originally published November 28, 2013
When we last left our heroes (our heroes being those plucky little cannabis plants that were allegedly tugging at the tablecloth upon which the fine china of our fragile society was laid), things weren’t looking good. It was 1937, and the American government had come up with a complicated taxation-punishment strategy that didn’t technically make marijuana illegal, but came close enough.
Where once the plant had been offered up by the medical world for various therapeutic uses, now it was contraband, the stuff of pure evil. It lured young people into a Satanic spiral, driving them to unprovoked violent acts, inspiring unrestrained jazz-orgies and turning upstanding citizens into paranoid, sex-crazed rape-o-trons.
Along with the demonized wicked weed, the legitimate hemp industry was also kicked in the legislative nads by the Marihuana Tax Act. Back then, no one knew about THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes jam bands sound better than they actually are. All we knew was that cannabis was a drug, and since hemp and cannabis share the same fingerprints, it was all deemed to be bad.
People like to shoo away conspiracy theories, but there was no question that William Randolph Hearst was pumping as much bogus fear-mongering as he could fit into his empire of news-rags. Whether it was because he feared the newly-invented decorticator would make hemp-based paper cheap to manufacture and thus threaten his massive timber investments (which it totally would have), or whether he was truly afraid of the drug’s effects on society, that’s up to you to decide.
The USDA even supported the manufacture of hemp paper over regular tree paper in a 1916 report. But by 1937, the US government had rendered the argument moo.
By 1952, the government was beginning to realize that there was still a contingent of the population with the audacity to get stoned and listen to Miles Davis invent the west coast jazz sound. They retaliated against these savage bastards with the Boggs Act, and later the Narcotics Control Act of 1956. Now being caught with half a joint would net you a mandatory sentence of two to ten years, along with a fine up to $20,000. Even if it was your first offense.
This was the first time the legal system had introduced the concept of mandatory sentencing into the world of American justice. It didn’t happen for murder, for arson, or for beating up your ex with a tire iron – no, it was pot smokers they were after. This was the state of the American legal system as the country entered the decade that elbowed marijuana use much closer to the mainstream.
Then along came Dick Nixon. Nixon, whose leadership in that ‘other’ war wasn’t going over so well with young people, decided to launch the War on Drugs in 1971. He pooled together the anti-drug agencies and formed a single super-agency: the D.E.A. The government reached the zenith of its ludicrousness in 1975 when the Supreme Court ruled that it was hunky-dory for someone in Ohio to get 20 years in the can for possessing or selling marijuana. Twenty years. It’s ironic that the people were smoking the stuff but it was the government who was neck-wrinklingly paranoid in formulating their ridiculous policies.
California was unsurprisingly one of the first states to shift its weight off the panic button and instill a bit of reason into their laws. In 1977, the penalty for possession was demoted to a citable misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $100. If you have over an ounce you’d be looking at up to $500 and six months in jail – a far cry from the mandatory minimum 2-10 years. After this went into effect, California saw its annual spending on marijuana enforcement (which was as high as $100 million) dip by 74%. Common sense prevailed.
Robert Randall sued the US government in 1978 because he’d been arrested for smoking marijuana to treat his glaucoma. Instead of getting tossed aside in a fit of bureaucratic laughter, his claim was treated seriously. A farm was set up at the University of Mississippi to grow enough pot to send 300 joints a month to Randall. It was a tough program to squeeze into, but it was the first recognition by the US government that perhaps this wicked scourge might have some medical benefit after all. George H.W. Bush killed the program in 1992 (because AIDS patients wanted in), but to this day there are seven people who still receive shipments of government-sanctioned doobies every month.
On one hand, the government was lightening up as mandatory minimums for cannabis possession were dropped in 1970, and states like Alaska, Oregon and New York pushed the crime out of the felony arena. On the other, a number of tactics were taken to convince young people that they should stay clean. The government could no longer blatantly lie and tell us we’ll start foaming from the mouth and trying to eat our friends’ pinkie fingers if we take a puff, so they tried to appeal to our love of slogans: “Just say no”, “Winners don’t use drugs”, “Hey, check out this fried egg… it’s drugs, you know.”
We now have two states – Colorado and Washington – that have outright legalized recreational marijuana use. This seems to be the direction we’re headed in this enlightened age, though we haven’t arrived here with anything resembling ease. There’s a website that tracks how much the US has spent on the War on Drugs this year. As of this writing, we’re up over $37 billion in 2013. I don’t know how many schools or how much subsidized health care this number could cover, but I’m guessing it’d be a lot.
Almost 750,000 Americans were arrested last year for marijuana crimes, and 88% of those were pinched for possession. One non-profit organization claims that the country could rake in $46.7 billion if marijuana was legalized and taxed similar to alcohol or tobacco. Add that number to the $37 billion+ that we’d be saving on enforcement, and the country could pave its streets with gold.
Well, not all the streets, and besides, that would be a pretty stupid thing to do, given that gold is quite a soft and malleable metal. But you see my point. Marijuana was regulated because it could make you woozy, it was demonized because doing so was profitable, and it remained on the dark side of American judicial policy because… well, just because it was already there.
Nice to see those clouds are finally parting a little.