Drug War

Gabriel G. Nahas, Who Warned Us to Keep Off the Grass, RIP

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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.

NEXT: Milos Forman: Obama's No Iron-Curtain Socialist and Socialism Has No Human Face

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  1. Really unfortunate that guys like Nahas — intelligent, brave, hard-working — can have such fundamentally flawed and incoherent views when it comes to liberty and the line between voluntary assistance for people on drugs, and throwing these folks in jail.

    I can’t say that I wholly agree with his views on the harmful effects of narcotics, but I can see where he’s coming from. Maybe if he’d pursued voluntary methods and been more rigorous with the science, he might have had a positive impact.

    1. not sure if you are referring to actual narcotics (e.g. opioids/opiates), or drugs in general, which in common use are sometimes referred to as “narcotics” but semantics issues aside… IF he was rigorous with the science, there would be no way for him to support his anti mj views.

      simply put, the science is pretty compelling that mj is RELATIVELY benign as far as mind altering substances go.

      it’s not physically addictive (it’s habit forming, but so is ANYTHING that people enjoy), it has no LD50 value, and it simply does not spur people towards the kind of violence, recklessness etc. that we ROUTINELY see from drugs like meth or alcohol.

      i frankly think pot is lame as fuck, and the whole stoner culture leaves me cold, but so what? fat people in spandex leave me cold too but govt. shouldn’t be taking away people’s liberty for it

      and as a longtime street cop (with detective and undercover experience), i would WAY rather deal with a stoner than a drunk or a spracker (meth-head).

      i can’t remember the last time i responded to a domestic violence incident, for example, where the perp was stoned out of his gourd.

      drunk? fuck yea

      high on meth? fuck yea

      why the fuck should govt. be able to take away somebody’s liberty for pot smoking?

      it’s insane.

      and fortunately, the law has been changing for the better

      1. Hey look! A cop that knows the difference between a narcotic and a drug!

        1. hey look, a cop that has testified as an expert on same (fwiw, i was extensively voir dire’d and i am the only officer i know who was ever qualified as such)

          look at the big brain on me ! 🙂

  2. speaking of drugs, there is a VERY good trend where in some locations, cops have narcan available to administer AND in some jurisdictions, it is even available publically w/o a script!

    as it should be!

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/opi…..story.html

    around my parts, we are seeing a HUGE uptick in opioid related overdoses and it’s tragic. anecdtoally, i have seen it myself, responding to far more overdoses (heroin related) than i used to.

    somebody standing by helplessly while their friend /loved one dies of an overdose when they COULD have saved them with some easily administered narcan is ridiculous

    this drug should be publically available OTC. some REALLY moronic drug warriors make the same argument against public availability of narcan as they do against availability of clean needles

    they remind me of people who want to restrict condom access for juveniles. people are goign to have sex, and people are goign to do drugs.

    if we can decrease the risk of death, that’s a good thing.

    1. That is good news.

  3. oh, and there is SO much beauty in this world

    and sagir weightlifting is beautiful and an incredible demonstration of power, explosiveness, and strength

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCuh8trNago

    and hysen in training, being a bad-ass

    third workout of the day, shirtless and inspired!

    http://youtu.be/3JZ5ZaZ4fk8

    amazing athleticism!

  4. There are peoples like this still in the state who are against the marijuana and its not legalize in the state.

    1. Ooh so close, spammer. Your retard grammar gave you away.

      1. Sometimes I wonder if the Internet Padishah Emperor Skynet I is training his Sardukar troops in the unforgiving desert of Hit y Run. Only through such alienation and abuse can they acquire the fortitude and brutality necessary for our final destruction.

  5. You know who else was a hero in the fight against the Nazis, a demonstrably courageous man with strong convictions that were sadly mistaken…

  6. Where is he buried? I have to take a mean pis.

    1. Looks like Sandi needs to take a road trip.

  7. “If, at her age, Margaret Mead smoked grass, she’d have one hell of a trip!”

    It’s this guy right?

  8. He wasn’t much better as an historian than as a public health researcher.

    Egypt was always an agrarian slave state, buddy. 5000 years of agrarian slave state status is Egypt’s legacy. It declined as a power because the development of the West meant agrarian slave states could no longer cut it as regional powers.

    1. Meta history is not easy. Guns, Germs, and Steel was wrong on a lot of levels because it didn’t ask some very relevant questions, and almost totally ignored the impact of many highly competitive states in close proximity. The competition between them spurred many of the advances that led to European exploration and world dominance in the 16th century and beyond.

      1. I think he was taking a longer view, not just over a few hundred years. He did a good job for a typical water-melonish academic. He hints at the competition in weapons and metals, etc. I did notice he did not mention the free market, classical liberalism, and common law much either which are critical for understanding the last few hundred years.

        1. The book had value, but I think luck played far less of a role than he imagined. I do think the market played a very limited role in European dominance – it was established while they were still feudalistic.

  9. although she was not crazy about Matt Welch’s column in the same issue, which she deemed glib and unsubtle

    Nahas was married to Tulpa?

  10. I don’t necessarily disagree with Nahas opinions about the long-term affects of drugs. I just don’t believe it is the State’s place to prohibit their use by citizens.

  11. Glad Nahas fought the Nazis. Other than that, I’ve got nothing good to say about the man.

    If I recall correctly, Nahas did research claiming that his findings proved MJ caused brain damage. As it was later discovered, Nahas’ testing methodology was flawed (surprise!!). The smkoing rig he used on the test monkeys starved the monkeys of oxygen. The brain damage he observed was from lack of oxygen and not from MJ usage.

    He was a fraud as a researcher and scientist. Pretty typical for drug warriors and “moralists” it seems.

  12. 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.

    And the belief in noble goals for the betterment of mankind can be as demonic an obsession as any human can have. Anyone who believes in such goals can’t resist the idea of using force against the recalcitrant and dissenters – and why should they resist it, they are pursuing a noble goal! Shouldn’t everyone understand their vision? I say FUCK your vision of a bettered humanity. This is absolutely no different than your standard religious dogma and it deserves no more respect when pushed at gunpoint.

    Also, Nahas was either incompetent as a scientist or a liar – and neither of those is commendable or even excusable in the service of some noble goal.

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