Historically, one of the most effective methods ever used by the ‘Ruling Class’ to marginalize and control particular groups of people, is the practice of demonizing and/or criminalizing their customs. In democratic societies, the government usually refrains from meddling in citizens’ private lives and choices, except when interference is necessary for Public Safety.
How then do certain private practices and people get labelled as dangerous and treated as such by the mainstream? How is this achieved? Well, according to all the narrative available; Mass Media Propaganda coupled with Enactments of laws targeting said behaviors and people, is fundamental apparatus through which such efforts can be accomplished. Let’s be clear; the Enactment of Laws is what creates ‘Crimes’ and ‘Criminals’ not vice versa. Therefore; the ‘Ruling Class’ i.e. lawmakers and the potent influence of the so-called elite (1 % upper crust of society), has the clout to criminalize and de-criminalize, which leads to the focal point of this piece.
Let’s talk ‘MARIJUANA’; a banned substance generally defined as the dried female flower clusters and leaves of the Cannabis/hemp plant. It has been the subject of a polarizing international debate over the benefits or disadvantages of legalization and frankly whether it should have been banned in the first place.
It is difficult to say with certainty where or when the Cannabis plant originated. Some suggests its origins were in Central Asia while others are convinced the plant originated in China, based on its far-reaching medical and agricultural documentation in ancient Chinese literature, including writing of the so-called father of Chinese medicine, Emperor Shen Nung in 2727 B.C. There is consensus however, that the Cannabis plant has been around for at least 10, 000 years. It is believed that Ancient Greeks and Romans who ventured to the Middle East were also familiarized with Cannabis and helped to spread it throughout the Islamic Empire to North Africa. Spaniards apparently imported the plant throughout the western hemisphere i.e. Chile for its use as fiber in the mid-1500s. In North America Cannabis, in the form of hemp, was grown on many plantations for use in rope, clothing and paper. The plant grew wild throughout many tropical parts of the world. Its seeds and leaves have been used for medicinal purposes, animal feed, its fiber for hemp rope, and its oil as a medium for paint. A spiritual connection to its use is also historic and well documented.
For instance, early mention of cannabis is documented in sacred Hindu texts. According to The Vedas beliefs, cannabis was one of five sacred plants; a source of happiness, joy-giver, liberator that was compassionately given to humans to help attain delight and lose fear (Abel, 1980). Similarly, ‘Marijuana’ has been culturally entrenched with the Jamaican Rastafari movement since the 1930s. The legendary reggae icons Bob Marley and Peter Tosh are routinely a part of any conversations raised about the ‘herb’, as they brazenly used it on stage and in the presence of Nay-Sayers. ‘Marijuana’ or ganja as its more commonly addressed by Rastas is considered sacred; reference in the bible as the Tree of Life. ‘Marijuana’ use for Rastas is not about getting ‘high’ like some perceives; instead, the effects of smoking ‘Marijuana’ permits the user to reach a sort of “cosmic consciousness,” a state where one feels spiritually connected to “Jah” (God). However, let’s shift focus to the efforts to criminalize ‘Marijuana’ use specifically in the Unites States of America (USA).
By all accounts, the point of contention arose when it became widely perceived that ‘Marijuana’ is a recreational substance used to achieve euphoria (high) by immigrant groups; smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes called joints, in pipes, bongs etc.
In the early 1900’s, just after the Mexican Revolution, there was an influx of immigration from Mexico into the United States (Texas and Louisiana). It makes perfect sense that any immigrants would have diverse native tongues, cultures and traditions; however, there is enough evidence that diversity is not always embraced by the majority. Mexicans customarily uses Cannabis as a medicine and relaxant but referred to the plant as “marihuana”, not Cannabis. Americans were familiar with the term Cannabis given it was an additive in most tinctures and medicines available at the time. With growing unease toward Mexican immigrants, a media cultivated culture of fear was hastily developed, erroneously claiming they are “disruptive” and exhibits dangerous native behaviors, including but not limited to marihuana use. Americans did not know that this “marihuana” was a plant they already had in their medicine cabinets. Nonetheless, the demonization of the Cannabis plant became an apparatus for the demonization of the Mexican immigrants. In an effort to control and scrutinize these new citizens, El Paso, Texas adapted a strategy to outlaw Cannabis, much like the San Francisco outlawed opium decades earlier in an effort to control Chinese immigrants and like the South outlawed cocaine targeting the blacks. Random search, detention or deportation of Mexican immigrants was suddenly permissible by the rule of law and the war against marijuana use in the USA.
The Claims that were subsequently developed in support of banning marijuana use was outright outrageous and discriminatory to say the least. There were suggestions that ‘Marijuana’s’ effects caused men of color to become violent, sexually aggressive towards white women and demonstrate bizarre cases of insanity’. Harry J. Anslinger (1st commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics and staunch supporter of cannabis prohibition) was noted as saying ‘Marijuana’ caused some people to “fly into a delirious rage and many commit violent crimes (McWilliams, 1990, P. 70).” Without question, these claims strengthened support for the ‘Marijuana’ Tax Act of 1937, which ultimately led banning its use and sales. In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations. The Act was eventually replaced with the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970’s and Marijuana was placed in the most restrictive category, Schedule I, which mean it has the highest abuse potential and no accepted medicinal value. It’s common knowledge at this point that those declarations were blatant misrepresentations.
President Richard Nixon declared ‘‘‘War on Drugs’ in 1971. He proclaimed, “America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse and made a poignant statement that “In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive” (Sharp, 1994, p.1). In a congress address that same year Nixon declared, “as long as there is a demand, there will be those willing to take the risks of meeting the demand (Sharp, 1994, p.27) and that all efforts of interdiction and eradication are destined to fail.
President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in 1981 which pretty much declared the ‘‘‘War on Drugs’’ a categorical failure. He said, “It’s far more effective if you take the customers away than if you try to take the drugs away from those who want to be customers.” First lady, Nancy Reagan began a highly-publicized anti-drug campaign, coining the slogan “Just Say No.” This set the stage for the zero tolerance policies implemented in the mid-to-late 1980s. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who believed that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot,” founded the DARE drug education program, which was quickly adopted nationwide despite the lack of evidence of its effectiveness. The average annual amount of funding for eradication and interdiction programs increased from $437 million during Carter’s presidency to $1.4 billion during Reagan’s first term.
These efforts were not limited to United States either; the ‘‘‘War on Drugs’ launched a trans-national mandate. Over the past few decades, the U.S. has invested millions in coca and cannabis eradication efforts in Latin Americas, while also using trade agreements and the provision of U.S.A. aid to incentivize countries such as Jamaica to adhere to its drug control goals without much consideration to cultural sovereignty.
Bill Clinton advocated for treatment instead of incarceration during his 1992 presidential campaign; however, not long after his first few months as President of the United States, he adapted the drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors and moved forward with the ‘‘‘War on Drugs’. Clinton rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentence; yet, just before the end of his presidency, Clinton asserted in a Rolling Stone interview that “we really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment” of drugs user. He also suggested that ‘‘Marijuana’ use “should be decriminalized.”
George W. Bush followed suit as the 43rd President of the United States in 2001, even though the drug war was not proving to be a highly effective method of stemming drug use and/or sale. He proceeded to allocated more money than ever to it. John Walters, his drug czar focused on ‘Marijuana’ zealously and launched a major campaign to promote student drug testing. While rates of illicit drug use remained constant, overdose fatalities rose rapidly.
The George W. Bush era also witnessed a vast escalation of the militarization of domestic drug law enforcement however a drastic shift in the narrative was hard to ignore. While federal reform mostly stalled under Bush, state-level reforms finally began to slow the growth of the drug war. Members of elite classes were routinely admitting to having used marijuana and even cocaine in their youth. Michael Bloomberg was questioned during his 2001 mayoral campaign about whether he had ever used marijuana, he said, “You bet I did – and I enjoyed it.” Barack Obama also candidly discussed his prior marijuana use with CBS News February 12, 2008: “When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently – that was the point.” He declared.
Barack Obama, as the sitting President of the United State has been advocating for reforms; reducing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, ending the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, and supporting state medical marijuana laws; still, the shift from drug control funding to a health-based approach is yet to materialize to a substantial level.
Medical marijuana in Canada was legalized in 2001 and Justin Trudeau, the country’s new Prime Minister elected in 2015 is currently working on legalizing recreational cannabis. Its unclear what reform will look like given Canadian Criminal is not broken up by states like the US; nonetheless, the paradigm shift is impending.
Amsterdam, with its famous coffee shops where smoking cannabis is permitted and has been for some time, was once the international city most associated with legally smoking marijuana. More countries are passing legislation either decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana in some form. In fact, almost half the states in the United States have legalized marijuana somehow with more likely to follow suit. The potential revenue from legal marijuana is estimated to be huge, at least for the United States, which could rake in more than $120 billion a year. Although in the U.S., and in many other places, marijuana legalization is still blurry and uncharted territory, a handful of countries, like Australia, Colombian and Jamaica, have recently passed decriminalization laws for medicinal use and/or small amounts of marijuana for personal.
The pendulum continues to shift when it comes to marijuana and whether its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. It has become quite apparent that the claims about the dangers of marijuana use were largely falsified during the initiation of its prohibition. That is not to suggest there is no noted harm associated with its use. Some researchers suggest that the higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in today’s Marijuana, is making it a lot more potent that marijuana decades prior. The use of this stronger type of marijuana can contribute to increased health risks. Studies show that the average level of THC, the principal “mind-altering” component of marijuana, has increased by 300% to 400% over the last few decades. Also there is concern with the fact that Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug among youths and starting to use marijuana at a young can greatly increase physical and mental health risks. It also charged with increasing the chance of addiction. It should be noted that no imperial evidence supports this claim. That being said, the harm theory, as it pertains to marijuana, just doesn’t even up to that of other legal and illicit drugs, commonly use trans-nationally.
The following is a break-down of overall cause of death (including deaths linked to illicit drugs use) recorded in a US based study in 2015 by Drug War Fact Org’
The study focused on various causes of deaths but it’s important to note that marijuana was recorded as having no (zero) influence on the national death toll within that particular period. This is amid the reality that marijuana evolved from a practice that was prevalent only within certain marginalized groups, or subcultures, to one that is now broadly established throughout society. Other legal and illicit drugs such as Alcohol, pharmaceutical drugs (legal), heroine and opiates (illicit drugs) are listed has having caused 110,618 deaths with 47,055 of that amount being drug overdoses. Alcohol is by far the most harmful of all drugs. It is a controlled substance in that there is a permissible age component, but otherwise legal. So how is maintaining a ban on marijuana justified?
So based on the above, it is quite questionable that marijuana prohibition was motivated by logic. If prohibition grew solely out of sheer concern for public welfare, how then do we continue to rationalize keeping alcohol and tobacco on the market as legal substances? Dr. Jack Henningfield of the National Institute on Drug Abuse found in a 1994 drug evaluation that alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine contained in cigarettes were categorically more addicting than marijuana. It is also important to note that withdrawal from marijuana demonstrated less severe symptoms than those experienced when withdrawing from alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine addiction. It seems more like a pusillanimous attack on specific groups, intending to maintain mainstream standards, than an exertion to protect to society. Furthermore, the medicinal benefits are well-established at this point.
The policing, prosecuting and sentencing practices, with respects to drug offences, regularly result in racial inequities. Under the California “Three Strikes” law, which was enacted in March, 1994, persons convicted of a felony who had previously been convicted of a “violent” or “serious” felony (including most drug charges) can be subjected to a life sentence. The statistics on groups that are more likely to fall victims of this law when it comes to drug trafficking and even marijuana use is astounding. People of color are over-represented in this category.
With all that has been said, the most significant enigma of the marijuana “harm theory’ is the lack of evidence to support it and it has become increasingly difficult for prohibitionists to continue to advocate for continued criminalization of marijuana. Instead, the perspective that a heath-focused approach to combat drug addiction is a more logical one, is gaining ground rapidly. Many first world countries including Canada, United Kingdom and even the US (though reluctant) have adopted this formula and moving towards de-criminalization.
Finally, with decades of mass incarceration of predominantly men of color and Billions of dollars spent annually on expanding law enforcement, the criminalization approach has yielded little or no success. In fact, there are many who would propose the ‘‘War on Drugs’ has made matters worse, with increased violence and deaths (related to gang turf wars, overdoses from uncontrolled drug potency and even violation of civil rights) (search and seizure of property without guilty verdicts). So, what then is the point of criminalizing marijuana if not to reduce or eradicate it use or sale? Is it fair to say the US led “War on Drugs’ had ulterior motives, which many believe was an attack on marginalized groups’ including people of color and the underprivileged in general? That is the contention among a variety of social thinkers.