Marijuana is becoming legal across the US, mostly because a lot of people have used it.
Americans knew very little about marijuana — the leaves, flowers and stems of the cannabis plant — in the first half of the twentieth century. Few had any experience with it. Our widespread ignorance permitted federal bureaucrats and others to engage in a campaign of racist fraud. The baseless claims about marijuana included assertions that Hispanic users were engaging in crazed rape and murder rampages.
This propaganda campaign resulted in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which was a de facto prohibition of marijuana. That prohibition became explicit in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which also created the Drug Enforcement Administration.
By the 1970s, however, nearly half of the population had used marijuana and knew those claims were false. Indeed, there has never been a proven case of any marijuana user rendered violent by ingesting the substance.
So despite the federal prohibition, several states decriminalized the drug, and a strong national mood supported that position. President Jimmy Carter called for decriminalizing the drug in a message to Congress.
The Heyday of Marijuana Prohibition
Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, and his wife Nancy, took a starkly different approach. The president asserted that marijuana was “probably the most dangerous drug in America,” outranking heroin and cocaine and ignoring far more harmful legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol. (Tobacco kills about 400,000 Americans every year and alcohol kills about 100,000.)
Fancying herself a criminal law theorist, Nancy Reagan declared that anyone who smokes a marijuana cigarette is “an accomplice to murder.” Criminal penalties and enforcement efforts increased greatly. millions of of Americans were arrested for marijuana offenses and thousands were imprisoned. The decriminalization movement was temporarily squelched. But the actual experience of millions of Americans with the drug would eventually undermine the Reagan crusade.
Although the positive sensations experienced by most users of the drug are substantial and varied, some users, especially new ones, experience unpleasant, although temporary, psychological effects. Some report feeling suspicious of others, a mild form of paranoia.
Experience Overwhelms Propaganda
The collapse of the Reagan crusade was caused primarily by the favorable experiences of recreational users. But it was also aided by mounting evidence that marijuana has unique medicinal qualities. For example, it can restore the appetites of cancer patients nauseated by chemotherapy. It can also reduce pain without creating the dependence often produced by opioids. And it is credited with controlling many types of epileptic seizures and relieving the symptoms of asthma.
As of today, although the federal prohibition is still on the books, enforcement has diminished. The Obama administration rarely prosecutes anyone who grows, possesses, dispenses, or uses marijuana in compliance with state laws. It is unlikely that his successor will change that policy.
Twenty-five States plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and four States plus D.C. have legalized recreational use of marijuana by adults. A recent Gallup poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans favor outright legalization. Legalization is on the ballots of several states, including California, which is expected to approve legalization on November 8th. It seems likely that the drug will soon be legal in all 50 states as well as at the federal level.
This does not mean that marijuana will be legally consumable by minors. Evidence is fairly persuasive that frequent use of the drug by children, teenagers and young adults may hamper their intellectual and moral development. As with alcohol, the production, distribution and use of marijuana will be closely regulated in the foreseeable future.
As the movement toward legalization proceeds, we should reexamine the millions of criminal sentences we have imposed on users of marijuana. Today, 30,000 people are in prison for mere possession of marijuana and many people are serving life sentences for marijuana distribution. Such sentences cannot be justified.