Part 3: Political history
By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Cannabis politics extend back to Europeans’ arrival in the Americas. Cannabis was indispensable to the imposition of their will by sea power. Eighty tons of hemp sales and rope drove Columbus’s three ships.
In 1524, the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano discovered cannabis growing wild in what is now Virginia. In 1619, King James I decreed that each adult colonist must grow 100 cannabis plants per year.
From 1621, when Oxford scholar Robert Burton recommended cannabis for the treatment of depression, through the next three centuries, medical journals prescribed it for a wide array of ailments.
In 1839, British East India Company Surgeon William B. O’Shaughnessy published the first comprehensive study of medical cannabis in the West. Because of their remarkable efficacy, cannabis therapies quickly spread and entered the U.S. pharmacopeia in 1854.
But in the early 1890s some British colonial administrators in India expressed concerns about the widespread use of “ganja” as an intoxicant. A Temperance League MP persuaded Lord Kimberly, Secretary of State for India, to convene the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission. Formed in 1893, it interviewed 1,193 witnesses and produced a 3,281-page report.
It concluded that “moderate use of hemp drugs appears to cause no appreciable physical injury of any kind…no injurious effects on the mind…no moral injury whatever.”
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Mexican agricultural workers brought the recreational smoking of cannabis to the U.S. It spread among jazz musicians and African-Americans. The mainstream population’s ignorance and fear of these socially marginal groups made possible William Randolph Hearst’s and Harry Anslinger’s fraudulent crusade against cannabis, as described in my last column.
Despite that crusade, before the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 outlawed cannabis, fear of violent marijuana addicts was not widespread, significant, or in most cases, genuine. But few in Congress knew that. Nor, for that matter, did many legislators know that marijuana was cannabis.
New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was skeptical. He asked the New York Academy of Medicine to comprehensively study the subject. The Academy put together a team of physicians, pharmacologists, psychologists, and sociologists.
They studied the use and effects of cannabis in “tea pads”—over 500 venues in New York City where people could purchase and smoke cannabis in a social setting. They also conducted extensive clinical experiments and administered a battery of tests to cannabis smokers.
After five years of study, they published The LaGuardia Committee Report in 1944. It contradicted every allegation that Anslinger had made. Among its findings were that
• Smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction or to morphine, heroin, or cocaine use;
• Aggression, violence and belligerence are not common consequences of smoking marijuana; and
• Publicity concerning catastrophic effects of smoking marijuana is unfounded.
Anslinger was furious. All the more so when the American Medical Association published an editorial affirming the Commission’s work. He ultimately mobilized a successful intimidation campaign against the AMA.
States increasingly adopted harsh marijuana laws. In Georgia, for example, a second marijuana offense was punishable by the death penalty.
Widespread marijuana smoking by White middle-class youth in the 1960s began to crack the political consensus. And in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that the Marihuana Tax Act was unconstitutional.
Richard Nixon’s election campaign had successfully exploited the Southern anti-civil-rights backlash and sensationalized drug use. His administration wrote the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which classified cannabis as a “Schedule 1” drug. This most restrictive category is for drugs that have no therapeutic value and a high potential for abuse. Not even cocaine and meth are Schedule 1 drugs.
Nixon sought to prove marijuana’s “pandemic virulence” by creating the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, headed by Pennsylvania’s former Republican Governor Ray Shafer. After exhaustive study, the Commission concluded, “The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior.”
It questioned the law’s constitutionality and recommended decriminalization. The findings and recommendation were consistent with Britain’s 1969 Baroness Wootten Report and Canada’s 1970 LeDain Commission Report.
Marijuana’s Schedule 1 status usurped the FDA’s authority to determine its medical potential. In 1972, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws legally petitioned the Drug Enforcement Administration’s predecessor to reschedule cannabis, in order to permit medical research. The agency refused to even file the petition.
On appeal, the D.C. Circuit Court ordered the DEA to file it. So DEA denied the petition without holding the legally required hearings. Similar judicial rulings and DEA noncompliance continued through fourteen years and three appeals.
Finally, in the summer of 1986, rescheduling hearings began before Judge Francis Young. Two years later he ruled that “marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” He characterized its classification as “unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious.” But the DEA Administrator refused to implement his ruling.
A two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, published in 1999, reached the same conclusions that Judge Young and his predecessors had. But the DEA denied new rescheduling petitions filed in 1995 and 2002. It has not yet acted on a 2011 petition by the Governors of Rhode Island and Washington state.
Throughout this period, the DEA worked to obstruct and suppress medical research of cannabis, except for that which proposes to study its ill effects. Of course, such studies are all either inconclusive or end up demonstrating the opposite.
For example, Medical College of Virginia researchers were funded to produce evidence that marijuana damages the immune system. Instead, in 1974 they discovered that cannabinoids inhibited the growth of breast cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia in mice. They were ordered to shut down their research. Subsequent studies in Spain, Italy, and Florida have confirmed their findings.
While the federal government has remained intransigent, state governments have gradually relaxed penalties on marijuana possession. And a 1996 ballot measure made California the first state to legalize medical cannabis. Last month, Washington and Colorado fully legalized marijuana. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now allow its medical use. This sets up a fascinating constitutional conflict between states’ and federal rights.
Attitudes about cannabis seem to be less driven by political orientation than by how deeply one has examined the evidence. Pot smoking is often associated with the goofy Left. But in 1981, House Speaker Newt Gingrich introduced (unsuccessful) legislation to legalize medical cannabis.
And conservative icon William F. Buckley wrote, “The anti-marijuana campaign is a cancerous tissue of lies, undermining law enforcement, aggravating the drug problem, depriving the sick of needed help, and suckering well meaning conservatives and countless frightened parents.”
I sincerely don’t understand the vehement political opposition to cannabis. Perhaps it’s just a rear-guard campaign in the culture wars. Perhaps there are plenty of public officials who know the truth, but lack the courage to act on it.
Perhaps Upton Sinclair captured the essence of it. The journalist and novelist, whose work is credited with motivating passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”