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Prohibition's Legacy: Medical Marijuana Patients Remain in Federal Limbo

By       Message Gershon Siegel     Permalink
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The Controlled Substances Act, passed by Congress during the Nixon-era, tossed cannabis, aka marijuana, into the same category as heroin. Assigned a "Schedule 1" rating, this group of opiates, psychedelics, depressants and stimulants were characterized as possessing "a high abuse potential without accepted medical use." So prevalent was the hysteria and misinformation -- surrounding cannabis in particular -- that the nation's legislators felt justified in ignoring the plant's millennia-old proven pharmacological value.

At the time of this legislation's creation in 1970, Congress believed it was bringing clarity to a Byzantine web of restrictions enacted over the course of a hundred years. Its motivation was to regulate the drug industry for the good and protection of the public. The cure, as it so often does, proved to be so much worse than the disease. Each year over 50 billion dollars of the nation's budget is devoted to fighting "the war on drugs." Millions and millions of cannabis users are officially considered outlaws and nearly half of the nation's two million imprisoned serving time because of drug enforcement policies. As with today's cannabis prohibition, the banning of alcohol in 1919 with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution created the same sets of societal pathologies.

Called the "Noble Experiment" by many of its sympathizers, the outlawing the manufacturing, sale, importation and exportation of intoxicating liquors was the culmination of a full century-long battle aimed at reducing drunkenness, insanity and crime. And as history shows, the Amendment's enactment had the exact opposite effect. With a stroke of the pen it made instant criminals of the majority of the population, it singlehandedly facilitated the rise of organized criminal syndicates and it greatly diminished respect for the law. In short, it was a disaster for the country and just 13 years later the Amendment was repealed in full. The federal government abandoned its alcohol-policing business, leaving the individual states to sort out the mess made by its attempt to dictate personal behavior.

  The lesson of Prohibition, however, was not learned at all and just five years later, with the passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Stamp Act, the federal government traded its hatred of "Demon Rum" for the hysterical fright of the "Devil's Killer Weed." All the government infrastructure and momentum that had been built up in the effort to control the public's alcohol consumption was now redirected toward cannabis use. The Marihuana Tax Stamp Act, part of which was found to be unconstitutional in 1969 by the Supreme Court (Leary that Leary> v. United States) initiated the federal outlaw status cannabis still bears today.

Until the time of cannabis's official US banning, there was a lot less controversy around this innocuous little weed that grows wild in both hemispheres. In fact, for 12 thousand years our ancestors intentionally cultivated cannabis because they knew it to be the most useful of plants on the planet. The earliest forms of rope, fabric and paper were made from hemp-derived cannabis. Its seed, which is 25% protein, was an important food source. Might an argument be made that the spread of civilization itself was cannabis-enabled? How far might humanity have roamed across the globe without cordage to bind its belongings, clothing to shield it from colder climes, sails to harness the winds and captains' charts on which to plot courses? The British colonies in America mandated that farmers grow it. Washington and Jefferson both did so all their lives by the ton and Franklin, clever businessman that he was, owned a mill that made hemp paper. It was a much loved and most useful plant.

Of course cannabis's practicality didn't stop with the simple spreading of civilization. As already mentioned above, humanity has, for many thousands of years, known it to be a tried and true medicinal. Its long-celebrated euphoric properties aside, it is now recognized that cannabis gives effective relief for a huge variety of maladies including but not limited to addiction, arthritis, appetite loss, nausea, cancer chemotherapy, AIDS Wasting Syndrome, nausea from cancer chemotherapy, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, depression, Parkinson's Disease, movement disorders, dystonia, asthma, brain injury/stroke, Crohn's Disease, ulcerative depression, mental illness, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure/hypertension, migraine, Nail Patella Syndrome, PTSD, schizophrenia and Tourette's Syndrome. And, believe it or not, there is mounting evidence that cannabis inhibits the growth of certain kinds of cancerous tumors!

Before its government ban, it was a main ingredient found in hundreds of cures proffered by the pharmaceutical industry. And in spite of federal interdiction, synthetic THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, has once again appeared on the patented medicine shelf. Sixteen states, including New Mexico, now have medical marijuana programs. Another 17 states are preparing, by legislation or public referendum, to create their own form of medical marijuana program or even legalize it altogether. In these tight economic times, more and more legislatures are recognizing the potential funding source from having their own state-based medical marijuana industry.

This apparent breakdown around marijuana's federal banishment has been making the US Justice Department, first under Bush and now under Obama, very nervous. Even as individual states attempt an end run around federal laws, Washington continues to prosecute those who traffic in marijuana, medical or otherwise. This has been especially true in places like California, Colorado and Montana where the Justice Department believes those states' medical cannabis production is too loosely regulated and far in excess for the registered patient population it serves. Interestingly, other states are modeling their programs after New Mexico's. The lack of federal busts in New Mexico, so far, indicates that the Justice Department may be willing to live with the Land of Enchantment's tighter restrictions. Currently, New Mexico has 23 grower/dispensaries and nearly 6,000 patients registered in its five-year-old program.

All of this might beg at least one question -- Since cannabis is so useful, both industrially and medicinally, why is the federal government so intent on its banning and vilification that it spends billions of our scarce tax dollars prosecuting and imprisoning those who use it? There are those who have claimed that certain influential businessmen secretly lobbied for cannabis's prohibition. Some have hypothesized that Randolph Hearst, who had extensive timber holdings, felt threatened by efforts to use hemp as a wood replacement in the newsprint industry. Others have pointed to Andrew Mellon who had invested heavily in the Du Pont family's new petrochemical synthetic fiber, nylon, which was in direct rope-manufacturing competition with hemp. Another rumor states that Standard Oil founder J.D. Rockefeller helped fund cannabis suppression when Henry Ford began experimenting with bio-fuel refined from hemp to run the Model-T. It's also conceivable that the pharmaceutical industry was lurking back stage at the Cannabis Control Follies, given the difficulty of patenting traditional herbal remedies.

Such conspiracy theories aside, is there a simpler underlying cause pushing the federal government's tragic attempts at banning pot? Could it be that the nation's Puritan roots are forever suffocating America's expressed love of liberty and freedom? Rather than any industrialist's fear of ruining his business model, might this 100-year federal war on cannabis be fueled by the fear of other people having too good a time?

Perhaps we are now a mature enough nation that we recognize once and for all that the controlling of personal behavior must fall to individual responsibility? And as with the failed policy of alcohol prohibition 80 years ago, might it also be time for the federal government to quit the cannabis policing business and let the individual states attempt to clean up its mess?  

 

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Gershon Siegel published and edited Sun Monthly in Santa Fe, New Mexico from 1995 through 2008. He still lives in the Santa Fe area and writes features for Santa Fe One Heart (santafeoneheart.com).

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