Controversy of Cannabis
Weed, pot, herb, or any other number of various names are all terms for one of the world’s most controversial plants known as cannabis. Throughout much of humanity’s history cannabis has served an important purpose as medicine, an agricultural product, and a catalyst for mediation and relaxation. The widespread illegality of cannabis is a fairly recent phenomenon, occurring in the United States only within the last century. Today in the United States, approximately 740,000 people are arrested annually on marijuana-related charges. The overwhelming majority - about 87 percent - of those arrested were only charged with possession of the drug. The federal government’s war on marijuana has become a failure by its exponential flooding of the prison system with non-violent offenders, and by its limited successes in preventing the production and sale of marijuana. Despite propaganda and long held biases countless scientific studies have concluded that marijuana use poses few adverse side effects, especially when compared to America’s two favorite drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Marijuana use is not linked to violent or confrontational behavior in its users. Its legal counterpart, alcohol, however is involved in a majority of domestic abuse and violent assault cases. A problem arises then when adults are denied access to a safer substitute drug that holds both medical and recreational value. Marijuana use is a personal health issue, and its illegality has left its scar on the lives of those users misfortunate enough to be charged as criminals. Marijuana charges produce an abundance of negative byproducts that follow the convicted throughout their lives. Individuals arrested for marijuana related crimes can be disqualified from a variety of jobs and special opportunities, such as federal financial aid. The convicted face difficulties achieving equality in society in the same way Virginia Woolf faced challenges in obtaining an education as a woman. Social mobility is made more difficult not because being a woman or using marijuana is intrinsically evil, but because those in power look down upon it with disfavor. In recent years the subject of cannabis use has become increasingly less taboo. Successful and famous people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and America’s three last presidents have all admitted to using marijuana. The question that remains then is should the fate of an American’s future be subject to whether or not they are arrested under a law that constricts the individual’s right to personal freedoms. The only practical way to put an end to marijuana prohibition laws and the negative consequences they produce is to create a market for the regulated production, sale, and consumption of marijuana.
Throughout much of the United States’ history there were no laws governing the control and possession of marijuana. In fact marijuana was an extremely important agricultural crop. The cannabis plant comes in several different forms. While there are varieties that produce the THC coated buds of the drug, cannabis can also be grown as hemp. Hemp is a durable and extremely versatile fiber producing variety of the plant. It contains minuscule amounts of the psychoactive compound THC, and can be used to produce a vast amount of industrial products. Hemp had been used throughout the world for centuries, and there was even a law passed in the early Jamestown colony requiring farmers to grow the plant. It was not until the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed when anti-marijuana sentiments began growing in American government and society. A popular theory explaining marijuana criminalization blames powerful corporate lobbies of the time. It is believed that large industrial corporations lobbied to place restrictions on cannabis in order to hurt their competitors in the hemp industry. The versatility of hemp combined with new developing technologies put the plant in a position to eliminate large scale reliance on lumber, cotton, and other cash crops.
Opponents of cannabis took cues from the yellow journalism of the day to promote their interests. Propaganda, like the film Reefer Madness, was designed to horrify Americans. Parents became convinced that if their children were to ingest marijuana they would commit heinous acts and society would crumble. Campaigns of slander were successful in forming public opinion and led marijuana to be associated with drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Anti-marijuana propaganda played into bigoted American sentiments against blacks and immigrants. Minorities were depicted as becoming violent and confrontational after consuming the drug, which posed great danger for established white bourgeois society. Marijuana became a drug for addicts seeking pleasure, “Pleasure, which is a dirty word in a Christian culture. Pleasure is Satan’s word” (Charters 378). Exaggerated claims against cannabis mustered enough support to finally outlaw the drug and its industrial counterpart.
Branches of Oppression
Once disguised as an issue of morality and public safety, marijuana criminalization went on to oppress far more groups than just the hemp industry. More ridiculous and prejudicial reasons, absent of scientific proof, were constructed to support marijuana criminalization and oppress undesirable groups in society.
In the 1960’s tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union flared as the two nations waged a cold war. Those in government wishing to keep cannabis illegal cited the fact that it made people complacent and clouded judgment, because of this marijuana use would allow the Soviets to surpass us. Yet hypocritically two decades earlier marijuana was criminalized due to the aggressiveness, not passiveness, it caused in its users. The continued illegality of marijuana provided those in government with a powerful tool for suppression. The sixties were a turbulent time in the United States. Civil rights movements and antiwar protests sprang up all over the country. Mass numbers of people utilized their freedom of speech to talk about issues important to them, even when certain individuals in government preferred they would not. Regardless of the issue being protested a majority of activists around this time tended to be alternative thinking youth who were no strangers to drug use. It was extremely more likely to find marijuana users in an antiwar protest group than it would be in mainstream American society. Government officials and law enforcement picked up on this. Marijuana laws were used when possible to make arrests and disband protests without directly breaching activists’ first amendment rights. Protestors could have been following the examples set forth by organizers, such as Allen Ginsberg, on conducting a nonviolent spectacle, but all law enforcement needed to begin dismantling a protest movement was signs of drug use. Telltale signs like bloodshot eyes, a pungent skunky smell, and slurred reaction time made marijuana smokers easy prey for riot police. This loophole made it feasible for law enforcement to arrest protestors as criminals in possession of illegal narcotics as opposed to students speaking out against the war in Vietnam. It was not just what the sixties counterculture stood against that made government powers despise them, but it was also what the counterculture itself stood for. The differently thinking drug crazed youth demonstrated values totally contrary to that of American capitalist society. A common scene found in counterculture gatherings is summed up by one resident of the 1967 Summer of Love “I have no money, no possessions… . We take care of each other. There’s always something to buy beans and rice for the group, and someone always sees that I get grass or acid… .” (Charters 300). For a capitalist government engaged in a war against communism the notations of counterculture living and drug use appeared to be suspiciously socialist.
In addition to suppressing movements that have conflicted with government policy, marijuana laws have historically been used against minorities. Marijuana usage rates among blacks and whites are about equal, however blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana related crimes. In areas that have adopted aggressive policing tactics, such as New York City Police Department’s Stop-and-Frisk program, cannabis using minorities face an exponentially higher risk of arrest. The bureaucracy of police departments and opportunities concerning promotions prevent many law enforcement officials from speaking out against marijuana laws. In the 2007 documentary The Union: The Business Behind Getting High former Seattle chief of police Norm Stamper provides a view on marijuana from a law enforcement perspective claiming,
“From beat cop to police chief, I saw ample evidence of the harm caused by alcohol and the absence of evidence caused by marijuana use. And I mean the complete absence. I cannot recall a single case in which marijuana contributed to domestic violence, crimes of theft and the like.” (The Union)
Marijuana’s inherent lack of contribution to violent crime shines light on the nature of marijuana laws. If marijuana does not promote violence then the laws governing its use and criminality are not intended to protect society, but rather punish users. Marijuana laws then are effectively a tool that can be used to make arrests and suppress certain groups when law enforcement deems necessary. The disparity between black and white marijuana convictions in the United States is a testament to the biased nature of these laws.
The oppression of minorities, activist groups, and recreational users are all truly injustices, but the wickedest side of criminalization lies in its persecution of medical marijuana patients. Suffering patients rely on medical marijuana to alleviate the pain of a variety of illnesses, and praise cannabis for its lack of harmful side effects. The federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug leaves the issue of medical marijuana in the hands of individual states. Even in states that have passed medical marijuana legislation there still exists a variety of problems. Patients cannot legally take their medicine with them when travelling to states with alternate medical marijuana laws. Even in states friendly towards medical cannabis, patients and dispensaries always face the underlying threat of federal prosecution. The disparity of medical marijuana laws that exists within states is great. Some states, such as California, have lenient restrictions and possess regulated distribution networks. Other states, like New Jersey, have legalized medical marijuana, but it is virtually impossible to acquire within the state and no system for its production or distribution exists. Groups advocating medical marijuana patients’ rights are consistently met with opposition. Jesse Stout, who served as executive director of the RIPAC (Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition), played a large part in implementing medical marijuana legislation in the state of Rhode Island. He claimed a large part of his opposition took the form of anti-drug lobbyists, law enforcement agencies, and the federal government. Even when medical legislation was achieved the battle was not won. When I questioned Jesse as to whether or not there was additional opposition to the establishment of distribution laws and regulations he responded,
“Yes, after we passed our 2006 law temporarily allowing medical marijuana possession, we passed a separate 2007 law making that permanent, and then a separate 2009 law allowing access through licensed non-profit dispensaries called compassion centers; we first proposed this distribution component in our original 2006 legislation but it was removed, and again in 2008 but we were unsuccessful that year.”
Rhode Island’s, and many similar states’, road to passing medical legislation required years of bureaucracy to actually establish a system that could facilitate medical marijuana production and distribution. Actions taken by the federal government and lobbyist groups to oppose these laws only prolonged the suffering of medical marijuana patients.
Planting the Seeds of Solution
In order to eliminate the negative effects of marijuana illegality the laws punishing cannabis users must be abolished. Solely removing penalties for marijuana possession and use, known as decriminalization, will not achieve full social justice however. Decriminalization is a strange concept because it states that it is legal to own something, but illegal to produce it. While users will not face the threat of arrest, as a result of the black market they will still be exposed to a dangerous criminal element and an unregulated substance. Full scale legalization presents the most effective and practical solution for society and the government. Under legalization cannabis production, sale, and consumption would all be regulated by the law. This entails users having full knowledge of the composition of their drug, the government collecting tax revenue from the sale of cannabis, and an increased difficulty in underage acquisition of marijuana. Large scale production of cannabis also means that medical marijuana patients would have access to a cheaper, protected, and steadier supply of medicine. Legalization protects the future livelihood of American students, professionals, and citizens by establishing the precedent that marijuana use will not prohibit an individual from obtaining certain positions within society.
The main obstacle facing marijuana legalization in the United States takes the form of the different factions profiting from marijuana’s illegality. Law enforcement agencies, drug cartels, the prison-industrial complex, the alcohol industry, and pharmaceutical companies would all experience a massive financial setback if cannabis were to be legalized. The revenue marijuana’s opponents earn gives them enormous influence over legislators. These industries, especially the prison-industrial complex, are able to fund a continuous cycle of marijuana illegality at the expense of cannabis users. They have the superior resources and the history of marijuana criminalization on their side. Legalization will be made possible only when voters and politicians begin looking at marijuana laws considering their thick description. Americans will need to decide whether all of the negative aspects of marijuana in our country, such as a large prison population and adolescent use, are the result of the drug itself, or rather the result of the laws governing its use.
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