January 16, 2018

The wheel keeps on turning

The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on this date in 1919. This constitutional modification was championed by sundry groups seeking a more pure and godly nation, and saw a means to that end by constitutionally barring the demon rum.

Unfortunately, the outcome was far different from what was expected. Instead of abstinence, we witnessed the birth of a new and highly lucrative small business model. This held particular attraction for some enterprising Italian and Jewish immigrants. Once the legal sale of alcohol fell under the prohibitionist ax, bootlegging gave a giant leg up to La Cosa Nostra (which roughly translated to English means, This Thing of Ours.).

It took Americans a little time to fully realize the futility of the teetotaler agenda, but fourteen years after the ratification of the 18th amendment, it was effectively repealed by the passage of the 23rd. The mafia, however, was firmly entrenched and had no intention of rolling up the carpets and putting up the Going out of Business signs. The mob immediately branched into more hardened criminal activities; most notably the protection racket, gambling, and prostitution. Initially at least, they avoided the drug trade. That would come later. It wasn't until the late 60s that the FBI effectively broke the mob's back, and it took until after the turn of the millennium for the last of the major Dons to be convicted and sent to prison.

Almost a century of organized crime was birthed by sincere puritan efforts intended to save humans from themselves, yet in the interim saw terrible violence and bloodshed. We witnessed massive increases in violent crime and soaring murder rates. Prohibition extracted a heavy price on this nation.

This did not deter the passion of the prudes. They weren't done yet. Coincidental with the anti-alcohol efforts came the effort to demonize and prohibit by force of law yet another substance... cannabis. A fact that seems lost in this 21st century is that cannabis was freely cultivated in this nation in the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th century. It was a good cash crop; used in  the production of medications, rope, and textiles... and yes, it was used to get high.

On the surface, the cannabis prohibition effort was played as just another of the do-gooder causes, but the true tale of how the substance fell into the cross-hairs of law enforcement is both interesting and disgusting. It harbors a vaguely European and very American narrative... racism.

Following the end of the Mexican revolution in 1920, the U.S. began to see an influx of Mexican and Central American migration. Although every state received migrants, it was seen mostly in the southern border states and into Louisiana. These migrants brought with them their native cultures, customs, and languages. One of the customs shared by most was the use of cannabis as a relaxant, yet just like Americans, the migrants also used it in medicinal preparations. Their word for the substance was marijuana rather than cannabis. Americans were familiar with the cannabis plant, but the word marijuana was a new and foreign term. This ignorance was seized upon by the prohibitionists as they mounted their new campaigns. Those folks had unlikely allies in this prohibition effort... in the form of white supremacist groups... most notably the "Christian" Ku Klux Klan.

So an unholy alliance between the prohibitionists and our good old and ever-present American racist elements took form. The campaign began by implying that this stuff they brought from down south... this marijuana... must be evil. That slowly morphed into strong hints that the Mexicans themselves were evil. New terminology also began to enter our lexicon; Cannabis became the demon weed, devil's lettuce, killer herb, skunk weed, wacky tobaccy, killer reefer, and a host of other such monikers clearly intended to demonize something that Americans knew to be beneficial. The media, fed with the false and exaggerated claims about disruptive Mexicans and their dangerous use of the evil marijuana, joined in on the campaign. It was disguised as law and order... yet was in reality little more than the latest racist attempt to keep America white.

The average American, ignorant of the fact that this terrible marijuana was in fact the very same as something with which they had grown comfortable... something already in their medicine cabinets. In great numbers the uneducated jumped on the prohibition bandwagon, torch and pitchfork in hand. The fabricated rhetoric stoked fear among the public back then, and continues to have a direct connection to the anti-Mexican movement we still see today.

We had seen previously seen where controlling citizens by controlling customs could be successful. By making marijuana a controlled substance and banning it from use or sale, our government successfully implemented a national strategy for keeping certain populations under the watchful eye of law enforcement. This suited our American bigots just fine. The more Mexicans sent to prison, the better.

Eighty some-odd years ago the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 became law. Since then the pitch and volume of the rhetoric has peaked and ebbed like a roller coaster, but the past two decades have seen attitudes change considerably. The reversal of the ill effects brought by this unjust prohibition has come more slowly than it did for alcohol, yet as of this writing, thirty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that in some form or another legalize marijuana, while eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted recreational use laws. Voters in Massachusetts and Maine recently passed legalization, but at the time of this writing, those states have neither written rules for growers and retailers, nor have they begun accepting licenses applications.

A major hurdle is that cannabis remains illegal under federal law. In 2013, then President Obama ordered his Justice Department to not enforce federal law in the jurisdictions where cannabis had been legalized by voters. As the public becomes more  aware of the fabricated health claims used to justify prohibition and its implied racial bias, the clamor for legalization grows louder and making it highly likely that others will follow the majority's lead. Some of the holdout states are having discussion and voters may soon find ballot initiatives addressing the issue when they go to the polls.

In spite of these popular calls for legalization, we now have another president and another Attorney General; both intent on reversing Obama era initiatives. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions recently stated that his department would be paying no attention to the Obama mandate or will of the people, and immediately launched a new crusade. His goal is to once again raise the specter of "the evil others and their demon weed." In Sessions’ eye and apparently that of his boss, the mission should again be to turned toward authoritarian control, with a desired result of ensuring a good supply of detainees marching in chains toward the for-profit, private prisons.

So here we are for another ride on the roller coaster, and this too shall pass. We'll see what comes next, but this author predicts full repeal of all cannabis prohibition laws within his ever shortening lifetime.

The wheel keeps on turning.