A Comprehensive Study of American Drug Laws – Written April 26, 2004

According to the ideals of a free society, that which is done by the individual that does not harm others is legal. At the same time, when an individual does something that does harm another, it is considered illegal. If a government attempts to hinder what an individual does without showing how it causes harm to others, there must be a change made in the law. Our government is based in this concept, and yet it has great difficulty holding up to it sometimes.

Marijuana was originally made illegal in 1937, along with most other illegal drugs, when the FDA was created and the first drug laws were passed. Interestingly, marijuana was not seen by most people as a drug because they knew it by the name “cannabis,” which refers to the whole plant and not only the leaf that is smoked. In the mid-1930s, hemp cannabis was the second-largest textile industry in America next to cotton, with cotton products slowly declining as better quality hemp products were produced. Half of the imported fabrics contained cannabis hemp that was made illegal after marijuana was scheduled (as “smokable marijuana” must have at least 1% THC, but this was not discovered until the 1970s – most hemp has far less than 1%, but this did not stop the government from destroying countless hemp crops and imports). This, coupled with the knowledge that marijuana was an intoxicating substance, led the government to make it illegal. It is referred to as a “Schedule I” drug, meaning is has no medicinal value, being in the same category as opiates, cocaine, LSD, etc.

After it was made illegal, the cotton industry boomed, and the government began was is known as the “Reefer Madness” campaigns, based on a propaganda film of the same title, similar to current anti-drug advertisements by the government. The ads depicted youth smoking marijuana and behaving in “bad” ways; the argument was that marijuana led one first to immorality and then to criminality. As it happened, after the Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937, so few people knew that marijuana was also hemp that Popular Mechanics published an article in 1938 claiming that cannabis would save the American economy.1 “Nothing to fear except fear itself” being the slogan of the time, it is peculiar that so many people were so terrified by drugs, as if the government had somehow deflected the problem of the Depression and following recession and subtlety attributed the pains of society to substance abuse, which is amazing since, eighteen years earlier, the outlawing of an intoxicant helped to bring about said Depression.

Alcohol prohibition is a great way of viewing American freedom. At the time of the depression, it was legal to ingest anything into one’s body, despite the outcome. Americans made and sold every drug that was available at the time, including many that are illegal today. In 1919, there was enough public outcry to make a Constitutional Amendment banning alcohol, mainly from religious groups and feminists who saw alcohol as the greatest scourge in America. How it was passed is beyond me, since what followed obviously defeated any argument that could have been made by prohibitionist groups (other than alcohol causing lots of problems which it still did). Instead of husbands getting drunk and abusing people, then getting arrested for it, the same guys got just as drunk and abusive, only the money went into the black market instead of “good citizens” or the government. It took ten years for the government to realize that having poor quality drugs readily available was worse than quality drugs, and far less people killed people over bottles of booze when there wasn’t a law against it. Prohibition allowed citizens to be poisoned from bad cocktails and at the same time helped build organized crime in America. When one criminalizes things that aren’t crimes, one still creates real criminals.

As said, it is strange that Americans would be so apt to make drugs illegal, except for the obvious. At the time, less than 10% of the population used drugs that were found on the Federal list of illegal substances, so there was no real voting power against it; that coupled with alcohol being readily available for the first time in over a decade prompted most Americans to not care at all about making a bunch of things illegal that they don’t use. And, after it became illegal, use stayed about the same, just like with alcohol prohibition. The difference this time was that those that did not use drugs were suddenly made to fear them, especially marijuana, since it was the most readily available, America having fields of natural cannabis. The other change was with the Italian mafia, who had run the alcohol industry during prohibition, generally didn’t like drugs, despite the excessive profit involved. The availability of drugs stayed the same as it had before it was made illegal, but more people were afraid of it.

In the 1940s and 50s, white Americans began to do what they had done in the earlier part of the century. When immigrants came to America and took over a neighborhood, “old-blooded” Americans would settle in a new place. At the same time, those neighborhoods grew to having a predominant ethnic base, which continues today. White people kicked the Indians off their land, so it was only a matter of time until a group came to uproot the whites from where they were. In this case, it was minorities, specifically black and Hispanic people, which moved into the areas. As the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t happened yet, they were all still very oppressed and poorly represented, especially in the media. The hyperreality of the “dark-skinned urban male” set in and people started freaking out. Dark-skinned people took over the neighborhoods, which turned to ghettos, and white people moved to the suburbs where they could be safe from all the evil drugs.

The whole idea of drugs being “bad” is interesting. Drugs should certainly not be illegal, but really, when one really gets down to it, this has all been about morality since the beginning. Tobacco kills over 440,000 people each year, alcohol claims 50,000, and marijuana has yet to kill anyone in the history of documented literature. The Canadian Cancer Society states, “some [studies] estimate smoking 3 to 4 marijuana cigarettes per day is roughly equivalent to smoking 20 tobacco cigarettes.” While this statement is highly ambiguous as to the chemical makeup of marijuana, it does base marijuana in simpler terms. Marijuana, while having some carcinogenic chemicals, has far less than tobacco, making it’s long-term effects less than tobacco; however, marijuana is rarely smoked with a filter, unless smoked in a water pipe (however, it is speculated that by using a water pipe one filters tar as well as THC, ergo one must smoke more), and the smoke has a better ability to coat the lungs than a filtered cigarette. Unfortunately, the fact is that marijuana, medically, is no more harmful than many legal substances in the United States. The nicotine contained in a single cigarette when eaten can kill a baby. The nicotine contained in five cigarettes can kill a healthy adult. The caffeine in about a hundred cups of coffee, taken in pill form, is lethal. A liter of whiskey in one night can kill an adult. A tube of sleeping pills can cause liver failure. Swallowing about fifty aspirin tablets will lead to unstoppable stomach bleeding that can be fatal. By comparison, an adult would have to smoke two pounds of marijuana to run a risk of a fatal overdose. So, it isn’t because marijuana causes medical risks, despite the government saying it has no value, it has similar value to legal substances only without the detrimental affects, which I puzzling to say the least. The DEA claims that the reason marijuana is illegal is because things that are smoked have no accepted medical value, therefore a drug called Marinol was invented.

In 1976, the government stopped all research of marijuana except for one group, which was given millions to concentrate the active ingredient in a worthless plant and market it as a pill. Dronabinol is synthetic THC, and is a Schedule III drug, meaning it is a controlled pharmacological substance, similar to general painkillers or antibiotics. Solvay pharmaceuticals, the group that was funded to make the pill, is the only company that markets dronabinol in America, with no generic alternatives that are available in countries that have decriminalized marijuana. Cannabis, the plant that holds the THC, has no value, and yet the THC itself does when it is not within the plant. What is most interesting is the side-effects of Marinol, having a history of not working or only working for a short amount of time. Some doctors speculate that the appetite-stimulant/pain reliever that dronabinol is used for is ineffective because a user needs the other 400 chemicals also found within the plant for the THC to work properly. Some that have tried Marinol have become paralyzed based on usage, but the death counts remains at zero, even with the concentrated versions of THC being available.

Now is where marijuana myths are laid down, and there are a lot of them. The actual effects of marijuana are varied but closely-knit. For example, some will smoke weed and it will relieve nausea, and others will vomit from it. Some people relax and others get extremely tense. What must be understood about marijuana, not merely THC, is that it is a hallucinogen, meaning it changes one’s perceptions, sometimes dramatically. Full-on hallucinations can occur or absolutely nothing can happen; the drug itself is very dependent on the user as far as how it will affect the body (which explains dronabinol’s occasional ineffectiveness). The effects, regardless of what they are, usually last less than a few hours and rarely extend over four. For most users, cannabis causes a mood lift, release of tension, mild sedation, increase in appetite, and a greater sense of awareness. Negative effects are generally mild and wear off quickly, including coughing, fatigue, muscular tension, increase in respiration, increase in heart rate, and anxiety.

Now “The Number Myths,” which are aggravating. Research done in the field of marijuana is garbage, for the most part, especially considering the government outlawed virtually all of it in 1976. As we saw from the effects, it is difficult to buckle-down exactly what marijuana does; the isolation of the active ingredient into pill form has done little for the drugs medical explanation, since the plant has all the effects that the pill does. This is when rhetoric comes into play. For example, when asked if drugs should be illegal in America, 82% of the population says “yes.” But when asked if the War on Drugs is effective, 76% say “no.” The Partnership for a Drug Free America is the headliner of the modern rhetorical statistic. On the “Children’s Section” of their website, they show that less than 20% of high school students smoke weed frequently, a statistic designed to make the youth not feel pressured into using the drugs; then, in the “Adult’s Section,” they state that over 60% of high school seniors have smoked weed, a slightly different statistic with a much larger number attached in hopes that parents will be so worried about the problem that they will talk to their kids about using. According to government statistics, twenty million Americans smoke weed every day, and 100 million have tried it. Making all this easier to read, 5% of America smokes every day, and a quarter of the nation has tried it; 20% of high school seniors smoke every day, and almost three quarters of them have tried it.

This brings us into the next point, going back to an older point, about how readily available drugs are. The fact that drugs are illegal has, if anything, made more traffic for the substances, since some of it is confiscated. Heroin, a substance virtually no one advocates use of, is over sixty times as pure today as it was thirty years ago. Interestingly, people try to use the same argument in making marijuana seem dangerous – that the potency of cannabis has gone up since the 1960s. In order for cannabis to be considered marijuana, it must have at least 1% THC present in it. Hemp (the stuff that was competing against cotton), used in making clothes, paper, and such rarely gets above .1% High quality leaf can have up to 25% THC by volume. The laws of nature have not changed in the last fifty years, and the same holds true; capture of plants, however, has changed. Before 1978, the average THC content of confiscated marijuana was between .3% and .7%; after 1978, when the government realized it was seizing lots of legal plants, the numbers rose to the point that, in the early 1980s, as the “War on Drugs” got into full swing, marijuana looked extremely frightening at 5% THC, even though that is still considered low-quality weed.

Another “Reefer Madness” campaign was launched at the end of the 1970s (which grew into the Partnership for a Drug Free America in in an attempt to change the sway in public opinion about weed brought about by the 50s Beatniks and 60s hippies. In 1971, Richard Nixon said, “America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse.” Not the countless citizens getting shot in Vietnam, but the potheads running around our streets. The propaganda did its job well – “voodoo pharmacology,” as it is called, as never been to scare those interested in the drugs, but to make those who are weary of the drugs more afraid, both of the substance and the user. In 1971, Nixon led the first drug initiative, spending 350 million to eliminate the threat of drugs. With the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973, that number went through the roof, resting today at about ten billion dollars a year. That means that the government spends $1,000 on every frequent user of marijuana on the streets of the United States, locking up 723,626 of them each year. Of that total of marijuana arrests, 641,108 charges are for simple possession, leaving 82,518 dealers, traffickers, and cultivators; at a little over $20,000 per year per inmate of any given prison, $12.8 billion of taxpayer’s money goes to jailing marijuana users.

The worst part about the laws is the variance. Federal Law regarding marijuana is fairly tight – possession of any amount is a year, and goes up as offenses increase. Dealing less than 50 kg (110 pounds) is five years in jail and a fine of $250,000, jail time and financial penalty going up significantly (up to $4 million) as the amount of weight increases. The law has mandatory minimum sentences for all convictions with conditional release for first time offenders. On top of these laws, they are also extremely strict about selling within school zones, arcades, parks, swimming pools, or to children in general. While possession laws vary from state to state, and this obviously being one of the problems involved in the dispute over marijuana laws, they all do have penalties for the possession, sale, and cultivation. While some of these laws are fairly rational (California lets possession of less than an ounce off with a $100 fine) others are much less (any amount less than two pounds in Rhode Island is a mandatory year in jail, and it gets much worse), which means that a standardization of law is needed. The reason for marijuana’s illegality is simple – while the synthetic THC is controlled by pharmaceutical companies (who, in turn, are controlled by the government), grown marijuana is controlled by private citizens; companies can be controlled much easier than individual people. This is a euphemistic way of saying the government likes those that are rich and would like to keep them rich; they also like the poor to stay exactly where they are. It is within this premise that marijuana law is what it is. However, state-by-state, laws differ slightly, especially where it counts – mandatory minimum sentences and conditional release programs for first time offenders.

Seventeen states support mandatory minimum sentences and thirty support conditional release for first time offenders. Of the thirty that support conditional release for first time offenders, only eight also support mandatory minimum sentences, meaning a fifth of the country that have mandatory imprisonment do not parole if the infraction is a first conviction while almost half have disagreed with federal scheduling and have, at least somewhat, decriminalized marijuana.

The greatest irony of both the illegality of marijuana and all Schedule I drugs is the amount of usage since they because illegal. Virtually no one smoked marijuana before 1930, and most that did found it growing wild or grew it on their farm along with hemp. Since that time, the increase in users of drugs has gone up; since 1992, marijuana arrests alone have increased over 110%, from about 350,000 to 725,000. At the same time, usage is up amongst teens, not amongst habitual users, but amongst occasional smokers, which shows that marijuana is getting more and more mainstream acceptance. This also shows that people, especially our generation, is listening to less of what the government says and more of what actual facts say. People know that marijuana doesn’t lead to heroin any more than tobacco leads to cocaine, unless one looks at exposure, in which case keeping marijuana illegal merely forces ordinarily good citizens to seek drugs in places where other drugs are, exposing them to worse things. No one goes into a doctor’s office for Attention Deficit Disorder and walks out with a prescription for Oxycontin; if all controlled substances were simply on the same list, regulated the same way, then all kinds of problems would stop.

The final fact that brings it all together is simple. In nine states, medical marijuana is legal – which is to say almost a fifth of the country has recognized that the cannabis plant has medicinal value. This puts it in a category with virtually every other drug that is illegal in the United States – doctors are trusted by the federal government to handle opiates (morphine and heroin, as well as the synthetic codeine), amphetamines, tranquilizers (ketamine, xanyx, valium), and cocaine (as well as its synthetic derivatives, Novocain and Procaine), but they still don’t trust them with marijuana. In 1978, the year Marinol was invented, the U.S. government began a program to supply its citizens with medical marijuana. Not the new pills they wanted so much, since the cannabis plant had no medicinal value but the pills did, but actual plant material grown by the government to be smoked as medicine. At its peak, the government supplied thirty people with over a pound each, every week, until the day they die, based on a federal prescription that will never expire. Each of the seven people left today would die if not for smoking marijuana – the pills do not work for them, just like many other people. In 1992, George Bush ended funding for the program, stopping any new federal prescriptions from being issued.

Our society doesn’t make laws based on what people can do to themselves, we make them based on what they can’t do to others. American crimes include things like sexual assault, burglary, fraud, arson, assault and battery, holding illegal weapons, counterfeiting, homicide, sabotage; these are crimes that actually hurt the government and its people. No one arrests a homeless person for being homeless, and no one arrests people for being intoxicated (unless they’re causing harm on others). Drugs do not inherently harm – used properly, all drugs have a purpose that can be utilized by our culture, medically or recreationally. The problem is that more people do drugs now than ever, but there is a record low crime rate for violent crime.

We have to stop treating drug users as criminals, because we are all users of drugs. We have to start reorganizing our drug policy and put all drugs, grown or stamped, under the same guidelines. The government and society will only gain from it – take the $10 billion given to the DEA each year and give an extra two million to each state to put into their justice system to prosecute more of the crimes that we’re worried about, like those in the previous paragraph. Americans fear criminals, and even when a person is not a criminal, his/her association with criminal elements leads people to that conclusion of fear. The irony is that some get so afraid that they go to their doctors and get prescribed something for it, wearing an American flag on their lapel in an effort to save the country.

Works Consulted

Eastman, Peggy. New, Improved Medical Marijuana Drug Readied For Testing. Oncology Times, Volume XX No. 5 p. 75, May 1998.

Gasnier, Louis J. Reefer Madness. Fox Home Entertainment, 1936.

Gieringer, Date. Marijuana Smoke Study Demonstrates Waterpipes To Be Ineffective. National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law official statement, October 26,1995.

Mann, Ron. Grass. Public Media, Inc., 1999.

Marijuana Arrests For Year 2001 Second Highest Ever Despite Feds’ War On Terror, FBI Report Reveals. NORML Magazine, October 28, 2002.

Marijuana Law Reference Guide. www.norml.org

New Billion-Dollar Crop. Popular Mechanics. February, 1938.

Turner, John, Ph. D. Lecture notes, October 3, 2000.

US Code Collection, Title 18 – Crimes. Cornell University Website. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/

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