It may not be on the top of your political agenda while choosing the right candidates to lead the future of Pennsylvania into the modern anti-prohibition age, but it’s a topic that’s gained a lot of momentum of late: legalized medical marijuana. Recently, quite a bit of controversy has brewed over the topic, especially in the recreational pot states of Colorado and Washington . . . and let’s not forget Pennsylvania and the slew of other states scurrying to draft their own medical marijuana bills. So why are states suddenly legalizing a drug that’s still federally illegal? The short political answer is money, but to really understand the plant, the culture, and the illegality behind it, we need to look at its origins in America.
Marijuana — more properly cannabis — has been around for as long as humans have recorded history. In fact, the name “cannabis” stems from Latin terms from which the English word “canvas” is derived. There are three different species of this flowering plant: Cannabis sativa, originating from China and India; Cannabis indica, originating from India and the Himalayas; and Cannabis ruderalis, originating from Eurasian regions such as Mongolia and Russia. While the exact points of origination are still hotly contested, cannabis in its different species and strains was cultivated and used by ancient cultures like the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, and Greeks in various practices, as medicines, and for cooking. They also made use of hemp, a tough, coarse fiber taken from the stalk of the cannabis plant and used to construct cordages, ropes, sails, tents, and fabrics woven into clothing.
Although the plant has existed for millennia, its many applications haven’t really changed much. Today, people are still smoking, eating, brewing, extracting, and breeding it, just as they had in ancient times. In the early recorded history of the American colonies, cannabis was brought over and introduced by the British, Dutch, Spanish, and French. After arriving in Colonial America, it took off, well, like a weed. Interestingly enough, our Founding Fathers were also some of the country’s founding tokers. George Washington owned a plantation and grew cannabis to harvest hemp and “blossoms” from his female plants. He apparently kept excellent notes in his diary fully detailing his seasonal growing cycles and plant maturities. Why wasn’t this mentioned in any of the history books I read in grade school? Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and even Benjamin Franklin were all flying high on life, liberty and the pursuit of lighting cannabis. So with this impressive collection of strong American leaders, founders, and visionaries, how did cannabis go from presidential pot to presidential not?
By the turn of the 20th century, America was addicted. Alcohol, morphine, cocaine, opium, and heroin were produced or imported and sold regularly across the country in the form of tonics, elixirs, and smokeables. Clubs, dens, and dives dotted the country’s largest cities and offered casual retreats for members of the high society and nouveau riche as well as the drugged-out destitute and impoverished. Tensions around the country were incensed in the years leading up to the Great War overseas and American nationalism contended with an increased sentiment of paranoia and xenophobia. The seeds were sown for trouble. Politicians in states like Texas exuded racism and promulgated fallacies against minorities, crediting immigrant Mexicans and African-Americans as the source of the country’s pot problem. Even the term “cannabis” was largely replaced by a favorably foreign-sounding “marijuana,” accentuating the plant’s malevolence and encouraged profiling and discrimination. Up until this point in American history, cannabis dodged any substantial regulatory bullets. During the mid to late 1800s the plant faced little opposition, apart from laws prohibiting the sale of medicinal preparations to minors and the insistence of “poison” labels on such concoctions. However, from 1914 onward, almost every state passed laws banning cannabis growth, trade, and use. This escalation of cannabis enforcement continued throughout the 1920s, and in 1930 the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), headed by one Harry J. Anslinger, set the tempo for a radically conservative metamorphosis of America’s mindset on cannabis.
Following the FBN’s formation, torrents of anti-cannabis propaganda sprung up around the country in circulars, articles, and films like Reefer Madness, all of which successfully stigmatized cannabis use, associating it with anything flagrantly malicious, from immorality to crimes. The unfounded claims were aimed at misleading frightened Americans about the exaggerated harmful effects of the plant. In 1932 the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act enhanced all state laws by uniformly illegalizing narcotics and cannabis. Garnering federal influence from his potent propagandistic targeting, Anslinger enabled the ratification of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which made the processing and distribution of cannabis illegal. However, it’s worth mentioning some early opposition to this political crackdown on cannabis.
Former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia was a staunch opponent of the 1937 Act and he proposed a commission to scientifically examine cannabis use and its potential medicinal benefits. Despite his best efforts in 1944, La Guardia couldn’t convince Anslinger or Congress to consider the commission’s five years of research — Anslinger discredited the findings entirely as rubbish. During the 1950s two more pieces of legislation, the Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, imposed extremely severe punishments for possession, including a minimum prison sentencing and fines exceeding thousands of dollars.
In spite of the profusion of stringent cannabis control, the turbulent 1960s heralded the advent of an age of youth, rebellion, and liberalism. Social and political distress and the unpopularity of the Vietnam War engendered a new counterculture of Americans starving for change. Students and minorities rioted for equality. Hippies (or “tree-huggers”) toured the country in droves spreading messages of peace, pot, and love. The music, movies, media, and fashion encompassed the emotive edicts of the young, while challenging the social indoctrination of the old. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was their outcry . . . and cannabis was their instrument of inspiration. Thousands of youngsters flocked to mellow, smoke-filled venues like Monterey and Woodstock and experimented with new psychedelics like LSD. But the unhinged displays of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” would only enable “Big Brother” to bolster the country’s immediate need for a reform in enforcement.
After the conclusion of a decade lost between the confusion of fires and flowers, Nixon began his “War on Drugs,” starting with the unveiling of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, followed closely by the organizing of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973. The Controlled Substance Act (CSA) placed all controlled substances into five “schedules” of enforcement and control based on accepted medical use and drug abuse criteria. Cannabis was defined as a Schedule I substance alongside drugs such as heroin, mescaline, methamphetamine, and LSD. The qualification of a Schedule I substance, as quoted directly from the DEA’s official website (www.justice.gov/dea/druginfo/ds.shtml):
“Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” [Emphasis added.]
It’s estimated that since the DEA’s founding in 1973 the US has expended over $1 trillion on the War on Drugs. It’s also estimated that there has been more cannabis grown, sold, and used across the US since 1973 than ever before. According to government research, over 25 million Americans smoke cannabis each year. A projected 9 out of 10 young adults will experiment by smoking it before graduating from high school. There have been mixed feelings and results over the years in trying to reform controversial pot laws that simply lack both the evidence and support to keep cannabis illegal. Decriminalization and medicinal laws protecting users have aided in reverting enforcements and rulings, but the federal law still stands it ground: pot is still a Schedule I drug and still illegal. So why should we consider legalizing it?
As I’ve mentioned in the introduction, the short answer is money. We’ve wasted and continue wasting valuable tax resources fighting another type of war that has proven ineffective in curbing drug use, but as long as we have a DEA and organizations like it, drugs must remain on the streets so these billion-dollar enterprises don’t lose business. What does it mean for the Pennsylvania taxpayer? Another ridiculous waste of taxes funding a national deficit we also can’t control. Colorado is already estimating that over $610 million in revenue will be generated by 2015. That’s $60 to $70 million in taxes for the fiscal year, and reports indicate that the state has collected well over $25 million in tax revenues this year alone. With the economy slouching across our state, just think of the tax money we’re missing out on by not changing the laws in PA. How much is it worth to Pennsylvanians to allow the illegal drug trafficking of this cash crop to continue?
A common view shared by opponents of cannabis legalization is that cannabis is a dangerous “gateway drug.” I’d like to offer some insight on the hackneyed gateway drug mythos. I would agree that pot can be a gateway drug, but would argue that prescription pills, alcohol, and cigarettes are much more dangerous and common entry points. You can’t walk down to your local convenience store and purchase a gram of your favorite cannabis, but you can surely purchase alcohol and cigarettes. While marijuana may be just as easily accessible through the right connections, it isn’t commercially available. If you can reach into your fridge for beer, into a drawer for smokes, or into your cupboard for pills, so can your children. Prescription pill abuse is on the rise. News stations are constantly airing stories of teens misusing, overdosing, and selling prescription drugs that are often prescribed to a parent or family member. A realistic “marijuana-is-a-gateway-drug” scenario is a teen dealing with a drug dealer who will more than likely entice the sale of one or more different drugs beyond pot.
Other factors bearing on why we should support legalized cannabis include the methods of storage, handling, and overall sterility of the street cannabis being sold; dangerous growing conditions, such as the use of pesticides and fungicides which alter the chemical properties of the plant (or coating the plant in harmful residues that are inhaled or consumed by users); dealers adulterating the plant with substances like PCP or “meth” to increase potency and profitability for the dealer; the distribution of cannabis to minors and the distribution of the plant at or around schools, school zones, and playgrounds; and, lastly, preventing medicinal users their indelible rights to medicine.
It’s doubtless that there are many more examples that we could marshal as valid reasons to change our laws, but I cannot emphasize enough that the availability of medicine to those who would benefit from it should not be denied. Currently, there is no safe system of distribution in place. In a safe, controlled environment, cannabis can be grown, tracked, sold, and taxed as a sterile and beneficial medicine . . . not peddled in dirty little bags, sold by seedy individuals, grown and laced with unknown substances by uncertified goons, and transported from God only knows where and in questionable sanitary conditions.
We need to get empirical and take some responsibility in order to protect our loved ones and ourselves. As long as we continue to maintain an unfavorable stance and a safe distance from the cannabis issue nothing will change. As Pennsylvania state legislators pursue further actions to legalize medicinal cannabis (as with Senate Bill 1182), where will you stand on the matter when it comes time to vote? It’s almost humorous to think that a little over a hundred years ago, you or I could be fined or imprisoned for drinking alcohol. Well, the same will be true about cannabis if we get pragmatic about the facts and end this modern Prohibition of pot.