Up in Smoke: California’s War on Medicinal Marijuana

In a complete about-face of Obama’s promise not to target medical marijuana users in states that allow it, the Feds are threatening to shut down pot dispensaries throughout California. Earlier this month Federal prosecutors began sending out letters to dispensary landlords threatening to bring charges and seize property unless they close down the businesses within 45 days. In an interview with the LA Times, Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access (an advocate group for medical marijuana) said the move is “coming out of left field as far as we’re concerned.” The article goes on to say that only certain dispensaries have received letters and that the Feds have refused to comment on the criteria used to target them. I guess you could say this is the part where Obama takes resources away from serious crime-fighting and puts them into snatching doobies out of the hands of cancer patients. Whoa. Heavy, man.

Cheap drug humor aside, the medical marijuana issue is as confused as a narc after eating a plate of Alice B. Toklas brownies. Sorry. But seriously, marijuana’s history in America is crucial to understanding the resistance to its use as a medicine today. Many assume that it is a nothing more than a dangerous “gateway” drug, made illegal after years of Congressional hearings based on testimony from scientific and medical experts. But that would be over-simplifying things a bit. Actually, marijuana use goes back some 7,000 years and was legal in this country as recently as when Ronald Reagan wore short pants. That means it has been illegal for only 1% of the time man has been gathering or growing it. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I mean, what do we think we know now that 70 centuries of marijuana use didn’t teach us? Or is the move behind criminalizing it, like so many other things in this culture, based on politics, race and economics?

It would probably blow your mind (OK – I’ll stop) to know that the first law in the U.S. regarding cannabis actually supported it (and from here on I’ll refrain from calling the weed “marijuana” because of its negative associations with recreational use). In 1619 the Jamestown Colony in Virginia began requiring farmers to grow hemp, the non-intoxicating relative of the plant everybody is getting so excited about. Hemp is an amazingly useful plant that was eaten, made into paper, cloth, rope and sails. The military found it so valuable that someone could be jailed for not growing it in times of shortage. In those days hemp was even used as legal tender and was accepted as payment for taxes. According to Jack Herer’s classic book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes”, even in 18th century England “the much-sought-after prize of full British citizenship was bestowed by a decree of the crown on foreigners who would grow cannabis, and fines were often levied against those who refused.” Its popularity did not wane; in 1850 the U.S. Census counted 8,327 hemp farms.

You know, it never ceases to amaze – aside from its indigenous people, America is a country of immigrants, yet one group of them or another is always in disfavor. The Chinese, Germans, Irish, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Catholics and Jews (no matter where they were from), Middle Easterners – all have fought bigotry and discriminatory legislation to settle here. The history of the use, abuse and criminalization of cannabis and other substances is all tangled up with our attitudes toward these newcomers. Anti-Chinese sentiment led to the very first anti-narcotics law in the country – an 1875 ordinance in San Francisco against opium dens. It was the California Board of Pharmacy that created many modern techniques of drug enforcement, like undercover agents, informants, criminalization of users, anti-paraphernalia laws and drug raids. Henry J. Finger, a prominent member of the Board, was a rabid drug prohibitionist who, in addition to the scourge of Chinese opium, pushed to have cannabis included in federal drug legislation. This time he blamed East Indian immigrants that had arrived in San Francisco in 1910: “Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast…the fear is that now they are initiating our whites into this habit…”. The “Hindoos”, according to Dale Gieringer’s The Forgotten Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California, “sparked an uproar of protest from Asian exclusionists, who pronounced them to be even more unfit for American civilization than the Chinese.” They were “widely denounced for their outlandish customs, dirty clothes, strange food, suspect morals, and especially their propensity to work for low wages.” Apparently, Finger was the only one to complain of their cannabis use. Others saw them as hard-working and sober.

But of all the hysteria wrought by other nationalities upon our shores, perhaps none have moved us to plain, old-fashioned irrationality like the Mexicans. In the early 1900’s western states were anxious because of the numbers of Mexicans coming over the borders. In 1916 the Mexican Revolution spilled into the U.S. when Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico and Uncle Sam chased him back. Some years later tensions developed between small farmers and the large farms that used cheap Mexican labor. Much was made of the fact that the Mexicans smoked cannabis and had brought the plant with them. “Marihuana” was soon noticed by the pharmacy journals and was written up as a relative of Indian hemp or possibly jimsonweed. Because it was associated with criminals in Mexico, it became linked to violence and insanity. The Mexican connection pushed the California Board of Pharmacy over the edge. They felt duty-bound to legislate against “loco-weed” in 1913.

The racial divisions that have plagued our society since its inception have led us to discount or dismiss much of what immigrants have brought with them. The United States is one of the only industrialized nations on the planet that does not grow hemp. Instead, we import $96,000,000 worth of hemp products each year. The medicinal properties of Cannabis have a long track record – the earliest written reference goes back to China in the fifteenth century B.C. If America would only take the blinders off it would see that the implications of the legalization of cannabis for both industry and medicine are huge. In 1975, the National Institute on Drug Abuse issued its Fifth Annual Report to Congress on Marijuana and Health in which it recognized cannabis as an ancient healing drug: “One should not summarily dismiss,” the report went on to say, “the possibility of therapeutic usefulness simply because the plant is the subject of current sociopolitical controversy.”

Next week: the economics of the criminalization of cannabis.




One thought on “Up in Smoke: California’s War on Medicinal Marijuana

  1. Can’t wait for part two!
    How about the economic benefit of de-criminalization.
    Make it legal, tax it and watch a lot of problems go away.

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