Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Audacity of Dope

There's a million and one reasons Willard Mitt 'Mittens' Romney shouldn't be elected the 45th President of the United States November 6th, but only one reason he won't when looking at the presidencies of the past 20 years. Unfortunately, being a flip-flopping liar who will shapeshift into anything the polls say will help curry favor with a few voters won't hinder him as Obama has proven. Being a plutocrat whose success was solely predicated on winning the genetic lottery thus helping dispel the illusion of the American Dream of social mobility won't hurt him either as the silver spoon he was born with in his mouth was only slightly shinier than Dubya's. Nor will his business record of buying up companies with borrowed money, loading them with debt in order to siphon off as much cash as possible before breaking them up to sell off the pieces and ship the jobs overseas disqualify him as an entire economy based on this kind of short term financial gain for the few at the cost of long term wealth creation for the many is exactly what Clinton created during his time in the White House. Not even belonging to a crazy cult that believes wearing magic underwear marks them off from other mere mortals will make a difference in the land of religious fanaticism. No, being a man around fifty years old with an Ivy League degree and having been a governor or senator, Mitt near perfectly fits the job description to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet Mittens won't win as he hasn't broken one federal law that all three of his predecessors did; he's never smoked a joint.

Who's to say if it was the stoner vote that put Clinton, Dubya and Obomber over the top, but it's as likely as anything else to have swayed the few votes that actually matter in the undemocratic electoral college system of selecting the US president. Bill Clinton may have claimed he didn't inhale, but he did enjoy pot brownies. Dubya never denied it, saying, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible" meaning he did plus lots more. Obama came right out and said, "When I was a kid, I inhaled. That was the point." In fact judging by the legendary exploits of Dubya and the fact that Obomber and his buddies smoked so much ganga they nicknamed themselves the Choom Gang, the next president in 2016 is probably going to be chronic.

Of course Americans have a lot of practice dealing with the cognitive dissonance involved in having a president who has broken the same law that sees about 750,000 people arrested every year. War is peace thanks to such mental gymnastics as preemptive, preventive or preventative war, freedom is slavery thanks to the debt servitude necessary to propel an economic system dependent on financialization and ignorance is strength thanks in large part to the informational overload of the technological revolution. Thanks to the primacy of obedience and the related reverence for authority drilled into them at a young age they don't mind casting their vote while blindfolded to the other choices whose beliefs most likely better align with theirs thus turning their election into a quadrennial Pepsi Challenge where choosing Coke or Pepsi doesn't matter as either way you're still going to get diabetes and die.

Sure, much of the US election circus is nothing but a choreographed carnival to coronate an Obomney or Robama, where only a handful of votes in a thimbleful of states will matter, but Americans in many states do have direct democracy: ballot initiatives and referendum. This November 6th there are ballot measures in seven states to either legalize the sale of medical marijuana or legalize it altogether if you're over 21, taxing and regulating it as they do with alcohol. This is an issue where representative democracy is clearly failing the American people, but fortunately direct democracy takes the power out of the hands of vested interests and returns it to the people. Washington (Initiative 502), Colorado (Amendment 64), and Oregon (Measure 80) will decide whether to legalize the drug's production and sale for recreational use. Massachusetts and Arkansas (first in the south) will vote to catch up with the previous trio and the 14 other states where medical marijuana use is already legal. Meanwhile, in Montana they will be voting to reinstate the 2004 citizen-approved medical marijuana law the state legislature recently repealed. Legalization just missed getting on the ballot in Michigan so the City Commissioners in Kalamazoo voted unanimously to decriminalize weed, saying the new ordinance will help police respond to serious crimes even faster than before based on how it has gone so far in Chicago. Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids will also ask their citizens whether they'd like to decriminalize possession

How did we get to this wacky world? Constructing elaborate Rube-Goldberg machines to destroy our planet or Nobel Peace Prize winners composing kill lists and remotely killing American citizens, innocent women, children, wedding guests and their rescuers with drones in faraway lands without any declaration of war are less controversial than letting people smoke weed to improve the quality of their lives or just for fun. Even when laws have been passed to legalize medical marijuana and with a president we believed to be progressive sitting in the Oval Office, medical dispensaries and training schools are raided by the feds while state troopers stand by and wave good day to the staff, clients and students. Despite Obomber's 2008 promise "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws [on medical marijuana]" his Attorney General, Eric Holder has been doing just that. It was the same Eric Holder who may have helped sink California's Prop 19 to legalize marijuana when he vowed to "vigorously enforce" federal marijuana laws and warned that the government would not look the other way and allow a state marijuana market to emerge a month before the 2010 election. In a rational world we'd design laws that improved our society, finances and health but far too often, and especially in the case of cannabis, it seems these ideals are trumped by politics, emotions and special interests.

"Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could."
- William F. Buckley Jr

While hard numbers are hard to come by, the drug war costs well over 6,000 lives a year in the US while in Mexico drug cartels have killed more than 55,000 people in the past six years. Prohibition not only raises prices thus increasing incentives to capture market share, it renders contracts unenforceable and makes it impossible for competitors to use the courts or the police to challenge intimidation or settle disputes; the war on drugs has given us decapitated corpses hung from bridges while the cola wars has simply given us all diabetes. Worse are the number of lives lost to the prison system as half of the 2.5 million behind bars in the US are there for drug offenses, many of them of the low-level, nonviolent variety. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations - 80% of them for possession. Even worse, it has become a new form of Jim Crow as though blacks use and sell drugs at the same rates as whites, thirteen of them go to jail for every white person who does. It seems obvious but many still don't get that sending potheads to jail destroys lives and families and creates hardened criminals who get turned by the prison culture. Members of the now militarized police force see the senselessness close-up which is why Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a national organization of cops and criminal justice experts dedicated to “speaking out about the failures of our existing drug policies” have become legalization advocates.

Costing this war is as slippery as those waged in Iraq and Afghanistan but it is every bit as expensive. According to Harvard drug economist Jeffrey Miron: "Legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. Of these savings, $25.7 billion would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government." Yet according to The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Use on American Society, last published by the Department of Justice in 2011, enforcing illegal drug laws imposes an annual cost on the American criminal justice system of $56 billion; while incarceration of drug offenders imposes an annual cost of $48 billion for a total of over $100 billion. Back to Harvard's Miron who claims drug legalization would yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion, annually, assuming legal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. Approximately $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana and $38.0 billion from legalization of other drugs." Whatever the exact figures, in these times of austerity in which California spends more on its prison system than all higher education this is a huge burden. So big in fact that many states are turning to privatization of prisons which will guarantee occupancy rates, forcing states to maintain or toughen drug and immigration laws in order to keep the beds filled.

Here's what we know about marijuana's impact on our health. Not much thanks to prohibition. In fact we were more aware of its benefits over a century ago. Sure there seems to be a few negatives, heavy use in your teens may shave a few points off your IQ, smoking has been tied to testicular cancer and 9% of those who try marijuana eventually fit a diagnosis of cannabis dependence. But few would advocate teens smoking a few joints a day, cannabis compounds have been shown to stop metastasis in aggressive cancers and the corresponding dependency rates for alcohol and nicotine are 15 and 32%. The "gateway" drug argument claims use leads to more dangerous substances as most people who use other illicit drugs had used marijuana first. Not to bore you with the old causation is not correlation trope but the illegality of weed forces people to come into contact with harder drugs in their illegal dealings and don't forget people often smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol before they latch on to marijuana. Meanwhile, marijuana has significant upsides for individuals with certain illnesses. In glaucoma patients, it can reduce the dangerously high eye pressure that can lead to vision loss. In addition, pot can provide relief from chronic pain, reduce nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy, and limit the severe weight loss that results from AIDS and other diseases. Alcohol abuse kills 75,000 people a year. Legal prescription drugs kill 100,000 people a year. Marijuana kills zero. The statistics for violent crime and accidental death follow the same pattern.

"Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country."
- Thomas Jefferson

The path from being a simple plant mandatory to grow in 1619 Jamestown colony law to Samuel Caldwell and Moses Baca becoming the first Americans busted for pot just over 75 years ago, Oct 2, 1937, is as hazy as the air at a Dylan show in 1966. In between, hemp was the principal crop at George Washington's Mount Vernon, secondary at Jefferson's Monticello, used as part of medicinal preparations beginning in 1839 and "fashionable narcotic" by 1853. Control came slowly over the next 80 years, culminating in prohibition with the passage of the federal Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. First came poison laws in an attempt to regulate pharmaceuticals through labeling to indicate harmful effects of the drugs or prohibiting sale outside of licensed pharmacies and without a prescription. Basically, trying to combat this type of snake oil salesmen.

At the turn of the 20th century, between 2% and 5% of the US population were drug addicts, more than today, the majority hooked on morphine, a legacy of the Civil War and bored housewives duped by door-to-door con artists. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 did more than any subsequent law to fight addiction. In addition to creating the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) it also said certain drugs could only be sold by prescription and habit forming drugs had to be labeled. As Congress did not possess the power to create general criminal laws, a plan was devised to masquerade the regulation and persecution as a tax, leading to the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. It created the template for using criminal sanctions to deal with the non-medical use of drugs but only applied to opium, morphine and its various derivatives, and the derivatives of the coca leaf like cocaine; there was no mention anywhere of amphetamines, barbiturates, marijuana, hashish, or hallucinogenic drugs of any kind. More importantly, it did nothing to outlaw possession but set such a high tax on non-medical exchange of the drugs that it made it defacto illegal to have certain drugs.

Control was tightened ad hoc, state by state to restrict all narcotics, including cannabis, as poisons and limit their sale to pharmacies requiring doctor's prescriptions. From 1915 to 1937, some 27 states passed criminal laws against the use of marijuana driven by three factors. Racism, fear of substitution and religious fanaticism. Out west, the influx of Mexican immigrants made them easy prey for populist politicians. Overheard on the floor of the Texas Senate, "All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy." Proponent of Montana's first marijuana law said, "[g]ive one of these Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette and he thinks he is in the bullring at Barcelona." In the northeast of the country, the fear was marijuana would be taken up by those who could no longer drink or do morphine. And of course the religious fanatics were in Utah, where the Mormon Church's opposition to euphoriants of any kind was codified by the state legislature as the first criminal law in the US against the use of marijuana in October of 1915. On what should be known as international drug cartel day, the turning point came February 19, 1925, when the International Opium Convention was revised to include among other things, Indian hemp, while leaving the low-THC European hemp uncontrolled.

"Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."
 - Harry Anslinger; US Drug Czar

The mythology surrounding marijuana prohibition has only grown with time. Who hasn't run into a conspiracy theorist blaming it all on William Hearst's use of Yellow Journalism to protect his lumber interests (hemp can also be used to make paper) or a hippie happy to harangue Dupont and the cotton industry for their role in demonizing the hemp plant (yes, makes pretty good clothes, too). The fact is marijuana's current status in America and the world has more to do with one man than all else combined. Harry J. Anslinger was the drug czar under five presidents becoming the first the first Commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) on August 12, 1930 and serving until May 1962. By 1936, Anslinger was convinced that America was under assault by a reefer invasion and therefore launched a two-pronged counterattack: a legislative plan to seek from Congress a new law that would place marijuana and its distribution directly under federal control alongside a media campaign to turn a near-harmless, potentially life saving plant into loco weed. His gore file was filled with stories of mild-mannered youths being turned into axe-wielding mass murderers, white female students into sex slaves, and of course Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers seeking the company of those innocent white girls after a single puff of the stuff. The culmination of this propaganda was of course the now infamous film, Reefer Madness.

His legislative assault led to a hearing on national marijuana prohibition in 1937 in which three bodies of testimony were given; Anslinger himself representing the government as head of the FBN, spokesmen from industries that would be affected by a ban on hemp, and representatives from the medical profession. Anslinger's testimony is easily summed up with "Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death." There were three industrial spokesmen, from the rope, paint and varnish, and birdseed people. The first testimonial irony came from the rope people who told of the cheap supply from the Far East making homegrown uneconomical. Of course shortage of rope to supply warships less than five years later required the government to become the biggest growers in history. The paint and varnish folks said "we can use something else" while only the birdseed people balked and gave us irony number two. When asked "Couldn't you use some other seed?" the birdseen man said, "No, Congressman, we couldn't. We have never found another seed that makes a bird's coat so lustrous or makes them sing so much." For this reason, birds, not people, have been able to enjoy some of the benefits of the plant under the name "denatured seeds".

The two pieces of  medical testimony prove the most puzzling, one from a pharmacologist, the other, a doctor/lawyer representing the AMA (American Medical Association). The former claimed to have had three dogs die after he injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 canines. Unfortunately, the active component, THC,  wasn't isolated until 1964, so who knows what he shot into their craniums. When asked by a Congressman, "Doctor, did you choose dogs for the similarity of their reactions to that of humans?", the pharmacologist replied, "I wouldn't know, I'm not a dog psychologist." The latter medical testimony, from Dr. William C. Woodward was short, sweet and succinct, "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug." To understand why the two Congressmen then told him, "Doctor, if you can't say something good about what we are trying to do, why don't you go home?" and "Doctor, if you haven't got something better to say than that, we are sick of hearing you", one must remember the political situation of the time. Both Congressmen were Democrats who held a grudge against the AMA as they had opposed every piece of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation introduced from 1932 through 1937.

It was August 20th at 5:45pm in the pre-air-conditioning world of Washington, DC when the debate on national marijuana prohibition took place in Congress. No one was there. Well, a few Republicans, one of whom from upstate New York stood up before the bill was passed on "tellers", "Mr. Speaker, what is this bill about?" To which speaker Rayburn replied, "I don't know. It has something to do with a thing called marihuana. I think it's a narcotic of some kind." To which the New Yorker, a Republican as much on the side of the AMA for the last 5 years as the Democrats were against, followed up, "Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?". At which point a committee member jumped up and said, "Their Doctor Wentworth [remember it was Woodward] came down here. They support this bill 100%." Good enough for the Republicans. Good enough for America as the bill then passed on and when the bill passed the Senate without debate or recorded vote and President Roosevelt signed it, the US had national prohibition with the federal Marihuana Tax Act.

More irony? Well, the La Guardia Report (yeah, the mayor of NYC La Guardia), the first in depth study into the effects of smoking marijuana came out just seven years later, it systematically contradicted claims made by the U.S. Treasury Department that smoking marijuana results in insanity, and determined that "the practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word." The next big surge in this war came with Nixon who not only upped the ante on the war in Vietnam but more egregiously committed the country to wage "total war against public enemy number one in the United States, the problem of dangerous drugs" regardless of the cost, in dollars or lives. Not only did he oversee the implementation of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, he also ensured the war would be well funded and armed with the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973. Republicans continued to bask in the law and order glory under Reagan, when Nancy was handed the skillet in the Just say no, This is your brain on drugs campaign. The same story continues to this day with millions of lives lost or destroyed simply to uphold an outdated, falsely propogated belief that profits the wicked, just as any war. Despite all the propaganda, a record-high 50% of Americans said last year the use of marijuana should be made legal, up from 46% the year before.
Marijuana prohibition keeps police officers busy on the beat, courts jammed with marijuana offenders, and jails packed with prisoners convicted of violating marijuana laws. Unquestionably, these laws have helped make America great, nay, the greatest in the world... at penning people in cages. Not only does America lead in sheer number of prisoners, it has the highest incarceration rate in the world, too. The prison-industrial-complex that has grown to catch, judge and accommodate the millions behind bars along with the tobacco, pharmaceutical and alcohol industries, have a lot of profit incentive to keep things the way they are. It should come as no surprise that the biggest financial contributor to Smart Colorado, the supposedly family-friendly group leading the fight against the marijuana legalizing Proposition 64, is Save Our Society from Drugs, a Florida-based nonprofit founded by Mel and Betty Sembler who once led drug rehab centers shut down over wide-ranging child abuse scandals. With the coming votes in the western trifecta of states comes the hope of a domino effect and an end to a system that destroys lives to fill up treatment centers and pad private prison profits.
Alcohol offers a good parallel with weed though its trajectory from legal euphoriant to not and back again was much steeper. Though the US didn't go completely dry until the 18th Amendment came into force at midnight, January 16, 1920, after being ratified by 36 states, about 65% of the country had already banned alcohol. Just as alcohol can lead to strange bedfellows, so did the prohibition movement: xenophobes, industrialists, women's rights activists and religious zealots. Anti-German wartime sentiment tied in with the push to use grain to make bread for soldiers instead of beer turned Milwaukee's brewers into "the worst of all our German enemies," and the Anti-Saloon League dubbed their beer "Kaiser brew." Henry Ford described prohibition as "the greatest force for the comfort and prosperity of the U.S." while John D. Rockefeller saw it as a way of strengthening the monopoly of his Standard Oil by eliminating the alternative of ethyl alcohol to power cars. Alcohol's obvious link to wife beating and child abuse drove the development of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union

Of course history has shown that turning temperance into prohibition was a big mistake as thirteen long violent years followed in yet another sad parallel with modern drug policy. While most of the gangland style violence and overt corruption spread by bootleggers of the prohibition era played out at home, most of it that has resulted from drug laws takes place south of the border, out of sight of middle America. Perhaps this explains why the anti-prohibition forces only took thirteen years to win while the perverse drug laws have been around almost a century. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) formed in 1919 even before prohibition and was so successful that by the time the 21st Amendment ending national alcohol prohibition went into effect December 1933, more than a dozen states had already opted out. This same slow creep is hopefully being emulated by the marijuana legalization movement. A final parallel: the spark for the repeal movement was the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Could the not-so-great depression do the same? "Beer For Prosperity" became the anti-Prohibition battle cry as few could deny the obvious truth that legalizing beer would create thousands of new jobs virtually over night. At the same time, desperately-needed new government revenue would be generated in the form of beer taxes. Sounds kind of familiar doesn't it?

If legalization comes to the US, they won't be the first. Everyone knows about the Netherlands being a drug haven but few speak about the annual prevalence of marijuana use for people age 15-64 being just 5.4% there compared to 13.7% in the US. The contrasts in figures are even starker for heroin, cocaine and opiates. Even fewer talk about the success of decriminalization in Portugal. Quietest of all is the revolution being seen in Central and South America, where most of the loss of life in this war has occurred. It's not just the leftist governments either; Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a 30-year military veteran whose campaign slogan was "Iron fist, head and heart", angered Washington in September by proposing drug legalization at the UN General Assembly. This came on the heels of a dozen Latin American leaders avoiding using the term legalization by calling to reduce demand for drugs by exploring "regulatory or market oriented options", an act of linguistic prestidigitation favored by Mexican President Felipe Calderon to avoid pissing off Uncle Sam. Even President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, which has received almost $9 billion in aid from the US to fight the cartels, has said he's open to legalization. However, the race to sanity seems set to be won by Uruguay where a bill has been introduced to legalize the production and sale of marijuana under a state monopoly thanks to its flower-farming former leftist guerilla president, Jose "Pepe" Mujica.
So while the world watches the presidential returns November 6th to see who will be sleeping in the White House for the next four years, the people of Colorado, Oregon and Washington will be choosing whether to not only make their lives better but also those in Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa, the three Mexican states where drug cartels will be most harmed by legalization, losing up to 30% of their earnings from traffic to the US. There's a few other interesting citizens' initiatives to keep an eye on, particularly California's Proposition 37 which would require products containing GMOs to be labeled. Opponents, Monsanto that is, are spending millions to argue that giving people information would scare them into buying non-GMO products. Well, um, yeah, I guess that's the point. Maine, Maryland and Washington will be having up-or-down votes on legalizing same-sex marriage while Minnesotans face a measure to constitutionally take away gay couples rights as 30 states have already done. And don't forget Florida and Maine choose whether to tighten control over women's uteruses (uteri?). 

"When you return to this mundane sphere from your visionary world, you would seem to leave a Neapolitan spring for a Lapland winter - to quit paradise for earth - heaven for hell! Taste the hashish, guest of mine - taste the hashish!"  
 - Alexander Dumas

Polls show Washingtonians and Coloradans likely to vote yes while Oregonians might not be ready to make the leap. What will it mean if these states legalize marijuana? The Obama administration has already showed its disdain for the will of the people by raiding medical dispensaries all over the west, so one can imagine an even stronger reaction to people smoking pot for recreational purposes and given his religious zealotry, Romney has predictably made it clear he'll fight weed tooth and nail. While parroting the same old refuted marijuana myths,  former drug warriors predict a constitutional showdown between the states and feds. With so many powerful forces profiting from prohibition, yes votes in any or all three states will only be a victory in one battle with many more to come. Hopefully the anti-prohibition movement will continue down the same successful path as the last 70 years ago when Beer Day parades saw 100,000 turn out in NYC and 40,000 in Detroit to cheer the legalization of beer, Obama will magically turn into the progressive we believed him to be four years ago and the media will turn from demonization to pressing for legalization. Just as scientists are now restarting research into LSD, MDMA and psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) after a 40 year federally imposed hiatus and discovering new benefits, new medical uses for marijuana will also help the push. Regardless of the vote, it'll be a cat and mouse game for the foreseeable future in which the cats have the guns but the mice have the reason...