Say what you will about Gabriel G. Nahas, the anti-pot crusader who died late last month at the age of 92, but give him this: He seemed utterly sincere in his belief that marijuana and other drugs posed an intolerable threat to health, productivity, and social order. The author of books such as Marihuana: Deceptive Weed (1973) and Keep Off the Grass (1976), the Egyptian-born physician formed his opinion of cannabis early in life, as I note in my book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use:

[Nahas] seemed to blame hashish for his native country's decline during the last millenium. "The appearance of cannabis products in the Middle East," he wrote in his 1976 book Keep Off the Grass, "did coincide with a long period of decline during which Egypt fell from the status of a major power to the position of an agrarian slave state." In the same book, Nahas describes a childhood incident that shaped his attitude toward cannabis. On his way to school in Alexandria when he was about 8, Nahas would sometimes pass "a man sprawled on the sidewalk, apparently sleeping in the blazing sun." In response to Nahas’s questions, his father informed him, "The man is a hashishat, an unfortunate individual who is addicted to a drug called hashish. He is sleeping there because the drug has dulled his mind and sapped his energy."

But Nahas' status as pot prohibitionists' favorite marijuana expert depended less on his speculation about the plant's role in the decline of civilizations than on his alarming claims about its effects on the human body. In 1974, when Sen. James Eastland (D-Miss.) convened hearings on the "marijuana-hashish epidemic" with the avowed purpose of countering the "good press" that pot had been receiving, Nahas led a group of researchers who testified that marijuana may cause lung damage, birth defects, genetic abnormalities, shrinkage of the brain, impairment of the immune system, reduction in testosterone levels, and sterility. With the exception of lung damage related to smoking (which is not a serious risk for occasional users and can be avoided through oral ingestion or the use of vaporizers), all of these alleged hazards proved to be exaggerated or unfounded.

Much of the research cited in the Eastland hearings was heavily criticized soon after it appeared. Some of it was laughably bad, with skewed samples and no control groups. Despite the poor quality of the studies, anti-marijuana activists continued to cite them. "Those papers, and the ideas they brought forth, are at the heart of the anti-marijuana movement today," the pharmacologist John P. Morgan told me in 1993. "Nahas generated what was clearly a morally based counter-reform movement, but he did a very efficient job of saying that he was actually conducting a toxicological, scientific assessment."

There is a lesson here for contemporary debates, not only about drug policy but also about "public health" paternalism and efforts to suppress morally controversial industries such as gambling, pornography, and prostitution. Moralists have learned to speak in scientific language, but they remain moralists at heart. That is not to say that Nahas was faking it; as I said, he seems to have genuinely believed he was telling important truths to a public blithely unaware of the Deceptive Weed's medical hazards. But that belief was driven by a deeper conviction. As The New York Times puts it, Nahas "saw his antidrug campaign as nothing less than a continuation of the fight against totalitarianism, which for him began during World War II as a decorated leader of the French Resistance; like totalitarianism, he believed, drugs enslaved the mind."

I never met Nahas, but a few years ago I spoke with his wife, Marilyn, while researching a piece for Reason about a widely cited factoid that I traced to his 1989 book Cocaine: The Great White Plague. She was very gracious even when I made it clear that I was writing about a questionable claim propagated by her husband. She explained that he was too ill for an interview and tried as best she could to answer my questions. I almost felt bad about writing the article, but after it appeared she called to say she thought I had done a good job, although she was not crazy about Matt Welch's column in the same issue, which she deemed glib and unsubtle. (Sorry, Matt!) The encounter was a welcome reminder that the political opponents we tend to demonize are real human beings, usually telling what they believe to be the truth in the service of goals they consider noble. Although reformers have long viewed Nahas as a leading villain in the drama of the drug war, he was a hero in the fight against the Nazis, a demonstrably courageous man with strong convictions that were sadly mistaken.

More on Nahas from The Fix and Drug Watch International.

CelebStoner, which says Nahas "will not be missed," credits him with authoring the "gateway" theory, although the claim that marijuana use leads to "harder" drugs such as heroin goes back at least to the early '50s, when it was endorsed by Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger (who had previously rejected the notion). Nahas did promote the idea, however, and it remains a staple of anti-pot propaganda, even though it implicitly concedes that marijuana itself is not that bad. More on the gateway theory here.