, pp. 464-466)
Since Brecher wrote nearly a decade ago, three more such authoritative studies have been published: the 1972 final report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (the “Shafer Commission”), nine of whose thirteen members were personally appointed by then-President Richard Nixon; the 1975 report of the Research Institute for the Study of Man on its two-year study of Ganja in Jamaica (as the report was entitled), undertaken in 1970 with the sponsorship of the Center for Studies of Narcotic and Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health; and the 1980 Final Report of the privately funded, Washington-based Drug Abuse Council, which spent seven years researching (as it called its 291-page Final Report) The Facts About “Drug Abuse.”
The Shafer Commission found “that any risk of harm probably lay in the heavy, long-term use of the drug—although it lacked evidence even on this risk.” (The Facts About “Drug Abuse,”p. 162) The Research Institute for the Study of Man found that the state of physical health of a group of average Jamaican laborers who were heavy daily smokers of marijuana (and in most cases had been since childhood) was virtually indistinguishable from the state of physical health of a control group of non-marijuana users—and, further, that such a finding was routine for studies of its type:
Under the auspices of the University of Florida, a medical anthropological study of urban, working-class, chronic cannabis smokers has been carried out in Costa Rica. Again, as in Jamaica,…[n]o evidence of pathology could be found after extensive medical examination. The results of psychological and brain function tests indicated that “chronic marihuana use is not associated with permanent or irreversible impairment in higher brain functions or intelligence.” The Costa Rica project also included the examination of testosterone levels and immunology as related to cannabis use, areas of research not undertaken in the Jamaica study. No relationship between marihuana use and testosterone levels was found nor were there indications of impaired immunological response. Significantly, the study established that the use of cannabis did not impair the subject’s ability to function well at home or at work and no evidence was found to support the hypothesis that heavy cannabis use precipitates an “amotivational syndrome.” As in Jamaica, marihuana is utilized in Costa Rica to cope with the exigencies of daily life, not to withdraw from society. Another intensive study, clinical in orientation, was conducted by a multidisciplinary team at the University of Athens. The results of this research on Athenian workers confirm both the Costa Rican and Jamaican findings on all comparable variables.
The Drug Abuse Council found that “marijuana use in moderate amounts over a short term poses far less of a threat to an individual’s health than does indiscriminate use of alcohol and tobacco,” and went on to comment:
Millions of dollars have been invested by public and private sources to determine what effects marijuana might be having on the growing number of users; since 1972 the U.S. government alone has given over $25 million in grants for research on marijuana. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the federal watchdog agency on drug use and misuse, has issued six reports to Congress since 1971 summarizing the hundreds of research reports which have been published during that period. It is significant that research reports by NIDA have not concluded that marijuana poses a major public health hazard, though NIDA has specifically stated that it feels a duty to call public attention to certain potentially adverse consequences of its continued use. It is also significant that now NIDA is required to produce a marijuana report only every other year instead of annually, which indicates that extreme concern over marijuana use may be receding. [The Facts About “Drug Abuse,” p. 165]
Yet it is not receding everywhere at once, and in some places it is advancing. “A vociferous new anti-marijuana crusade,” Newsweek reported in January, “is forming up [sic] around the country, spurred by alarmed parent groups and drug authorities.” “During the last few years,” the New York Times reported in February, “hundreds of…antipot parents’ organizations have sprung up, unheralded, around the nation.” “The first nationwide network of parent groups opposed to drugs has been formed,” the Los Angeles Times reported in May, “…to inform and educate parents, adolescents and children and others about the dangers of marijuana and other mind altering drugs,” and to “fight efforts to remove criminal penalties for marijuana offenses.”
Why are all these parents up in arms? What has given rise to this new national movement? “At its core,” says Newsweek, “is a genuine concern, based on disturbing new findings.” “The recent and dramatic increase in public awareness of the ill effects of heavy smoking on children’s minds and bodies,” says the New York Times, “has added fuel to the anti-pot fire.” And the Los Angeles Times quotes “a spokesman for the National Institute on Drug Abuse” as declaring that parents are mobilizing because they “are quite convinced that marijuana is a harmful and unsafe drug and is particularly dangerous when used by children.”
And where are these “disturbing new findings” which prove “the ill effects of heavy smoking on children’s minds and bodies”? They are, say the parents’ groups, in the newest NIDA report on marijuana, which was published last year and widely publicized in January when its findings were presented before U.S. Senate hearings. Yet there is nothing new in this report (except, here and there, a new low in scientific method, as when U.S. Army doctors report that heavy marijuana users develop abnormal cells in their lungs, basing this conclusion on their study of a group of smokers, almost all of whom were also heavy cigarette smokers!). For the most part, the report merely rehearses the most recent medical findings and fairly bends over backward to avoid over-generalizing from them. “Throughout the drug institute’s report on human effects,” wrote the New York Times’s Harold M. Schmeck, Jr. on the occasion of its original publication, “the words ‘contradictory,’ ‘uncertain,’ ‘unevaluated,’ and ‘unconfirmed,’ run like a minor theme. ‘A continuing problem throughout the past decade has been the tendency to overinterpret preliminary research findings,’ said the report.” Schmeck himself cautioned against a related problem. “The very fact,” he wrote, “that a long list of possible effects of marijuana on the body can be drawn may distort public perception of the facts by implying that there is in fact damage to all these vital systems.” (New York Times, October 19,1979, emphasis added)
The new NIDA report does contain one new fact, however: the fact that the number of school-age daily marijuana smokers has doubled in the last five years. As we have seen, this is not in itself necessarily a cause for alarm—at least about the health of our children. (It might well be cause for alarm, on the other hand, about the state of a public school system whose charges find it tolerable only when they’re stoned.) As we have seen, lifelong heavy smokers of marijuana in India, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Greece have been found in varying studies conducted over the entire past century to exhibit no physical or mental pathologies which are not also exhibited by members of non-marijuana-using control groups and which may also be unequivocally attributed to marijuana use. There is nothing in the new NIDA report to cast these findings in any new doubt. One wonders if the New York Times didn’t hit the nail precisely (if inadvertently) on the head in February when it announced that “parents, whether or not they themselves have smoked pot, tend to react with anger and fear when their children start to show some of thetypical side effects of heavy smoking—the loss of interest in schoolwork, the changed emotional set toward life in general and toward the family in particular.” (emphasis added) One wonders whether the real issue here is marijuana at all, or instead a growing tendency on the part of American children (especially the children of more traditional, authoritarian parents) to reject their parents’ values.
Drug use is more often a symptom than a cause of rebellious attitudes, which is why harsher enforcement of laws against drugs only serves to reinforce rebellion and never succeeds in stamping it out. When Japanese officials imprisoned Paul McCartney for ten days early this year for bringing slightly less than half a pound of marijuana into their country (he was passing through customs after arriving for an extended Japanese concert tour) they touched off worldwide protest, especially among the young people who are supposedly the beneficiaries of Japan’s harsh anti-marijuana laws. To these young people, McCartney was a culture hero made a martyr to one of their causes. As Linda McCartney told the Los Angeles Times after Paul had been released from jail, had cancelled his tour and had returned to England, the Japanese “made a great fuss over such a little thing. My goodness, marijuana—it’s just something that grows out of the ground.”
So it is. And we should by rights be just as free to grow it and buy it and sell it and smoke it and do whatever we want with it as we are to grow and buy and sell and satisfy ourselves with anything else that grows out of the ground, be it corn or tobacco or grapes. But what are the prospects for abolishing marijuana prohibition?
In Dorimare, after the practice of fairy fruit-eating had invaded the younger generation of the governing classes and become a political cause celebre, events proceeded swiftly to a highly satisfactory, even utopian, conclusion: the wayward youngsters returned from their adventure in the West, formed a political alliance with the despised minorities who had used fairy fruit for generations (and with those of their parents who were young enough in spirit to be “brought ‘round” and influential enough to do something about it once brought), and simply won everyone else over by sheer power of persuasion and force of numbers until fairy fruit was once more universally acceptable in their country.
In the United States, as we have seen, the same sort of thing has been happening, but much more slowly and much less steadily—in fits and starts, to put it bluntly, and in such a way that at least six inches of ground is lost for every foot that is gained. Still, the overall direction is right, and progress is undeniable. The National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago reports that 34 percent of American adults now favor removing all criminal penalties from marijuana. Only 12 percent felt that way ten years ago. The Gallup organization reports that only a minority of Americans, 41 percent, still believe there ought to be criminal penalties of any kind for simple possession of marijuana. In California, where penalties for possession of small amounts have been reduced for the past four years, only 36 percent of the people favor returning to the earlier, harsher system. Forty-two percent of Californians now favor abolishing penalties for cultivation and sale as well. Only 13 percent of Californians felt that way a decade ago. (All California figures are from the Field Research Corporation.) In Maine, another experienced “decriminalization” state, 68 percent of the people favor keeping the present law or reducing penalties even further. And according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the removal of all criminal penalties for the private possession and use of marijuana has now been endorsed by the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association for Mental Health, the American Public Health Association, the National Education Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Council of Churches, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Consumers Union and such prominent conservatives of the sort you’d never expect to see coming out for “drug addiction” as James J. Kilpatrick, William F. Buckley, Jr., and even, would you believe it, Ann Landers and Art Linkletter.
Public opinion is one thing, of course; political action is another. And the future of successful marijuana activism, like the future of everything else, lies with the young. The young favor abolishing marijuana prohibition, make no mistake about that: 50 percent of college freshmen advocate exactly that according to Gallup; a University of Michigan study of the class of ’76 makes it 61.7 percent. But the young these days are, if not exactly apolitical, then very nearly that. The overwhelming majority of the baby boom babies who grew up to become the dope smoking flower children of the ’60s and the dope smoking “Me Decade” narcissists of the ’70s have never participated in an election or even registered to vote. They’ve been asked why, and they’ve replied that they’ve had nothing to vote for, that they’ve been effectively disenfranchised by both the Republicans and the Democrats—as, in fact, they have. Why else would the majority of those who have recently been registering to vote as Libertarians be 25-40 year olds who have never before registered to vote because there has never before been a genuinely viable, genuinely major third party to represent them?
Those of the baby boom generation for whom marijuana is a major, top priority political issue—which is to say, about half of the estimated ten million daily U.S. smokers and a few hundred thousand others from here and there—have been especially neglected by the Republicans and Democrats. Could this possibly account for the fact that a handful of Libertarian Party signature gatherers were able to sign up 1500 new registered Libertarians in less than two and a half days last fall—perhaps the largest number ever collected in one location over so short a period of time—at the NORML-and-High Times-sponsored Marijuana Reform Festival in downtown San Francisco? This event attracted statewide media coverage and more than 15,000 participants who paid $2.50 apiece to eat vegetarian fast food, browse exhibits, see classic films like Reefer Madness and Marijuana: Assassin of Youth, hear speakers like West Coast NORML Director Gordon Brownell and Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Ed Clark, and smoke an amazing quantity of marijuana right under the noses of uniformed officers of the San Francisco Police Department. (These latter doubtless figured, “What the hell: the looser the atmosphere, the more people will come, and the more people come, the more money the city takes in, since the whole thing is being held in an exhibit hall [Brooks Hall] which is owned and rented out by the city government.”)
A great many of those in the marijuana movement remain apolitical, of course. Many of the most politically-oriented of them are Yippies or others whose concept of political action to achieve legal marijuana goes no farther than playing “dirty tricks” on the “ruling class” and disrupting its operations, sowing disorder and chaos in their wake. But more and more of them are coming to realize that if they want in the near future to get rid of the laws which threaten their businesses, force them to pay outrageous prices for their favorite smoking mixture, and leave them open to systematic brutalization at the will of the legal system, they will have to do something besides sabotage the DEA by finding out its telephone company credit card numbers and running up its phone bills. More and more of them are looking to electoral politics as the answer, and realizing that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, neither the conservatives nor the liberals, has anything to offer them.
For years the politically active in the marijuana movement thought otherwise. They fancied that their best hope of achieving legitimacy lay in making an alliance with the liberals who had always defended the freedom to dissent, to deviate, to be different, to be a “non-conformist,” and who had, moreover (many of them), seen their own teenage children arrested and jailed for the “crime” of smoking dope. The child of this fancy was NORML, the marijuana reform lobby founded in 1970 by Keith Stroup and got off the ground through the financial largesse of Hugh Hefner. At the peak of its influence in Washington, circa 1977, NORML’s clout was considerable: in the spring of that year, for example, President Carter issued a major domestic policy statement on marijuana (reportedly written in large part by Stroup, at the request of the White House) in which he called for “removal of all criminal penalties for the private possession and use of marijuana.”
But those days are past. President Carter learned very quickly how unpopular marijuana still is in Washington, where it isn’t gaining in popularity nearly as fast as it is everywhere else in the country. After all, in Washington, a great many jobs depend on marijuana prohibition. Asking for the abolition of marijuana prohibition in Washington is like asking for the abolition of movies in Los Angeles. And it’s necessary for a President to have a good working relationship with the people in the other departments of government. How else can he accomplish anything? So nothing has come of the President’s bid for decriminalization. Within little more than a year of his first uttering it, in fact, President Jimmy had done a neat turn on his heel and begun vigorously defending the infamous Paraquat program, under which the U.S. State Department assisted Mexican troops in systematically poisoning the marijuana being grown in Mexico for use as smoking material by U.S. citizens (while incidentally training the Mexican soldiers in the sort of Vietnam-style anti-guerrilla tactics—such as massive defoliation—which they might need to put down any provincial uprisings touched off by the oppressive practices of their employer, the U.S.-backed Mexican government). NORML’s clout had obviously faded, and quickly.
Also, as the years passed and the President’s 1977 decriminalization call came to nothing and Paraquat forced marijuana smokers to give up Mexican hemp and spend three to five times the price for untainted Colombian, enthusiasm for NORML and for NORML’s whole gradualist, one-inch-every-ten-years style began waning among rank and file smokers. NORML began finding it more difficult to raise money, began closing regional offices. Rival organizations sprang up—CAMP (the Coalition for the Abolition of Marijuana Prohibition) in Atlanta, the American Harvest Committee in San Francisco—and took a more hard-core line. These new organizations weren’t interested in the taxed and regulated market in marijuana which NORML and various other marijuana liberals were always envisioning. Since Paraquat, it’s been increasingly difficult to sell potheads on the idea that they need government to insure that the marijuana they buy is what it claims to be and won’t be damaging to their health. And they’re almost all horrified by the prospect of marijuana being farmed and processed and packaged and sold the way cigarettes are today—which means they’re all horrified by the prospect of a licensed, regulated, taxed, government-dominated system of production and distribution of the kind the liberals have long since imposed on the tobacco industry and now want to impose on the marijuana industry. They just want the government out of their business and out of their lives.
And more and more of them, as has been noted, are discovering the Libertarian alternative—so many that High Times now considers a full-length interview with Ed Clark the sort of feature which would appeal to its readers, and has scheduled such a Clark interview for summer publication. High Times isn’t doing interviews with any of the other presidential candidates, and for obvious reasons. Carter has led them down the garden path before. Ronald Reagan calls marijuana “possibly the most dangerous drug in America” (a designation which, as LR’s Bill Birmingham has pointed out, would seem properly to belong to orange hair dye). John Anderson has scrupulously avoided ever making a public statement on the subject (and his campaign headquarters declines to comment). And Barry Commoner is still, according to the Citizens Party, undecided about the matter.lt would seem safe to assume, however, that Commoner will stop far short of full decriminalization, however “liberal” his ultimate position on pot may prove to be.
Only one serious, major candidate for President in this election year—only one candidate for President who will officially appear on the November ballot in 40 or more states, and will devote sufficient time and money to his campaign to make his presence in the election felt—is also unequivocally in favor of total marijuana decriminalization. That candidate is Ed Clark. Clark’s new campaign literature on the marijuana issue (available in June, 1980) makes short, effective work of all the arguments now being raised against marijuana decriminalization, and points out the many advantages such decriminalization would bring in its wake. The marijuana issue, as Clark’s literature makes clear, is an almost perfect issue for libertarians. Marijuana prohibition is a public policy which has, in the half century of its existence, violated the personal freedom of millions upon millions of Americans, and led directly to harmful and coercive interventions in our economy and in the internal affairs of other nations. Libertarians, who are justly famous for their advocacy of personal freedom, economic freedom, and a non-interventionist foreign policy, would seem uniquely qualified to expose the perniciousness of such a public policy and to specify the reasons for its abolition. Truly, as the legend on the American Harvest Committee’s fund-raising tee-shirt puts it, where marijuana is concerned, “freedom is the issue.”
LR executive editor Jeff Riggenbach is the author of the forthcoming book The Politics of Dope, which he is now completing under a grant from the Cato Institute for publication early next year.