“After two puffs on a marijuana cigarette, I was turned into a bat.”
~ Dr. James C. Munch, testifying before Congressional hearings on the Marijuana Tax Act (1937)
During Congressional hearings for one of the first truly decisive steps in what would become known as the War on Drugs, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, only two doctors were called upon to give testimony. One, a Dr. Woodward, testified against the Act for various reasons on behalf of the A.M.A.. That organization felt that the bill had been hastily and secretly prepared, as well as the fact that even then the benefits of cannabis were acknowledged by physicians prescribing cannabis, retail pharmacists selling cannabis, and medical cannabis cultivation and manufacturing. He was politely told to shut up and go away. While details are sketchy, the animosity seems to have been mutual, the A.M.A. strongly doubted the government’s wild claims of insanity, death and addiction made by the bill’s proponents, most notably those concocted by Harry Anslinger, newly appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and a vehement prohibitionist for his entire professional life.
The other was the Dr. Munch quoted above, a pharmacologist from Temple University, who not only testified that a taste of cannabis had turned him into a bat, but expanded on this claim, asserting that once transmogrified he “flew around the room for 15 minutes before finding himself at the bottom of a 200-foot high ink well.” Not bad for a story concocted decades before Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone!
Of all of the substances criminalized by the drug warriors, none have borne the brunt of their concentrated hysterical fury quite like cannabis has. There are a number of reasons for this, none of them pleasant.
Apart from a strong Puritanical hatred of euphoriants of all sorts, those involved in the demonization of cannabis had a strong degree of racist hatred motivating them. The early twentieth century had seen a rapid growth in anti-Mexican bias, along with a further increase in the long established racist attitude toward blacks in America. As always happens in situations like this, those irrational attitudes seeped into the mindset of a great many Americans, including those in charge of the one group with a claimed monopoly of force for use against their fellows to coerce them into conformity with the group’s precepts: the government. Sadly, anti-cannabis propaganda quotes from government functionaries and prominent citizens at every level who shared these racist beliefs abound, as seen in this declaration from a Texas state senator: “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.” Similarly, an editorial in a 1934 newspaper opined “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.”
Anslinger himself added some real gems of his own to this ugly race based fearmongering, such as “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others,” along with “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” His blanket statement on the urgency of criminalizing cannabis says all that need be known about his character as he concludes: “…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
When discussing the creation of any malum prohibitum law, it’s always wise to ask just who benefits from its implementation, and with laws against cannabis we see some striking examples.
William Randolph Hearst, for one. As a media mogul of the time, he jumped enthusiastically on the anti-cannabis bandwagon. As a publishing magnate, he was in an ideal position to use the proven technique of yellow journalism to whip up a frenzy of sensationalist anti cannabis sentiment in the public mind, and these were spectacularly successful in selling huge numbers of Hearst publications. Lurid tales of violence, sexual deviance and assorted petty crime soon became a regular sight in his publications, and as expected they were often attributed to the already marginalized minorities. Hearst was a man of the times in his racist attitudes common to many Americans of that era, harboring a vitriolic hatred of Hispanics, Mexicans especially, blacks, and other minorities. In addition, he was especially hostile to Mexicans after losing about 800,000 acres of prime timberland, a major source of raw material for the newsprint needed by his publishing empire, to Mexican rebel Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution.
There was an industrial incentive to eliminate hemp, too, though perhaps not as powerful a motivation as using its illegality as a xenophobic social control: the DuPont chemical company had just patented the world’s first synthetic fiber, nylon, and had a large financial stake in promoting it over older natural fibers like hemp. By an interesting coincidence, that intrepid drug fighter Harry Anslinger just happened to be the nephew of Andrew Mellon, one of the richest men in America…who was heavily invested in DuPont. Just how significant this is as a factor in the war on cannabis is difficult to say, but when trying to determine criminal culpability in a case, investigators look for motive and opportunity. Anslinger certainly seems to have had both.
The legislation against cannabis easily passed into law, even though hemp had been a proven, reliable resource used for mankind’s benefit for centuries. It had been an essential material from America’s beginning; canvas sails had harnessed wind power that brought the first settlers from Europe in their ships as well as being the source of their very rigging and ropes. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written on hemp paper, and hemp was a staple crop for many of the country’s founders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The tough canvas that covered the wagons of the westward expansion, and Levi Strauss’ first blue jeans were made of the same hemp. Even Henry Ford developed a car constructed in great measure of stiffened hemp fiber…which ran on biodiesel fuel made from hemp.
Despite these and many more benefits, cannabis was criminalized and remains so to this day. Many lay the blame for this on the pervasive influence of the giant oil, paper and now pharmacological industries, while others ascribe it to residual racism and culture clash. While I am usually the last person in the world to avail myself of the race card when assigning blame for a societal problem, in this case I must agree with the latter to an extent. A bit of searching turned up an interesting essay on Alternet that supports my suspicion, should readers wish to explore it further. Still, the ‘why’ is not of primary concern here, the unalloyed fact that an unusually useful resource for humanity remains heavily stigmatized and criminalized is the central issue, one that’s assumed even more significance in recent years. All of this depression and unrelieved pain continues in direct refutation of scientific studies, propelled by the inertia of an irrational and racist propaganda campaign, and it’s growing as the number of American service people involved in Leviathan’s endless wars increases. Worse, we’ve watched America become notorious as the nation with the highest rate of incarceration of its own citizens, most of them for nonviolent drug offenses. The prison-industrial complex bears much of the responsibility for this situation, and tellingly opposes drug legalization, seeing it as a threat to their profits. Cui bono?
This topic is one I’ve meant to address for some time, and now I can give thanks for the inspiration from my friends at the Combat Veterans for Ron Paul to do so. I’ve been working closely with this group in recent months; we have a great deal in common despite the fact that I’m a lifelong civilian. Obviously we’re all admirers of Dr. Paul and his message of liberty, but beyond that, in matters of political theory, moral philosophy, and foreign and fiscal policy I’ve found many parallels between CVRP’s stance on issues and my own since encountering them, a trend that shows no signs of slowing.
One of CVRP’s many endeavors is their online broadcast, the ‘Language of Liberty’ show. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of participating in the show lately, thanks to a relationship that’s developed with a couple of its prime movers, Adam House and Nick Allison. Everyone I’ve met who’s involved with CVRP is a serious, motivated and committed activist in the liberty movement, and I was delighted to find that they were dedicating a show to the state of health care (or the lack thereof) for American veterans, in particular an examination of the problems in accessing any cannabis based treatment for many ailments afflicting veterans. I found the ‘Liberty in Health Care’ broadcast one I can strongly recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in this topic. The discussion between co-hosts Adam House and Eric Fields and their guests was refreshingly genuine, its extemporaneous content a delightful contrast to the canned, agenda driven shows promoted by the increasingly irrelevant corporate mainstream media.
Most of these people were new to me, but then CVRP has a habit of introducing me to welcome new faces. Eric Fields, the evening’s co-host, is a disabled veteran and journalist in his own right, a good choice for the role, with a knack for bringing cogent and relevant topics to the discussion. I found hearing CWO (ret.) Perry Parks, one of several veterans showcased in the Emmy Award winning documentary The Good Soldier, relate his personal experiences with cannabis and its beneficial effects on soldiers with traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) most instructive, even from my civilian’s perspective. There are, after all, a lot of similarities between those injuries and the deleterious effects on the brain from multiple sclerosis. Anyone whose only experience with users of cannabis comes from inaccurate and often hysterical second- or third-hand accounts by those with an anti-drug agenda would do well to listen to Chief Parks instead, I firmly believe.
The stories of the other guests, disabled Air Force veteran and Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access Executive Director Michael Krawitz, as well as SSgt. Rhys Williams, were no less powerful or impressive. Hearing real stories from real people who have experienced or witnessed very real pain that is allowed to continue because a segment of the population…untroubled by pain of their own…has decreed that the remedy for that pain is a ‘dangerous drug’ is a stark reminder of the current injustice in the system. That those people feel justified in continuing to deny those in pain an effective remedy based upon unscientific and often ludicrous reasons is disturbing, to say the least. Personally it can be maddening, and I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that. Along with the physical limitations and cognitive issues multiple sclerosis bestows on people like me, it also brings a measure of constant neuropathic pain to those afflicted with it. I’m in a better situation than many since my own pain is fairly well controlled by prescription pain medication, but to be honest I’d much prefer to take the natural remedy of cannabis that has been reported effective for others. Since I don’t have access to any the point isn’t relevant, at least not right now, but even if it were I don’t know how likely to avail myself of it I’d be, given the over-the-top response by law enforcement when they uncover cannabis use in too many instances every year. The alternatives being constantly pushed on me are the same that veterans find themselves under pressure to accept: the ‘approved’ moneymakers for Big Pharma with all their nasty side effects, from pain killers that only mask the pain to ‘antidepressants’ that often cause depression along with a host of unpleasant mental side effects, like the zombifying SSRI drugs that leave a trail of ruined or dead people in their wake.
I’m indebted to Adam and Eric for waiving the normal protocol of accepting no callers for most weekday shows and allowing me to participate via phone that evening. I wanted to add my own input to the conversation that I felt was relevant. There is at this point no ‘approved’ treatment for the primary progressive MS afflicting me, and I find it offensive that the War on Drugs not only prevents me from obtaining better and more effective pain relief through cannabis use, which may even reduce some of MS’ symptoms…the one actual treatment that might work to help my affliction, and one that would cause no harm even if it didn’t, unlike the potentially lethal potions proffered by Big Pharma. My situation is not at all uncommon for civilians or veterans, many of whom have to deal with even more severe chronic pain or are in even worse physical condition. When push comes to shove, we’re all in this together, pitted against an opponent that seeks to use us for its own ends no matter which hat it happens to be wearing.
In addition, I wanted to pose a question to any listeners in the audience who might still favor drug prohibition even at this late date, one that I’ve found almost always gives pause to even the most ardent drug warrior by introducing the concept of self ownership into the equation: if you are not free to ingest any substance that you see fit, one that affects no one but yourself, and risks only your own body, are you truly free? I’ve never yet been able to avoid the conclusion that if you do not control your body, you are a slave to those who do. This is a compelling argument, since it doesn’t occur intuitively to many people and may be the first time they’ve considered it.
Americans, veterans and civilians alike, are subject to severe penalties under laws that are at best capricious for the non-crime of seeking natural remedies for painful and debilitating disorders. In addition, we’re allowing our country to suffer based on an immoral prohibition of a natural resource that has served humanity for many centuries, providing us with paper, clothing, structural materials and even a source of renewable energy. We could see immediate and much needed benefits in many areas of our ailing economy by repealing an archaic law based on corporatism, fear and racism.
Why on earth do we continue along this path?
The Combat Veterans for Ron Paul are some of the very best allies we could ask for in the struggle to correct this awful mess, and they’re willing to join with liberty lovers everywhere. How about you…will you join with them?
©2016 by Glenn Horowitz, republished from the original that appeared in the American Daily Herald in 2011