Why the Prohibition Against Marijuana Has to End
Watanuga Lahele is radiating. His glassy eyes peep out under a large, conical straw hat, his movements slightly erratic. He has been chewing on a dark-greenish kalangi root and the drug Tetralin it contains now clearly shows its euphoric and mind-altering effects. Lahele sits at a long wooden table at the traditional kalangi root festival in Bomaki, the capital of the Republic of West Africa. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come here again to get collectively intoxicated.
During the festival there are dozens of rapes each year. Many visitors end in emergency rooms after dangerously overdosing the drug. But these aspects are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the destructive potential of Tetralin. Its effects on perception and motor control during strong intoxication are so devastating that tens of thousands of consumers in the Republic of West Africa die or get injured in traffic accidents every year. Tens of thousands die from overdoses or from the consequences of prolonged overconsumption and addiction. Prolonged heavy use can lead to hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, nerve cell damage, psychosis, laryngeal-, liver-, stomach-, or pancreatic cancers, as well as to cardiac insufficiency, depression, and fatal forms of dementia. The addiction to Tetralin, often initiated by small amounts of the drug, destroys tens of thousands of families each year. Almost every third rape happens under the influence of the drug, as well as one third of cases of aggravated assault and manslaughter.
How is it possible that the Republic of West Africa legalizes and even celebrates this drug? Why is this culture so much more permissive than other countries, where a substance like marijuana, which according to many experts is even less dangerous than alcohol or nicotine, is strictly prohibited?
These are the wrong questions, of course. Some better questions would be: Do you know that the Republic of West Africa does not exist and that there are no such things as the ‘kalangi root’ or the drug ‘Tetralin’? Do you have a suspicion of what I was really talking about?
Let’s cross-fade to reality. Replace Watanuga Lahele with Michael Wohlgemut wearing his traditional Bavarian leather pants and a big grey conical bowler hat. He is sitting in a giant tent and belting out Bavarian folk songs while occasionally grabbing the backsides of passing waitresses. Michael is attending the biggest and most famous drug festival in the world, the Oktoberfest in Munich, in Germany, central Europe, the self-proclaimed epicenter of civilized European post-Enlightenment society. All the horrible facts on rapes and crime cited above for the invented ‘Republic of West Africa’ and ‘Tetralin’ really apply to the giant annual beer fest and alcohol use in Germany – and the statistics certainly do not look significantly different for most other countries.
So, do we need a prohibition against alcohol to protect our society from this dangerous drug? Of course, an alcohol prohibition would be a bad idea – we all know that now. But as a reaction to the story of Watanuga Lahele, a prohibition probably seemed to you a necessary measure to fight the use of the ‘kalangi root’ – a drug for which I described in detail exactly the side-effects known for alcohol. What is wrong with our perception here? Could it be that we have heard too often phrases like “drugs, tobacco and alcohol”, phrases that presuppose that dangerous drugs like tobacco and alcohol are not really drugs at all?
It’s been evident for a long time now that the marijuana prohibition is just as inefficient and destructive as the alcohol prohibition during the first world war. Some politicians claim that without a prohibition, however, things would get even much worse. We now know, however, that decriminalization of marijuana in the Netherlands and other countries did not lead to higher increase rates of consumption than in countries with a brutally enforced prohibition. On the contrary, the numbers dropped compared with countries with strict prohibition. Why haven’t we still learned our lesson from history?
The marijuana prohibition for the most part has its origins in a disinformation campaign which began in the 1930s. After the end of the catastrophically failed alcohol prohibition, the federal prohibition agency had to look out for a new task to stay in business. To that end, Harry G. Anslinger, the head of the new “Federal Bureau of Narcotics”, started a mixed media campaign. It portrayed marijuana as a deadly poisonous drug that would turn consumers into out-of-control rapists and killers, leading even the occasional user to chronic insanity and death. One of his extremely cynical strategies was to exploit existing racial prejudices against those minority groups who predominately used marijuana at the time:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others. … The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races. Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality and death. You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother. Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
Years later, in the heated atmosphere of the anticommunist McCarthy era, Anslinger changed his strategy and claimed that marijuana would make users too peaceful and communist China would illegally bring in marijuana to the U.S. to undermine the defensive morale of the military and the public. The absurd twist in Anslinger’s argumentation did not seem to bother anybody – the prohibition was prolonged. Anslinger also served as the American representative of the United Nations Drug Commission and used his influence to implement global ban of cannabis cultivation.
Prohibitionists still use spin doctors to create absurd arguments in support of their cause. In the last years, convinced marijuana users were increasingly forced to either go to jail or to a therapeutic institution. The growing numbers of users ‘seeking therapy’ are often used in public debates to claim that there is a growing problem with marijuana use. The PR strategies for the prohibition of marijuana can also be illustrated by analyzing the misleading rhetoric of the slogan ‘war on drugs’ introduced under President Nixon.
The truth is that there has never been a war on drugs. If we look at our history, we can only see an ongoing conflict amongst various drug users – and producers. In ancient Mexico the consumption of alcohol was punishable by death, while the ritualistic use of the psychedelic drug mescaline (from the peyote cactus) was highly worshipped. In Russia, tobacco smokers were threatened with mutilation or decapitation, while alcohol was legal. In Prussia, coffee drinking was prohibited in the second half of the 18th century (except for by higher state officials and noblemen) and was punished with a jail sentence of up to four years or birching, while other drugs like alcohol were legal at the time.
But even if we agree with a more scientifically informed view which sees the risk potential of marijuana as much lower than that of alcohol, we certainly have to take the risks seriously. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to problems with marijuana abuse – mainly not because marijuana would physically harm them, but because psychological addiction and chronic abuse can heavily contribute to failure at a critical stage in their educational careers. Tragically, though, it is exactly in this respect that the prohibition of marijuana fails the most. In recent surveys, high school students say that despite the strict and ongoing prohibition, marijuana is easy to get on the street these days. In spite of all the efforts, prohibition is not only ineffective – it is also destructive and deadly on a monstrous scale; parents lose their jobs or even go to jail for even minor cases of possession, students are expelled from school or college. Every year, more than half a million marijuana users are jailed in the U.S. alone, most simply for possession of small quantities of marijuana. We could protect our adolescents and citizens in general much more effectively with a regulation of marijuana similar to that of alcohol. According to a 2005 report by Dr. Jeffrey Miron, replacing marijuana prohibition with a regulation similar to that used for alcohol would save the U.S. government between $10 billion and $14 billion per year, based on the expected savings and tax revenues.
It is unreasonable to think that we should demand complete abstinence from all drugs from our citizens. The psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel, perhaps the world’s foremost scientific expert concerning the interaction between animals and psychoactive plants, states:
“History shows that we have always used drugs. In every age, in every part of this planet, people have pursued intoxication with plant drugs, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances…Almost every species of animal has engaged in the natural pursuit of intoxicants. This behavior has so much force and persistence that it functions like a drive, just like our drives of hunger, thirst and sex. This “fourth drive” is a natural part of biology, creating the irrepressible demand for drugs. In a sense, the war on drugs is a war against ourselves, a denial of our very nature.“
Instead of trying to preach abstinence or a war on drugs, we should educate people to come to a more respectful and meaningful relationship with them. We also need to acknowledge the fact that psychoactive substances have not only risks, but also a positive potential. New findings in endocannabinoid research are beginning to deliver explanations for the thousands of reports of healthy and otherwise law-abiding citizens who use marijuana not only for medical, but also for inspirational purposes. They have reported how they better focus on the immediate experience while they are high, to be in the “here-and-now”. Many reports offer detailed descriptions of an enhancement of users’ ability to vividly recall past events and of an intensification of all kinds of sensations. Others describe an enhanced ability of introspection as well as empathic understanding. Innumerable people have used marijuana for an enhancement of creative thinking, while others report enhanced pattern recognition as well as scientific or personal insights occurring during a high – a claim famously stated by astronomer Carl Sagan. Jazz musicians Louis Armstrong or Billy Holiday used marijuana for inspiration just like the French writer Charles Baudelaire, the American writer Jack London, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, filmmaker Hal Ashby, the businessman Richard Branson, or the physicist Richard Feynman – to name just a few. If only a fraction of those reports is correct, we must seriously ask ourselves if prohibition is not a severe intrusion into the personal rights of millions of citizens who have decided to explore the enhancement potential of marijuana.
The legalization of marijuana is not a dangerous experiment – the prohibition is the experiment, and it has failed dramatically, with millions of victims all around the world. The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently presented their new report, which makes a clear case to end the war on marijuana and other drugs. Members of this commission include Kofi Annan, the former United Nations’ chief secretary; George Shultz, the former foreign minister of the U.S.; Fernando H. Cardoso, the former president of Brazil; Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, as well as the former NATO’s chief secretary Javier Solana. On July 2, the renowned activist group “AVAAZ” submitted a petition with half a million signatures to end the drug war to Ban Ki-Moon, the present chief secretary of the UN.
Massive lobbying interests such as the pharma-, alcohol-, and private jail industries still stand in the way of a sensible political change in our drug policies. These lobbyists will need to see that they are out of touch. They need to understand that people have started to wake up from the nightmares Anslinger and his followers made us all dream.