The War Over Weed

If you know why marijuana was banned, you know why it should be legalized.

Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jonathan P. Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark A.R. Kleiman, Oxford University Press, 266 pages, $16.95 paper

Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, and Scientific, by Martin A. Lee, Scribner, 519 pages, $35

In November, voters in Colorado and Washington approved groundbreaking ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use. The measures immediately eliminated penalties for possessing up to an ounce and required state regulators to adopt rules for commercial production and sale by next July in Colorado and next December in Washington. Meanwhile, recent national surveys put support for legalization at 50 percent or more—the highest numbers ever recorded.

In this context of unprecedented public receptiveness to repealing cannabis prohibition, four centrist drug policy specialists—Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon, Angela Hawken of Pepperdine, Beau Kilmer of the RAND Corporation, and Mark Kleiman of UCLA—have published Marijuana Legalization, a handy little paperback that aims to tell us “What Everyone Needs to Know” about the subject. Assiduously dedicated to a utilitarian, just-the-facts approach, Caulkins and his co-authors consider marijuana’s benefits as well as its hazards, the harm caused by prohibition as well as the harm it prevents, the impact that legalization is apt to have not only on pot smoking but also on drinking, and the fiscal advantages, in terms of new tax revenue and lower law enforcement costs, of treating marijuana more like alcohol. 

Along the way, they offer calm and generally fair-minded excursions into controversies such as the perils of increasing pot potency, the alleged link between cannabis and schizophrenia, and the extent to which marijuana prohibition enriches Mexican drug cartels. But after all this judicious weighing of costs and benefits, the authors conclude that the question of whether to legalize marijuana hinges on how you feel about getting high.

“In the end,” Caulkins et al. write, “all the fancy benefit-cost analysis boils down to a rather simple proposition.…If you think marijuana intoxication is, on average, a good thing—counting both the happy controlled users and the unhappy dependent users—then a benefit-cost analysis done in a way that reflects your values will probably conclude that legalization improves social welfare. If you think marijuana intoxication is, on average, a bad thing, then an analysis that reflects your values will probably conclude that legalization harms social welfare—because the dominant outcome of legalization will be more marijuana use.”

Although Caulkins and his colleagues do not put it this way, the implication is that the war on marijuana, ostensibly aimed at promoting public health and safety, is fundamentally a matter of taste. It is not even a moral crusade, strictly speaking, since there is no moral principle underlying the arbitrary legal distinction between marijuana and alcohol, which Hawken, in a separate essay toward the end of the book, concedes “makes no sense.” As Martin Lee shows in Smoke Signals, his engaging and illuminating new history, marijuana’s contraband status is a result of historical accident, racial prejudice, xenophobia, loads of cultural baggage, and an astonishing amount of ignorance. In this light, the coolheaded analysis offered by Caulkins et al. seems almost comical, since it presupposes that marijuana was banned for rational reasons.

While there is no shortage of books about marijuana, Lee, co-author of the fine LSD history Acid Dreams, brings new breadth and depth to the subject. His rich, wide-ranging account is a little skimpy in its coverage of recent developments but full of fascinating details from further back, including ancient medical uses of cannabis, the West’s belated discovery of the plant’s benefits, and its popularity within pre-hippie bohemian circles such as the 19th-century Club des Haschischins, jazz musicians of the 1920s and ’30s, and Beat writers in the ’40s and ’50s.

Although cannabis has been consumed for thousands of years in India and China, Americans associated it with Mexico when they first became aware of it as a smoked intoxicant (as opposed to an ingredient in orally consumed patent medicines). Lee explains that Mexican peasants began smoking cannabis, possibly descended from hemp cultivated for fiber by Spanish colonists, in the early 1800s. Its use by Pancho Villa’s revolutionary soldiers is memorialized in the folk song “La Cucaracha”—hence the term roach, “modern-day slang for the butt of a marijuana cigarette.”

Marijuana’s association with blacks and Mexicans, which marked it as an exotic drug used by inferior but scary outsiders, proved crucial to its prohibition. The bans began at the state level in 1915, when California outlawed the plant, and culminated in the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. With marijuana as with opium, Lee observes, “the target of the prohibition was not the drug so much as those associated with its use.”

Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger warned that “marihuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes” and claimed that half the violent crimes in areas occupied by “Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negroes may be traced to the use of marihuana.” Anslinger, who collected and circulated accounts of bloody crimes allegedly caused by marijuana, portrayed it as “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind” (a title that has since been seized by a succession of other drugs, often based on equally dubious evidence). 

The notion that marijuana turns people into homicidal maniacs—which, Lee notes, was later replaced by the contradictory claim that marijuana turns people into passive, unmotivated layabouts—would have struck people familiar with the drug as patently absurd. But those people were not writing drug legislation. “Few members of Congress knew anything about cannabis when they voted to outlaw the herb,” Lee notes. “ ‘What is this bill about?’ a congressman asked House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn from Texas, who replied, ‘It has something to do with a thing called marihuana. I think it is a narcotic of some kind.’ ”

Marijuana’s beyond-the-pale status was cemented when self-conscious dissidents (the Beats and then the hippies) embraced it, attracted largely by its illegality. Marijuana prohibition became self-perpetuating: The sort of people who were eager to use it as a signal of rebellion disgusted the sort of people who were determined to keep it illegal, and the plant’s countercultural connotations have helped keep it illegal ever since. 

“The serrated marijuana leaf had become a totem of rebellion, a multivalent symbol of societal conflict,” Lee writes. “Condemning cannabis was a way to denounce the social and political movements that were in open revolt against ‘the American way of life.’ ” While Lee gives a respectful hearing to Allen Ginsberg’s view that “marijuana consciousness” is inherently subversive, he is appropriately skeptical of the notion that cannabis itself promotes a particular worldview, citing the old hippie saw that the drug might stop working if it were legalized. 

Lee is much more excited about marijuana’s medical potential. Perhaps a little too excited: His excursions into cannabinoid pharmacology and biology may tax the general reader’s patience. Still, Lee is right to emphasize the importance of the medical marijuana movement, which is where most of the action in cannabis-related legal reform has been in recent years, especially when it comes to testing the boundaries between state and federal power.

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  • Almanian.||

    The War Over Weed

    Duuuuuuude. There's no war! Don't harsh my mellow. Puff, puff, pass, baby. Puff, p....I...um...whatever, man.

  • SIV||

    “Federal drug laws are rooted in the Commerce Clause, which empowers Congress to regulate interstate commerce,” he writes. “This provision once served as an important tool for promoting progressive federal policies from the New Deal to Civil Rights, but over the years it became an all-purpose excuse for Congress to meddle in virtually every aspect of human behavior.”

    Marijuana prohibition is a progressive federal policy, dumbass.

  • R C Dean||

    Yeah, I like how there's supposed to be a difference between "progressive federal policy" and "Congressional meddling in virtually every aspect of human behavior."

  • SIV||

    That 24/7 newsfeed sure is slow.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • Sarah Conner||

    It's a bad sign that we've gone from arguing privacy to feeling that we have to justify our resistance to the busybody state's every whim. There shouldn't need to be a propaganda campaign to counter the propaganda campaign. How about mind your own business as a response to these invasions?

  • Intn'l House of Badass||

    The war on drugs will continue as long as the federal government continues to hate blacks and hispanics.

  • buybuydandavis||

    “In the end,” Caulkins et al. write, “all the fancy benefit-cost analysis boils down to a rather simple proposition.…If you think marijuana intoxication is, on average, a good thing—counting both the happy controlled users and the unhappy dependent users—then a benefit-cost analysis done in a way that reflects your values will probably conclude that legalization improves social welfare. If you think marijuana intoxication is, on average, a bad thing, then an analysis that reflects your values will probably conclude that legalization harms social welfare—because the dominant outcome of legalization will be more marijuana use.”

    They must have been stoned when they wrote that. I can only hope, because the alternatives are worse.

    A cost benefit analysis would include not just evaluating the costs/benefits of intoxication, but also the costs/benefits of freedom versus criminalization. The claim could also be true if you're a totalitarian - if you believe everything bad should be illegal, and everything good should be legal.

    Stoned, stupid, or totalitarian.

  • uythsb||

    Merry Christmas,it is nice day

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