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October 25, 2009

Pot Prohibition’s Ultimate Absurdity

On several occasions, this blog has asked the same rhetorical question: how could a policy as ludicrous and destructive as marijuana prohibition have been endorsed by the whole world? The answer turns out to be critically important, embarrassing, and even more absurd than the policy itself.

In 1937, the “reefer madness” fantasy of a single uneducated bureaucrat named Harry Jacob Anslinger, with a big assist from the Hearst Newspaper chain, became the basis of a deceptive tax law that had the net effect of subjecting all the products of the hemp plant to criminal prohibition. The excuse used to justify that legislative sleight-of-hand was both highly imaginative and totally bereft of pharmacological validation, even by the comparatively primitive standards of 1937. Most notably missing was any clinical research on the effects of either inhaled or orally ingested cannabis on humans; nor were there any economic or demographic data on the use of what was then a legal product listed in the US Pharmacopeia.

The subsequent history of the Marijuana Tax Act and the drug war it eventually gave rise to is that neither was ever subjected to any more official scrutiny than the MTA received in 1937. Thus, billions of words of empty rhetoric, millions of felony arrests, and thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of avoidable deaths are traceable to Anslinger's imagination and Hearst's propaganda, as they have been interpreted and enforced by the US Federal Government over the next seventy two years.

Following passage of the MTA in 1937, several states were persuaded to pass matching legislation, most notably in the South, where excessive penalties for illegal drug possession became legendary, especially in the case of minorities. Nevertheless, overall "marijuana" arrests remained so infrequent that no statistics were kept, a situation that persisted beyond Anslinger's retirement in the early Sixties, just after JFK's election. He was next appointed the first UN High Commissioner of "Narcotics," a position from which he promoted the Single Convention Treaty, which, upon ratification, had the effect of making his deceptive MTA, still bereft of clinical and pharmacological support, the basis of a policy binding on all UN member nations.

But the travesty didn't end there; indeed, the worst was yet to come: the election of Richard Nixon, a calamitous event, inspired at least partially by adult fears provoked by a youthful, cannabis-influenced Counterculture.

In the mid Sixties, what had started as a flurry of interest provoked by a literary genre critical of US culture and publicly extolling use of marijuana and several new psychedelic agents, resonated enough with the first Baby Boomers to encourage many of them to try marijuana. In 1965, Timothy Leary, an associate of many Beat authors, was arrested for marijuana possession at the Mexican Border and sentenced to 30 years in prison, a verdict that was finally overturned by the Supreme Court, which declared the MTA unconstitutional; not for lack of scientific validity, but because it required self-incrimination. The almost immediate response of the Nixon Administration and Congress was the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, essentially rolling all existing drug prohibitions into a single omnibus package; still without benefit of any research that would support its multiple erroneous assertions.

Even as the CSA was setting the stage for what would soon become infamous as the War on Drugs, a long overdue and non-binding review of 1972 evidence, by a committee Nixon himself had appointed, reported that cannabis possessed enough therapeutic potential to be decriminalized so as to permit appropriate medical studies. Once again, fate intervened when Nixon personally buried their report immediately after its release in March,1972, an event hardly noticed (and never protested) by the same "mainstream" press that would hound him from office two years later.

The MTA's lack of justification is now painfully obvious; Anslinger's faith in the power of arrest to "control" illegal drugs was never really tested until after the explosion in drug use that characterized the youthful Counterculture. By that time, so much political capital and administrative infrastructure had been invested in the belief that prohibition is a viable policy that admitting its failure is the last thing those responsible for it are likely to do without considerable external pressure.

One thing that might help get the ball rolling would be if the Gang of Four were to be challenged to modify their positions by a few well-known citizens with impeccable reputations for integrity.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at October 25, 2009 05:00 PM