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November 20, 2011

Culpable Ignorance; How Bureaucratic Solidarity gave rise to a Policy Disaster

The US federal government began using the then-rare term, “marihuana” for cannabis in concert with FBN Director Harry Anslinger’s first hearings on his proposed Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Although his lurid claims implied an urgent need for such legislation and his assertion that its use by young people was increasing were supported by the Hearst Newspaper chain, they were not corroborated by other sources, nor were they supported by medical literature. The only AMA representative at the hearings complained that he had not been consulted in a timely manner, and characterized the proposed legislation as unnecessary and probably mistaken.

Nonetheless, Anslinger’s poorly drafted MTA (a clumsy attempt to replicate the transfer tax ploy behind the 1914 Harrison Act) was dutifully approved by a bored Congress on a voice vote later that year (the Congressmen were also told the AMA had endorsed the new law). However,"marijuana” use- youthful or otherwise- remained infreqent over the next thirty years (an interval that included World War Two and Korea). It wasn’t until the mid-Sixties that “marijuana” use by teens suddenly became a national phenomenon. Predictably, neither its vaguely defined pharmacology nor that sudden surge in popularity provoked much interest from the FBN, which, in any event, would soon be replaced by the alphabet soup of contesting agencies that emerged following Anslinger's forced retirement in 1962.

After Richard Nixon and John Mitchell salvaged marijuana prohibition with the CSA in 1969, a supportive claque of academic researchers began to thrive on NIDA funding. Its focus, naturally enough, was defense of the policy, and did not include any possible benefits to the "kids" who were using marijuana. Instead, their concomitant interest in both alcohol and cigarettes were quickly identified as a “Gateway" effect, thus reinforcing the need for pot prohibition and generating hundreds of futile studies attempting to demonstrate "causality" between cannabis and heroin addiction.

Some linkage between psychedelics and the emergent popularity of inhaled cannabis could have been inferred from the arrest of LSD guru Timothy Leary for minor possession at the Mexican border in 1965. He was soon sentenced to an amazing 30 years. Four years later, and even more amazingly, his appeal led the MTA to be overturned by the Supreme Court, the same institution that rescued Harrison with several uninformed rulings on “addiction” before 1920, and then reversed themselves in 1925. The 1969 ruling against the MTA posed a dire threat to the makeshift US drug policy because of its reliance on dissimilar transfer taxes (Harrison was actually regulation because it allowed prescriptive use of the targeted agents. However Schedule one, as written for John Mitchell’s CSA allowed no such option for “marijuana,” thus setting the stage for the numerous administrative appeals (as allowed by the law) that eventually convinced Judge Young to make his famous ruling. In an uncanny continuation of the herb’s unfortunate timing, Young would die shortly after being overruled by his DEA administrator (another Mitchell “gotcha”). It would thus take eight more years before Proposition 215 was passed by California voters; meanwhile, both the feds and the “reform movement” would remain mired in mutual ignorance while the criminal market for cannabis continued to thrive and its hippie customers continued to age.

In essence, during the forty years that John Michell's CSA has been the law of the land, the (illegal) use of cannabis has been evolving, both as an "edible" and in its more familiar inhaled form. The opportunity provided by Prop 215 to interview chronic users systematically and repeatedly has provided an unparalleled opportunity to gather data from a large sample of chronic users for whom the chance to become “legal” was important enough to undergo the risk, trouble, and expense of buying what have eventually evolved into one-year renewable licenses grudgingly recognized by state law enforcement on the basis of local rules formulated by loose affiliations of officials in each of California’s 58 counties. The fifteen year evolution of Proposition 215 has also been vigorously contested by federal agencies, thus providing a largely unexpected look at the arrogance, ignorance, and duplicity now rampant in American (and global) society. That a chance to assess how Americans have responded to 4 decades of rigorously enforced drug prohibition would play out against a panoply of worrisome national and global events driven by the same behavioral characteristics as those being palliated by cannabis users may provides an opportunity for the species to recognize (and deal with) some intrinsic flaws it seems to have been in denial about for untold millennia.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at November 20, 2011 06:07 PM