HomeNewsAnalysisMarijuana Laws Aren't About Marijuana

Marijuana Laws Aren’t About Marijuana

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Marijuana is a hot topic. In Georgia, medical marijuana use was legalized last year; now, Sen. Harold Jones of Augusta has proposed a measure to reduce penalties for ordinary possession. (See Scott Hudson’s Jan, 12 article in this publication.)

But why has marijuana attracted so much attention? Why did medical use require new laws, when much stronger drugs are available with prescriptions?

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Marijuana is often called a “gateway drug,” but the cause and effect is complicated. Every person addicted to meth probably started out smoking marijuana, but most marijuana smokers do not become meth addicts. Your local friendly liquor store sells substances that will affect your health faster than marijuana will.

Marijuana laced with other ingredients to make it stronger (such as PCP) is very dangerous – but the law draws no such distinctions, yet many jurisdictions impose or used to impose serious penalties for marijuana possession.

This was not a purely American phenomenon. In the army of Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, the possession penalty was death. I mention Villa because he has quite a connection with us. Originally an ally of the United States, he took revenge when we dumped him by crossing the border and shooting up the town of Columbus, N.M., in 1916. This led to a year-long American invasion to capture Villa, which failed miserably.

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 But in America, with its long devotion to freedom, the restrictions on marijuana looks a bit out of place. In the late 19th century, drug distribution was almost unregulated. Heroin was legally marketed – for morphine addiction! Heroin does cure morphine addiction, by the way. The number of heroin addicts at the turn of the century was enormous. Cocaine was even used in a popular soft drink.

The harsh laws were not terribly successful. Attempts to regulate alcohol consumption (more about that in a moment) led to the growth of a gangster-dominated trade, eventually dominated by the Mafia and some intrepid businessmen, such as Joseph Kennedy, the father of a future president.

The drug laws would eventually lead to similar results, causing gang warfare, especially in poorer areas, and the growth of powerful cartels in Colombia and Mexico, whose activities and violence spill over into the United States. The Mafia itself became heavily involved in the drug trade. Legal sanctions might drive a few middle class dealers out of business, but the cartels have hardly been slowed down. Nor is there much evidence that harsh laws slow down either sales or consumption.

So what happened? The answer lies in changes taking place about a century ago.

In many ways, the country was becoming more conservative after World War I. President Warren Harding, elected in 1920, promised a “return to normalcy.” Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, even more typified conservatism. On the extreme right, the Ku Klux Klan surged to unprecedented levels. The 19th Amendment and the Volstead Act (1919-1920) forbade the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Many progressives supported the restrictions on alcohol, but for the most part this reflected a nation mostly returning to a conservative perspective – quite a contrast to the “Roaring Twenties” with its emphasis on personal liberation. As usual, America was a study in contrasts.

That brings us to the changing attitude toward drugs. Regulating marijuana was not new, but even the founding head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, had long maintained that marijuana was relatively harmless. That was while he was head of the Prohibition office in the Treasury, a job that became obsolete with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

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Anslinger built an anti-marijuana campaign with effective use of the media while rejecting most of the scientific evidence. He was not alone. The film Reefer Madness portrayed violence and other misbehavior stemming from marijuana consumption, similar to the stories Anslinger had collected. Anslinger’s influence was immense; he ran the FBN from 1930 until 1962.

Anslinger had a huge trump card: J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI and its predecessor from 1924, too, had no interest in getting involved in the drug enforcement business. Given Hoover’s enormous power and administrative skills, it might have gone badly for Anslinger had Hoover thought differently.

But Anslinger’s success hardly explains why almost 60 years after his death we are still debating marijuana laws. We have to ask why he was able to succeed.

It is because marijuana became connected to lifestyles. There was the libertine behavior of the 1920s that conservatives throughout the country opposed. Then, there were the frequent allegations that marijuana led white women to consort with Black men (recall that the 1920s were the heyday of the Klan).

Later on, marijuana was seen as part of the “hippie” lifestyle. Can we forget Bill Clinton’s claim in 1992 that he tried marijuana but never inhaled? What’s interesting is not his claim – although it would dog him for the rest of his life – but that he was expected to address the issue at all. Ultimately, marijuana laws are about many things, but they are not really about marijuana.

Hubert van Tuyll is an occasional contributor of news analysis for The Augusta Press. Reach him at [email protected]

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