Weed & Us

Marijuana is a sensitive subject in Texas... Photo Courtesy: Raquel Baranow
Marijuana is a sensitive subject in Texas… Photo Courtesy: Raquel Baranow

By Chris Sick

More than 70 years ago, legendary New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wrote that he was “glad that the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana [sic] have been found to be exaggerated.”

These words appear in the forward to the final report of what was known as the LaGuardia Committee, assembled by the mayor to respond to then-rampant fears that marijuana use was epidemic in New York City, even among schoolaged children. The mayor nonetheless promised to continue enforcement of  existing prohibitions against marijuana, unless and until further evidence might justify amending the law.

While Mayor LaGuardia’s reaction was restrained, the full and final conclusions of the committee’s report went significantly further. The committee found that smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction “in the medical sense of the word,” marijuana contributed to neither juvenile delinquency nor major crime, and marijuana did not serve as a gateway drug leading to use of heroin or cocaine. Instead, it found that the consensus among users was that marijuana “creates a definite feeling of adequacy.”

Harry Anslinger, first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, precursor to today’s Drug Enforcement Agency, found the report unconvincing. Despite the involvement of the prestigious New York Academy of Medicine, Anslinger disregarded the report as unscientific. Instead, he preferred to blame “hemp intoxication” for crimes ranging from violent gang rapes to gruesome mass murders, and claimed that the effects of marijuana were so unpredictable they could drive a man to murderous rage.

Anslinger’s stories of “drug-crazed youth gone wild” often fit in neatly with other contemporaneous narratives – that of white victims and black criminals. In a pro-drug reform public service announcement published in 2006, Common Sense Drug Policy quotes Anslinger’s thoughts on “the devil weed” to the effect that “…reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men… the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

As FBN commissioner, Anslinger kept a detailed dossier of jazz and swing musicians, and ordered federal agents to survey them in preparation for mass arrests across the nation.

If Anslinger’s tall tales of drug-crazed youth committing horrific crimes sound depressingly familiar, it’s exactly because they are. The tactics used to scare young people away from drugs haven’t significantly advanced much since Anslinger’s days, through the infamous “Brain on Drugs” and “Just Say No”  campaigns of the 80s and 90s to today’s prohibitionist arguments against marijuana and other drugs almost always have relied on more heat than light. These tactics were epitomized in the 1936 cautionary film Tell Your Children, which follows a reefer addict whose vices drive him to murder and rape.

Tell Your Children was so hilariously over the top that soon after it was released, midnight moviemaker Dwain Esper saw the comedic potential, spliced in a few shots of scantily-clad models and released Reefer Madness. The cult classic exploitation movie has enjoyed a long run, cracking up stoned teenagers and adults with its fantastical depiction of out-of-control reefer maniacs engaged in rape and murder soundtracked to up-tempo jazz.

But the same basic myths of the alarmist prohibitionists get new life breathed into them every few years. Ever heard the horror story of the strung-out meth addict microwaving his baby to death? The myth first appears in the 1995 Michael Mann film Heat and just recently was recycled in HBO’s True Detective. But it turns out the stories are primarily about mentally-ill parents accidentally or intentionally using microwaves as murder weapons, and have little if anything to do with substance abuse.

Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor at Columbia University, details how myths about drug use shape public policy for the worse. His research uncovered a 1914 New York Times article titled Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace insisted cocaine use among Southern African-Americans was  driving them to murderous rage while rendering them immune to bullets. In addition to homicidal rages and super-heroic-like invincibility, cocaine apparently improved their marksmanship, making them even more dangerous killers.

The mythology of cocaine-crazed black men roaming the countryside in search of white women to ravage was enough to overcome Southern states’ rights arguments against increased federal oversight, and helped justify the passage of the Harrison Act. The act, more formally called the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, was passed in late 1914, and was an early example of nationwide anti-drug legislation and regulation. Hart points to “expert” testimony before Congress that helped justify the law with findings such as “most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.”

Much like Anslinger’s anti-marijuana hysteria, such statements might seem positively quaint a hundred or so years on. We can all shake our heads at old-timey racism and hysteria and then pat ourselves on the back for our modern progressiveness and enlightened attitudes, content times have changed. Marijuana legalization is sweeping the nation and support for legalization has grown by 10 points in just three years. But these changes might not represent a bright new day for American drug policy so much as a shuffling of the deck that allows the worst excesses to continue unabated.

The War on Drugs, like most all-American things, is a complex tangle of half-truths, outright lies, and dangerous misconceptions, all of which work together for the profit of a select few and the suffering of a vast majority. In the 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared the “War,” the federal government has spent an estimated $1 trillion on enforcement. That astounding figure is matched by the amount Americans spent on illicit drugs in just one decade, according to a report by the RAND Corporation. Americans spend about $100 billion a year on illegal drugs, totaling $1 trillion between 2000 and 2010 alone.

Funding both sides of the drug war means all the wrong people can profit from it. The massive growth in the prison population has turned for-profit prisons into a booming industry. The Correction Corporation of America, the largest private prison corporation, reported 500 percent growth in revenues over the last 20 years. The corporation offered to buy out and manage 48 states’ public prison systems, promising cost-savings and efficiency gains. The fine print of the offer included an occupancy requirement demanding that states provide enough convicts to keep the prisons 90% full, regardless of the crime rate.

Big corporations aren’t the only ones to profit, urban police forces and small municipalities alike have figured out how to make money off the Drug War, seizing cash, vehicles, and even homes for offenses as minor as the sale of $40 worth of weed. Civil asset forfeiture has given even the smallest police force the ability to go into the pocket of virtually anyone, threaten them with felony charges and leverage that into forfeiture of cash and property, all without ever trying to get a guilty verdict.

Certainly the authors of these laws had good intentions, and earnestly hoped to give law enforcement greater powers to combat the illegal drug trade. But the on-the-ground reality isn’t a story of drug kingpins getting taken down and their fortunes funneled back into the fight. Rather its people – primarily people of color – with few resources to fight back when they get pulled up and told they can fight a felony charge or sign over their car.

The wave of legalization of both medical and recreational marijuana, with four states making recreational use legal for adults and six states primed to introduce similar measures in 2016, gives reformers hope for change. In the face of such advances towards legalization, all of the old tropes form the Anslinger and Reefer Madness days seem to be finding new life.

The recently-elected attorney general of Colorado has stated that she believes legalization isn’t worth the costs, insisting that legal sellers are exceeding legal limits while black market activity continues unabated. Of course, there’s little evidence of this, and after a year of legal marijuana sales the state has brought a $700 million market out into the open, generating more than $70 million in taxes and an additional $10 million in licensing fees. Crime and auto accidents – that which critics claimed would skyrocket – have remained notably low.

Despite these seeming successes, Colorado’s democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, has recently stated that if he could have “waved a wand” and overruled voters last November, he gladly would’ve. His objections are not based on new science or recent developments, but rather the complications of being among the first states to legalize recreational drug use. And the legalization has not been without difficulty. Emergency room visits and a handful of deaths have been tied to use, thanks mostly to users misunderstanding the potency of edible candies and baked good suffused with THC, the psychotropic element in marijuana. Despite these issues, public support for legalization remains high, new regulations have emerged to address unforeseen issues, and use among teens appears to be falling.

The great danger of legalization is not from some hidden crime wave, “hemp-intoxication” motivated gang rapes, or stoned drivers causing massive pile-ups, but rather from redefining drugs, and the Drug War, to not include marijuana. Sundering the two concepts only will serve to help insulate those with the most political capital from the worst excesses of the Drug War. Making weed safe and legal for users nationwide likely will cut down on horror stories of no-knock police raids at dawn that result in dead family dogs or maimed children. But it won’t provide much relief for those most victimized by irrational policies.

To get at sensible drug policy, we need to have a better sense of the realities and effects of drugs. David Nutt, a distinguished British psychiatrist and scientist, was dismissed for stating his view that horseracing is more dangerous to riders than MDMA and ecstasy are to users. He later published a study that found alcohol to be as or more harmful than heroin and cocaine, and argued that the UK should reevaluate its classification system for dangerous drugs.

This sort of realistic view of the harms posed by drugs is sorely needed in our national discourse. And we need to be honest. There are risks to drug use, from addiction to adverse effect on brain development. There are many considerations that need to be weighed, both when crafting sensible drug policy and for individual users.

But the moral and informational vacuum within which our current national discourse about drugs and drug policy occurs is deeply and lethally flawed. We have seemingly the worst of all worlds, funding both sides of the Drug War, incarcerating citizens at record rates, fostering a violent black market trade, and even withholding lifesaving medication and treatments from those most at risk based on deeply flawed  moral reasoning.

We’ve come a long way since the days of Anslinger, moving slowly towards a better understanding of the real risks drug use and abuse presents, while moving away from the most offensive stereotypes and panicked alarmism. But we not infrequently truck in those discredited tropes and reactionary moralism when discussing harder drugs, which have greater documented rates of addiction, and require treatment as medical issues and policy solutions from a public health perspective. Our president and his attorney  general have said as much, even as their government continues to spend tens of millions a year on drug enforcement and significantly more on incarceration of drug offenders.

NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton recently made headlines for attributing the city’s winter spike in shootings and murders to the pot trade. Inadvertently, he was making a fine argument for legalization, tying the illicit drug trade directly to increasing violence, even as he did his best to channel the broken moralism of the long-dead Anslinger.

We’ve known the truth about marijuana for more than 70 years and we’re re-learning it again and again, nationwide. The greatest tragedy of the most American tragedy of the War on Drugs would be if we stopped learning there.