The Facts About Marijuana

In the second of his series on A Brief History of Weed, Henry Vespa now casts a smoky eye over Mary Jane’s transition from acceptable medicine or booze substitute to global government bogeyman…

On the whole, it wasn’t until the 20th century that we got all panicky about smoking cannabis. Prior to then it had enjoyed a rich and relatively mellow history. It was used for ritual, relaxation and even as a medicine for mental illness in France (thus predating the whole medical marijuana campaign by a hundred years or so). And it was even recommended by the Christian-based temperance movements of the 1800s (on the grounds that unlike alcohol, it didn’t lead to violence).

But government is as government does, and as we entered the home stretch of the second millennium, the U.S. passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first trickle of what would become a tidal wave of legislation. The PFDA only required proper labelling and for a while, the No-Fun Brigade was busy with bigger issues, such as alcohol, and the same year that the Constitution was amended to prohibit booze, the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually rolled out a marijuana cultivation campaign (a long way in both time and philosophy from the State of California’s current Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP for short) citing it as a profitable crop for farmers. Not for long. About halfway through the Prohibition period (because that was going so well!) the Eye of Mordor U.S. government turned its attention to poor old Mary Jane and by the end of the 30s, most states regulated the weed to some extent.

The real turning point though was the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. The brainchild of Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and the result of his ongoing public scare campaign about the dangers of marijuana (insanity, criminality and death, in case you’re interested – guess Harry wasn’t part of the temperance movement) this particular law appeared to be nothing more than a tax on the distribution of marijuana, requiring those involved in such nefarious activity to provide detailed accounts of all transactions and obtain a ‘tax stamp’. However, in order to get the stamp, you had to present your ‘goods’, which was pretty much an admission of trading without a stamp. Shades of “1984” long before Orwell wrote it!

As I say, much of this was due to Anslinger’s scare tactics and panic mongering. The first attempt at an official in-depth study was by the La Guardia Committee. Its findings – published in 1944 – contradicted all the FBN’s claims regarding the dangers of a toke and categorically stated that, “the practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.” Ol’ Harry was not pleased and pilloried the report for being unscientific as part of his ongoing anti-cannabis campaign. Who needs facts when you know you’re right, eh?

The foundation of much of Anslinger’s (and therefore the government’s) propaganda was the gateway theory. Namely that cannabis is a ‘gateway’ leading to use of (and addiction to) other, harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and so on. This theory underpinned much of the fabled ‘War on Drugs’ of the 70s, 80s and 90s, regardless of who was running the show – Republican or Democrat. Let’s be clear. There never was any evidence that rolling up leads to shooting up. And the National Academy of Sciences finally made it clear in 1999 that, “There is no evidence that marijuana serves as a stepping stone on the basis of its particular drug effect.” Despite this, it’s amazing how many people still believe it.

Still, here we are in 2014 and cannabis is still the most widely produced, trafficked, and consumed drug in the world which, I guess, in the face of all that concerted legislative opposition, is something of an achievement? Personally, I blame that Coen Brothers movie. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski just made taking a toke look too good.

Happy Thanksgiving y’all. Of course, if you’re enjoying a smoke right now, it probably already is!

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