Cannabis is, and has been for nearly a century, a central figure in the American culture wars. It started that way with Henry J. Aslinger’s “Reefer Madness”, a nasty blend of racism, misinformation, and propaganda. It ramped up to full pitch with Nixon’s denial of science and willful decision to use it to vilify his opposition. It lurks behind Jeff “I thought the KKK was OK until I learned they smoke pot” Sessions’s plan to renew the abysmal failure known as “The War on Drugs,” which is actually his plan to defend the establishment behind the privatized prison industry.
Cannabis and hemp, its lower THC relative, have a history in the United States which goes back to the Colonial Era. For most of the past 400 years, it has been recognized as an incredibly versatile and beneficial crop, used in applications from rope to cloth to medicine. There were even times in American history where it was used to pay taxes and when farmers were fined for not growing it. Think about that for a moment: there was a time (Jamestown Colony, 1619) when the value of hemp was recognized as being so high, that the legislative body mandated each and every farmer grow it or risk being fined or even jailed. This favorable status of hemp in Virginia continued right up until our nation’s founding as the Virginia colony’s lawmakers paid bounties for its production for over two and a half centuries.
Cannabis was added to the official U.S. Pharmacopoeia (the standard government publication cataloging medicines for over-the-counter distribution) in 1850 as an ingredient that was effective in treating over two dozen afflictions including opiate addiction (it might just be me, but something about that sounds timely). This was the status quo for cannabis well into the 20th century.
Then came Aslinger and cannabis prohibition. Putting aside the mountains of evidence that prove cannabis to be an effective medical treatment, Aslinger chose to vilify a plant that had proven its value on these shores for centuries. There is another, more sinister, motive the nation’s first drug czar blended into his crusade and it can be seen in nearly every statute ever passed against one of the oldest plants in human history. The plant is almost always referred to in law books not as “cannabis,” but rather as “marijuana” (or the hilariously dated “marihuana”). This designation is not incidental. The plant was widely known by its proper name as a medical ingredient, but Aslinger, a man who referred to jazz musicians as “neither fish nor fowl,” chose the Spanish language colloquialism to stir racist feelings in support of his cause.
Racism also underlaid Nixon’s decision to continue prohibition. John Erlichman, his former domestic policy chief, admitted in a recent interview that Nixon began the “War on Drugs” (winner: Drugs) as a weapon against those he saw as his political enemies, hippies, and minorities. The statistics bear this out: Between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million arrests for marijuana; though the numbers show use between black and white people is roughly equivalent, blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession, indicating a clear racial bias.
Now, despite claims by Trump the Candidate alleging to value states’ rights and the benefits of at least medical cannabis, his appointee for attorney general (when he is not busy ducking and dodging legal issues concerning Russia) has rolled back regulations against privatized prisons, a stain on contemporary American culture and the primary beneficiaries of drug arrests. And, according to The Cannabist, he has sent an investigatory team to Colorado to examine the ins and outs of legalization. I, for one, will not spend a lot if time wondering what his conclusions will be.
The blatant and predatory nature of how those currently in power attack their opponents gives the supporters of cannabis a tremendous tactical advantage – there is no reasonable way that we can be surprised when Sessions & Co. start to pass laws bolstering their position against the progress that has been worked toward for decades and has begun to come to fruition here in the 2010s. That gives us the opportunity to mount our defense and to attack through the only appropriate method: the spread of accurate information in support of our friend Mary Jane and against the dirty games based on race, money, and politics that people like Sessions have been playing for nearly a century. The information is available. The ability to spread it is as easy as typing and posting it or having a conversation. Now is the time to prepare. Soon, it will be time to fight. After that will come the time to kick back, relax, and burn one in celebration of a nationwide victory.
Christopher Gallagher lives with his wife and their four dogs and two horses. Life is pretty darn good. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.