Where there’s smoke there’s debate

In a scant two weeks people in Colorado will be able to legally purchase marijuana for recreational use — at least as far as that state’s laws are concerned. It still remains quite illegal under federal law — Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Few aspects of modern culture provide a more desultory crazy quilt of public policy than do the various state approaches to marijuana. They run the gamut from places that seek to have the substance wholly legalized to decriminalization for medicinal purposes as well as states that stick to well-established strident criminal penalties.

All of this goes to a point that Americans themselves have mixed feelings about the plant. Beginning in the middle of the 19th century state and local governments began to exhibit an awareness of marijuana, but this precursor to regulation tended toward moralizing statements of virtue and propriety, rather than empirically based public health and safety laws.

Only through a series of early 20th century acts did we arrive at the current federal prohibition of marijuana. Beginning with the 1925 International Opium Convention, the Uniform State Narcotic Act (1925-1930), the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1930) and finally the marijuana Tax of 1937 was the stage set for the modern era of regulation.

Perhaps more than any other person in U. S. history the drive to universally ban marijuana can be traced back to FBN director Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was almost single-minded in this pursuit. He was a master of scandalous propaganda; and this mastery was elevated to high art through his partnership with publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.

Where this partnership took its most insidious turn was the conflation of marijuana’s alleged evils with issues of race. Writing for Publisher Miriam Leslie’s now-defunct The American Magazine, Anslinger liked to recount tales form his “Gore Files.” A typical anecdote from the time read, “Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.”

What is indisputable is the blood-shed that has emanated from a vast underground economy of illegal narcotics. Pine Bluff stands as a leading example of this hyper-violent drug economy. This fact leads some to question whether decriminalization (or outright legalization) of marijuana would bring a concomitant drop in drug-related violence.

Others have argued that legalization would “spark” a meteoric rise in marijuana proliferation. Interestingly, a study by the United States Department of Health and Human Services finds that there has been no statistically significant change in self-reported use of marijuana in places where the drug laws have been loosened. Of course, in all those places (23 states) the drug still remains federally prohibited.

Adding further dimension to the debate DHS states, “Marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug (15.2 million past month users). In 2008, marijuana was used by 75.7 percent of current illicit drug users and was the only drug used by 57.3 percent of them. Illicit drugs other than marijuana were used by 8.6 million persons or 42.7 percent of illicit drug users aged 12 or older. Current use of other drugs but not marijuana was reported by 24.3 percent of illicit drug users, and 18.4 percent used both marijuana and other drugs.”

As places like Colorado move to change the national marijuana landscape, only time will tell whether the demon weed will take its place alongside alcohol, tobacco and caffeine; or whether it will bear out the Anslinger era tales of horror.