Almost a century after the misguided, and thinly racist "war on drugs" was launched with cannabis a convenient scapegoat and the US its chief adversary, on November 2, Californians will hit the polls to vote on whether to start treating weed as just another adult recreational drug. The act would legalize the possession of an ounce (28g) of cannabis and the cultivation of a small number of plants for adults over 21, while handing authority to counties and cities to regulate commercial marijuana production and distribution.
Fourteen states in the US, including California, as well as the District of Columbia already allow cannabis use for medical reasons. If Proposition 19 is passed, it could perhaps be the sign of a further maturing society, and one which others may in the near future be interested in replicating elsewhere. Proponents of the bill say if they fail this time, they will return to the Californian ballot box in 2012 better organised and better funded.
The current illegal status of cannabis in most parts of today’s globalised world dates back to the first three decades of last century and is bizarrely linked to opiate use. The Harrison Narcotics Act became US federal law in 1914 and effectively prohibited opiates and cocaine; two drugs which until that point had been widely available in a variety of pseudo-medical concoctions without prescription from corner stores in places like San Francisco, London, Vienna and Sydney.
It was this peculiar everyday reality that led to the crime-fiction novelist Wilkie Collins becoming a full-blown opium addict, whilst famed psychotherapist Sigmund Freud for a time being in the 19th century, not only developed a personal fervor for cocaine but prescribed and suggested it as a sort of cure-all for all kinds of mental, and physical impairment and anguish. One can rest assured that, at the very least, behemoth-like pharmaceutical companies, which exist to this very day, made giant profits by providing the raw ingredients of synthesized opiates and coca to all sorts of quack products.
Individual US states then began to legislate against marijuana usually spurred on by a fear of wild-eyed Mexicans and Negroes corrupting whites and raping their women. In 1932, the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act came into existence and classified cannabis as a 'habit forming drug' akin to morphine. The legislation did not refer to any scientific evidence to back up this claim. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act came into being and essentially made possession of cannabis a federal crime following furious lobbying by Harry J Anslinger, the overzealous Commissioner of Narcotics until 1962.
Anslinger was fond of believing that "reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men," and that "marijuana leads to pacifism and Communist brainwashing!" The current US Attorney-General, Eric Holder, has promised to emulate Anslinger in the event of a 'Yes' vote on Proposition 19, vowing to "vigorously enforce" federal law against anyone carrying, growing or selling cannabis in California, or any other state.
Due to US pressure, international drug laws from the mid-1920s since ratified by the UN, continue to class cannabis with major opiods, and cocaine as a Schedule I "narcotic." In the US, federal laws continue to place cannabis as a substance more dangerous than cocaine. It’s a bracketing that flies in the face of all proven scientific knowledge since at least 1944 when the New York Academy of Medicine released its La Guardia Committee Report which demonstrated that there was no causal evidence to link cannabis to insanity; lowering physical and mental health; as a "gateway" drug to more dangerous drugs; or indeed, as a narcotic at all.
Such findings have regularly been reproduced by the scientific and medical community throughout the intervening decades despite continuing misinformation from governmental authorities. However, there still exists many who continue to point to claims that cannabis use, in and of itself, is conducive to creating addiction and adverse mental effects such as schizophrenia, and for those reasons needs to be prohibited.
These beliefs though need to be viewed through the prism of limited funding being provided by either governments, or other institutional organisations, to academics and laboratories engaged in cannabis research, on the basis of the "pathology theory" – namely preconceived notions that cannabis, and other drugs cause problems.
In mid-2010, Dr. Evan Wood - a world-leading HIV researcher and founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy - went on the record to assert that, "there is more funding from government bodies for researchers trying to link drugs to harms. For example, the cannabis psychosis link which I believe is very tenuous." For anyone with a passing interest in the scientific method, how can such ‘findings’ be trusted when the starting point is also the conclusion, and vice versa?
Furthermore, a 2004 Medical Cannabis Programs report written for the NSW Government states that there is very little evidence to show cannabis causes schizophrenia as "the treated incidence of schizophrenia did not obviously increase during the 1970s and 1980s when there was a substantial increase in cannabis use among young adults in Australia and North America." Plainly put, there has been millions upon millions of people who have used marijuana in recent decades in Australia and elsewhere, and they have not developed episodes of psychosis.
Unfortunately, it seems the main premise for prohibition continues to be: that one who indulges in substances that may potentially have a euphoric effect, is lacking in moral fibre and fast on a downward spiral to depravity and desperation. This is nothing more than The Fall regurgitated, with humanity – and all the behaviours and actions that term constitutes – lost to an illogical discourse on good and evil. Such talk has perfection as the ultimate human goal. What infantilism. What posturing.
The human has used cannabis as an intoxicant for thousands of years. Current evidence suggests since at least Neolithic times. Hemp and cannabis have a long history in China, India and parts of Central Asia, suggesting the plant is native to these regions. Pen-ts’ao Ching, the world’s oldest known book of pharmacopoeia and dated about 2000BC, lists that "the fruits (the flowering tops, including the seeds) of hemp ‘if taken in excess will produce hallucinations.'" In Europe, the famed Greek historian Herodotus noted of the Scythians, a nomadic Indo-European peoples, in the fifth century BC that they "take this seed of hemp… they throw it on the red hot-stones… and sends forth so much steam that no Greek vapour bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapour bath."
The popular use of cannabis in contemporary Western culture can be traced to cheap immigrant labour from Mexico in the southern US states at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In time, this diffused, by the 1920s, to an urban black population writhing to the hot jazz and swing of Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. A joint can sometimes still be referred to as a 'jazz cigarette' – a turn of phrase favoured by people in the 21st century who continue to wear berets and profess an enthusiasm for scatting.
In the 1940s and 50s, Beat writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg further popularized the smoking of cannabis, and soon its use carried a political cred for a young generation eager to "see some change, man" across Europe, the Americas and other western enclaves. Then came Bob Dylan, the Beatles, flower power, and Bob Marley.
Following the upheavals of the 60s, successive US presidents from Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, through to Ronald Reagan and his imaginary crack-babies, continually found an easy target in the shape of illicit drug users to lay the blame for widespread social problems linked to the offshoring of industrial jobs and involvement in imperial wars of conquest. For all of this, though, by the 1990s even American presidents were admitting to having "experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it. I didn't inhale and never tried it again."
Plenty of people do inhale, though, and they enjoy it too. Today in 2010, it could be said that cannabis is arguably the world’s most widely used recreational intoxicant. Its popularity may even outreach that of alcohol when one considers the traditional recognition of hash-hish in countries with cultural mores concerning alcohol use. It is a supreme irony that the unassuming cannabis plant has had its greatest success in a time period wherever more multiplying, complex and costly regulations have been instigated against it. Absurdly, the law has been the plant’s greatest fertilizer. The backers of Proposition 19 in California may be on to something.
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Image courtesy: Torben Bjorn Hansen (Creative Commons License)
Image courtesy: pavelEspitia (Creative Commons License)