History goes up in smoke

Last week, neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta set off a firestorm with his reversal on the use of marijuana. After decades of siding with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s contention that marijuana has, “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse,” Gupta now holds a different view.

On CNN.com Gupta writes, “They (the DEA) didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications.”

Gupta’s position mirrors a growing consensus inn the American public that marijuana may have both therapeutic benefits and lower potential for abuse than many other legal substances. While this observation is a far cry from an endorsement of unfettered legalization, it merits further discussion — especially in light of efforts by medical marijuana supporters to change the legal status of the plant here in Arkansas, where such a bill failed by the narrowest of margins in 2012.

Writing for American Scientist, Roger Gable, emeritus professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, states: “Heroin and methamphetamine are the most addictive… . Cocaine, pentobarbital… nicotine and alcohol are next, followed by marijuana and possibly caffeine. Some hallucinogens — notably LSD, mescaline and psilocybin — have little or no potential for creating dependence.”

Many other recent studies lead researchers to concur. As such, the argument that marijuana’s abusive potential makes it too dangerous seems to be strongly undercut. Assuming Gable is correct, if we are to base social policy on abusive potential alone, then LSD should be legal and nicotine not.

Following the logic of the DEA, we should continue to ban marijuana based on its lack of an accepted medical use. If this logic were extended, all treatments that are ostensibly palliative (they soothe pains but don’t cure anything) might similarly be banned. In this we’d say goodbye to aspirin, Pepto Bismol and other such substances.

How and why was marijuana banned in the first place? The “Devil Weed’s” journey from Mexican herb to “the assassin of youth” rests largely at the feet of one man and some powerful corporate interests. That man was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. His own words suffice to demonstrate his motivation: “Reefer makes (black people) think they’re as good as white men… the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effects on the degenerate races.”

Anslinger’s moralized racism proved to be a convenient shill for the combined forces of DuPont Chemical and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. According to Jack Herer, a researcher interested in the history of hemp, the Marijuana Tax Act, which passed in 1937, “coincidentally occurred” just as the decoricator machine was invented. With this invention, hemp would have been able to take over competing industries almost instantaneously.

Hearst owned hundreds of thousands of forested acres — land better suited for conventional pulp. Competition from hemp would have easily driven the Hearst paper-manufacturing company out of business and lowered the value of his land.

At this same time, DuPont had just patented a new sulfuric acid process for producing wood-pulp paper. As Herer observes, “According to the company’s own records, wood-pulp products ultimately accounted for more than 80 percent of all DuPont’s railroad car loadings for the next 50 years …”

While Hearst and DuPont were interested in constraining hemp, they hedged their bet with the moralist, Anslinger. By conflating industrial hemp with its narcotic cousin, marijuana, the proper villain was born.

Even with this context, there’s no clear solution. The over-criminalization of marijuana possession has done little except to choke the justice system. With experts such as Gupta now reversing decades-old positions, the time may be right for broader discussion. Or Arkansas voters may just answer the question at the polls the next time around.