Alcohol prohibition lasted 13 years, but the federal war against cannabis is set to turn 80 next year. Public support for legalization is at an all-time high, and if Congress truly reflected the will of the people, legalization would have enough votes to overcome a filibuster. Instead, reformers must continuously battle antiquated arguments and propaganda that epitomize the diseased value system behind prohibition. Below are seven examples of why prohibitionist values are so entirely fucked up.
1. Prohibition Was Built on a Lie
During the 80 years of criminalized cannabis prohibition, two main ideas dominated its justification: 1) smoking one cannabis joint can lead to sociopathic insanity driving people to kill, rape and maim, and 2) smoking cannabis leads to heavier drugs. The Pinocchio of long-nosed prohibition was Narcotic Bureau Chief Harry Anslinger, who claimed before Congress that cannabis turned people into psychopaths and that the majority of smokers became heroin addicts. “Opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde,” said Anslinger to the Ways and Means Committee in 1937. “[Cannabis] is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.” Researchers discredited these ideas long ago, yet prohibition remains with a foundation already exposed as laughably untrue.
2. Prohibition Hurts People to Prevent Harm
In 2011, the Alabama police arrested 76-year-old disabled vet Lee Brooker for three dozen cannabis plants that he grew for treating his chronic pain. The court sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In April 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court considered hearing the argument that his life sentence violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The high court ultimately decided to let the disabled military vet rot in prison. Sadly, Brooker is not a random outlier. Numerous non-violent cannabis offenders are currently serving life sentences. One might argue the punishments do not match the crimes, but the larger argument asks how it makes any sense to hurt people in the name of preventing (debatable) self-inflicted harm. What if we applied this logic to other health concerns? Unprotected sex with strangers is much more dangerous than cannabis, so maybe we castrate male offenders. Eating too much sugar can lead to diabetes, so maybe we amputate the feet of chocoholics to highlight the potential risks. Skateboarding can be dangerous, so maybe we break the kneecaps of kids who don’t wear pads. Cannabis provided Brooker with pain relief, but to prevent him from the imaginary dangers of cannabis, the courts locked him away for life—presumably without pain medication. The Alabama Supreme Court was legally obliged to uphold the sentence, but even the right-wing judges on the bench said this was pretty fucked up.
3. Enforcement Is Color Coded
To quote a 2009 New York Times headline, “Whites Smoke Pot, but Blacks Are Arrested.” Cannabis-usage rates among whites and African-Americans are nearly identical, yet arrest rates for African-Americans are typically several times higher than that of whites. In several big cities, the disparity is up to eightfold with New York City notoriously dubbed the Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World. On the state level, the worst offenders are Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Nevada and New York with African-Americans six times more likely to be arrested than whites. What makes it worse? The Nation and other publications cited police bonuses and other arrest-related perks as a primary motivation for increased cannabis-related arrests. It even has a nickname: “collars for dollars.” Not surprisingly, law enforcement and prison lobbies are among the leading political organizations fighting to keep cannabis a crime.
4. Outlawing Cannabis Is a Political Tool
Earlier this year, Harper’s magazine published a story by journalist Dan Baum in which he recalled a 1994 interview with Nixon aide and Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman, who was Nixon’s chief domestic advisor when he announced the Drug War in 1971, admitted the war was really on African-Americans and the anti-war left. When Baum asked about the Drug War, the former Nixon Aide (who went to jail for his key role in the Watergate break-in) said, “You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Moreover, approximately six million Americans cannot vote because they are current or former felons, many of whom were arrested for nonviolent drug crimes. Due to their criminal records, these nonviolent felons face huge employment hurdles that force them to rely heavily on social services like welfare and food stamps.
5. Prohibition Is Anti-Medicine
The medical use of cannabis dates back at least 10,000 years, and the plant appears in the oldest pharmacopeia known to man. Furthermore, much of the anti-cannabis propaganda aimed at villainizing this medicine flies in the face of common sense logic. In April 2016, for example, one study associated cannabis with shorter lifespans, implying a direct correlation. By that type of logic, White House data over the past few decades shows that smoking cannabis is associated with becoming President. If the study’s data was accurate, an obvious factor in the shorter lifespans is cannabis prohibition. Criminal charges for cannabis hurts people’s mental and physical health just like propping up a black market through prohibition increases violence and murder. Furthermore, people commonly self-medicate serious disorders like HIV and cancer with cannabis, which is another obvious factor skewing the data. Taking cannabis away from these patients won’t make them live longer, but it will make sure they suffer more during their final days of life.
6. Prohibitionists Prefer Addictive Pharmaceuticals to a Non-Addictive Plant
Imagine how apeshit the propagandists would get if one in every 500 cannabis smokers experienced suicidal thoughts or intentions. Well, that is a listed side effect of benzodiazepine-class sedatives like Xanax, Klonopin and Valium. Just how dangerous are prescription drugs? The government tracks drug-related emergencies in its Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report, and since 2007, recreational prescription drug use topped illicit drugs in total emergencies, and the disparity continues to grow. Add in adverse drug reactions, and pharmaceuticals make up about three-quarters of all drug-related medical emergencies. Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than six million Americans took prescriptions drugs recreationally in the past month, and while the U.S. makes up five percent of the world population, we consume 75 percent of all pharmaceuticals. Cannabis is a safer, cheaper and natural alternative to many prescription drugs, and in the case of opioids like Vicodin and Percocet, studies suggest cannabis can help with addiction recovery.
7. Prohibition Is Undemocratic
A 2016 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans wanted to legalize cannabis, and, per the Washington Post, a March 2016 survey saw that percentage edge even higher. Using the same polling question—“Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?”—an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found 61 percent support for cannabis legalization. Yet another poll saw support for medical cannabis reach 89 percent. Clearly the people have spoken. It’s high time for prohibitionists to respect democracy and the Constitution or get the hell out of our country.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.