I’ve been embarrassed to speak my thoughts on marijuana for a long time because it seems doing so gets you fired, arrested, or at least scolded by whoever is closest. Now I won’t say one way or another whether I smoke weed because, well, look up my state’s current laws on the subject. So let me state clearly into the mic, “I did NOT inhale.” In the meantime, let’s see if we can’t have a meaningful conversation about marijuana given the language we’ve got.
Well, fortunately for us, Netflix recently released a powerful documentary called The Grass is Greener (Freddy, 2019), on the history of marijuana, the Black and Hispanic community, music, and the imprisonment of an entire racial minority. So let’s start there in 3rd person. If I say some fact that sounds impressive and doesn’t have a specific source, you can assume I learned it from Fab 5 Freddy’s fantastic film.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s article, Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think? (Gladwell, 2019), we see an unfortunate point of view which happens to be false. In it he states, “We’re only a decade or so into the widespread recreational use of high-potency marijuana.” He uses this argument to explain why a recent study by the National Academy of Medicine concluded “We need proper studies… on the health effects of cannabis on children and teen-agers and pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers and older populations and heavy cannabis users.” Both of these statements are false.
We are many, many decades (if not centuries) past the “widespread recreational use of high-potency marijuana.” To say that we’ve only really seen high-potency stuff within the past decade doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Jamaicans, Mexicans, African Americans, Pakistanis, and countless other peoples have been smoking and procuring high potency Mary J far longer than white Americans have been recording that colored history. In fact, this is a common argument used in an attempt to separate people of color from their rightful place at the head of an emerging industry (but one step at a time). The Grass is Greener starts there plotting out in detail the widespread literature all proving the greats on Bourbon Street, or in St. Louis, or Mississippi, or across the southern border, had been outspoken advocates for legal marijuana use even as they rose to popularity.
Louis Armstrong himself is quoted as saying:
"I’m not so particular about having a permit to carry a gun, all I want is a permit to carry that good shit. You must see to it that I have special permission to smoke all the reefers I want to when I want, or I will just have to put this horn down.”
At that time pot was so common in his everyday life and musical community that he (at least hyperbolically) suggested that it was Jive and Music or nothing at all.
The documentary goes on to describe how from the early origins the substance was first named “Marijuana” to explicitly link the substance with Mexican people. Then as it began being so prominent and common in the emerging music scenes a few white men took it upon themselves to criminalize the substance in order to keep their white daughters from being seduced in a jazz club by black men (seriously, it’s crazy stuff). The Civil Rights movement made it “not ok” to arrest people for being Black or Hispanic. So legislators driven by Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” worked to instill widespread and deliberate misinformation in order to continue to persecute people of color. This continued even after white people in the hippy movements had embraced the substance. Today even as some states legalize the substance, black and brown men and women continue to be funneled into a jail system at rates far disproportionate to rates of drug use or population demographics both. The legacy of marijuana, as the documentary asserts, is the disenfranchisement of racial minorities in the United States and continuation of Institutionalized Racism as once again, people of color are denied the fruits of their labor.
Which brings me to the second falsehood Gladwell repeated. People in today’s hyper FDA regulated big Pharma dominated era are quick to repeat the mantra, “We just don’t know enough yet.” Except there have been plenty of studies. People should remember that Harry Anslinger, Chief Division of Foreign Control 1926-1929 – often credited as the father of marijuana prohibition – grabbed a story involving a mentally ill, high, Mexican man (later deemed the “Marijuana Maniac”) who killed his family with an axe, thereby beginning a wave of Anti-Marijuana Propaganda. He did all this in spite of studies confirming Marijuana’s overall harmlessness and widespread mischaracterization.
In 1937, the Laguardia Report stated , “There is no proof that major crimes are associated with marijuana… [there is] no direct relationship between violence and marijuana… Smoking marijuana can be stopped abruptly with no resulting physical or mental distress.” That’s more than 80 years ago.
Even in the middle of Nixon’s presidency as Nixon was generously using the “N word” on tape, the Shafer Commission issued a statement on public television saying, “There has been previous misinformation, false statements, and for that reason we’ve attempted to ‘demythologize the drug’.” They stated, “Occasional use of marijuana does not do any physical harm and may not do any psychological harm… Unfortunately because marijuana has become politicized, the realities have become blurred.” The report recommended decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, but Nixon continued his prohibitory rhetoric.
John Ehrlichman, a close adviser to Nixon and Watergate co-conspirator, confirmed in a later report:
“We couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Since then marijuana prohibition has had more to do with racism and political propaganda than sound science.
Take for instance, what we call "Synthetic Marijuana" (actually synthetic cannabinoids - a completely different thing) refers to a series of substances known to elicit vomiting, violent behavior, and suicidal thoughts (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018, Planet Money, 2018). Why do you think we call it "Synthetic Marijuana"? Given the history of the last century I'll give you a guess. Right - To associate real marijuana with the craziness of so-called "Synthetic Marijuana" thereby legitimizing anti-marijuana prohibition propaganda - You guessed it!
Consequently, when people run for office under the Legalize Marijuana platform, they're largely laughed out of the room. I mean how much do these potheads need their pot for them to think they deserve more attention than the DNC or the GOP, right? Except pursuing this platform is about undoing the latest hundred years of Racism and restoring some sanity to our domestic policies.
Now I must say that Malcolm Gladwell is my #1 favorite non-fiction writer. I’m signed up for his Masterclass for F's sake. But he appears to have fallen victim to the same demonization and anti-marijuana propaganda I have for most of my life. I grew up with DARE officers coming into my 5th grade class telling me to “just say no.” Lies from Reefer Madness were passed freely by visiting police officers and teachers. It scared me straight.
But then in middle school I found an increasing number of people who smoked marijuana – normal, sane, rational, nice, peaceful people. Once my bubble burst I, like millions in our country, began to question the rhetoric.
I can neither confirm nor deny whether I’ve tried smoking marijuana… regularly… in every city I’ve lived in since my small town in Missouri. I can neither confirm nor deny whether in smoky dens on the east coast, or in southern China, or in the snowy Midwest, or in my homestate of Colorado, some of the most inspiring people I’ve known made art – beautiful art. I can neither confirm nor deny my suspicion was confirmed by more recent studies (Gross, 2019) suggesting the major effect Marijuana causes is increased “cell-to-cell communication in cells throughout the brain to be enhanced or to be exaggerated." Thus pot enhances experiences making sad things sadder, interesting things more interesting, and beautiful things more beautiful - therefore, all the art.
There are all sorts of messages I would like to pass on from an anonymous source that marijuana, if anything, has made this user more open to other people, more creative, more peace-loving, and more inspired to change the world for the better. However, this person cannot say these things openly without risking imprisonment. Therefore, this person will remain unnamed at least until recreational marijuana use is legalized in Minnesota.
We still relate to Marijuana as if the burden of proof lies with the argument that this naturally occurring plant isn’t somehow inherently corrupting. It’s the success of people like Anslinger and Nixon that we still widely acknowledge marijuana to be less harmful than alcohol and yet find marijuana scheduled as a the most dangerous category of substance (right next to heroin), while we can get alcohol at any bar
So here we are in a post Gay Marriage decision country (as long as that lasts us) watching state after state go green. Here we are with 659,700 arrested in 2017 for marijuana violations (Drug Policy Alliance, 2019) – inmates who will struggle to find gainful employment and freedom from police persecution forever after. Here we are with marijuana business owners and founders 81% white despite white people being the greatest opponents of the substance’s use in its known history. Here we are in my state of Minnesota unable to have an open conversation about something we all know.
So no, I won’t pretend Marijuana is a bad thing; or people are bad for smoking marijuana; or that we don’t still believe these things for overtly racist reasons. I won't pretend that with legalization we don’t stand to gain an entire culture back into our society which has been credited with the greatest American contributions to global music ever. I won't pretend that we don’t stand to save incomprehensibly large amounts of money by unburdening our prisons. And I won't pretend that we as a society wouldn’t gain something profoundly beautiful by allowing and even endorsing this substance I may or may not believe in.
I won’t do it.
I hope you won’t either.
Keep the conversation going
What does Marijuana culture mean to you?
What's your stance on Marijuana legalization? Why?
What would happen in American society if Marijuana was legalized?