Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Marijuana Legislation: Justice and Responsibility

“I think people need to be educated to the fact that marijuana is not a drug. Marijuana is an herb and a flower. God put it here. If He put it here and He wants it to grow, what gives the government the right to say that God is wrong." In a nation with 720,000 arrests due to an unjust prohibition, is it not time to re-evaluate cannabis' legality? This quote by Willie Nelson, long-time country music star and marijuana activist, asks the essential questions: Why is Marijuana illegal? Has cannabis prohibition helped or hurt society? What is the science and politics of cannabis? Knowledge is power and this article seeks to bridge the asymmetry of information with regard to marijuana's constitutionality. In the United States of America officials are elected to serve our interests. Is marijuana legalization is in our best interest? The US government has a shady history concerning marijuana law and it is time we, the people, stood up and were heard.

In 1972, Richard Nixon, in the middle of the Vietnam War, ordered a congressional study- the Shafer Report- on the health concerns of marijuana usage. Nixon commissioned this test to silence anti-war activists. Hippies smoked pot: hippies protested the war. If they could not smoke pot, the argument went, their movement would suffer a serious set back. When the report came back, Nixon was not pleased. The report showed no serious health concerns from marijuana usage, but it did offer a criticism. It asserted that the criminalization of marijuana was both unconstitutional and unsustainable. However, Nixon had a war to win so he sowed the roots for another war: a "war on drugs."

Before we can begin to examine the war on drugs itself, we would do well to examine the history of marijuana legality in the United States. Between the years of 1600 and 1890's hemp growth was encouraged in the new world. In 1619, the Virginia Assembly even passed a law requiring all Americans to grow hemp. Its quick reproduction cycle, environmental benefits, and tactile use was indispensable. Hemp was used in the production of rope, paper, and medicines. In some states it was even used as legal tender.

By the early 20th century, Mexican immigrants streamed into the US after the Mexican Revolution of 1910: bringing with them the recreational use of marijuana. Just as alcohol became taboo due to the steady flux of German immigrants in the '20's, so too marijuana became associated with ill-wanted Mexican labor. Resentment and a flood of anti-marijuana propaganda grew with the Great Depression. This ignorant animosity led to tighter marijuana restrictions including the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. However, war and science would soon change many tunes.

During the 1940's the Second World War was ravaging national resources. In order to provide much needed parachutes and other supplies, the government offered draft deferments for the production of hemp. By 1943, American farmers recorded using 375,000 acres in the production of hemp. However, by the middle of the 1950's the government again flaked hemp production. Between 1951-1956 the minimum fine for marijuana possession was a 2-10 prison sentence and a fine of up to $20,000.

Kennedy and Johnson again shifted the political climate of marijuana in the '60s. They too ordered a report on the dangers of marijuana and again the tests came up negative. The report refuted the conservative claim that ingestion of the plant induced violence and crime. Finally, responsible leadership was steering public opinion from fear tactics to the truth. As a result, policy began to shift toward understanding and regulation. However, the Vietnam War was right around the corner.

Marijuana, in the '60s, was a countercultural statement. Marijuana smokers were the chief dissidents, and loudest voices, of the anti-war movement. The aforementioned Shafer Report of 1972, commissioned by the white house, showed conclusive evidence of marijuana's relative safety and negative evidence for a so-called "gateway effect." Nixon rejected the commission's advice, but the damage was done. Already, unjust federal law was being questioned by state congresses. By the middle of the 1970's eleven states had legalized the medical use of marijuana.

Unfortunately, at the Federal level, the proverbial stone kept on rolling. As a result of Nixon's stubbornness and ignorance, Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs. He signed into law the "Anti-Drug Abuse Act" which began a $44.1 billion dollar enterprise between 1988 and 2006. In a televised speech in 1989, George H.W. Bush declared, without a vote from congress, his war on drugs without clarifying conditions, goals, or cause. As a result of fear tactics, miseducation, and ignorance, marijuana was pigeonholed in with hard narcotics. But, who gains from the prohibition?

The most rapidly expanding market in the US today is private prisons. Some may see this as a good thing: less criminals: less crime. But who is occupying these prisons? By 2008, over 750,000 arrests had been made for possession of marijuana: 1/3 less than the amount of total violent crimes (594,511). Rape, murder, armed robbery, and hate crimes all combined do not equal the amount of arrests for marijuana possession. The US government has flip-flopped on this issue far too often. It is time to responsibly and scientifically evaluate the claims of marijuana advocates.

A country in recession and in debt, we have spent 28 trillion dollars on the so-called "war on drugs." To what effect? While our national debt piles up and real criminals are roaming the streets, politicians and law enforcement waste precious resources on an unjust and unwinnable campaign. Cannabis is one of the most useful plants on Earth but corporate lobbying and political pride have kept the truth at bay. It is time that we educated ourselves and stopped leaning on the trust of a brainwashed generation. Hemp can be used for the production of rope, fuel, food, milk, paper, and a host of other benefits. Additionally, it grows at an astounding rate! Trees can take years to grow to maturity. Cannabis reproduces in a percentage of that time which makes turning crops much more efficient and productive. Who cares if someone smokes a joint in the privacy of his or her own home? Even economists agree that marijuana law reform is the wisest path.

Marijuana has been misunderstood for far too long. Prohibition started as a political bargaining chip and fear still feeds it. If society at large can wink a playful eye at marijuana use then it is time the truth was heard. We must combat ignorance with education and civil disobedience. James Farmer Jr. once said, "An unjust law is no law at all. Therefore, [we] have a right, a duty, to resist with violence or civil disobedience." Marijuana prohibition is an unjust law. Who is the government to make nature illegal? Did God make a mistake on the eighth day and leave some pot behind? No, cannabis is natural and should not be feared for the sake of a political agenda. It is time for cannabis to be legalized and only we can make a difference.

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