Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where I Stand on Pot: Legalize it


I openly grew and smoked marijuana for many years. I even announced this on Vermont Public Radio while debating this issue with the state police Public Information Officer. I invited arrest and made it clear that it was my intention to challenge the constitutionality of the law.

The officer I was debating was demoted, the radio host was fired, and both the state and Burlington municipal police passed down orders that under no circumstances was any law enforcement officer to ever enter my home. I can only assume that the feds received similar orders as the federal building was less than two blocks from my home at the time. The only possible reason that I was never arrested is that the cops knew that I was serious, and they knew that if some nut case was willing to spend enough time in jail there's a very good chance he... I... would win a constitutional challenge.

To suggest that alcohol prohibition required a constitutional amendment while drug prohibition does not is to perpetuate the myth that alcohol is somehow not a drug. I'm sorry, but there's no nice word for "stupid". This is a stupid assertion.

Well I'm married now, and I'm no longer in a position to play fast and loose with my life, I no longer smoke or grow, but I still care deeply about this issue.

Now, a quick history lesson:

The English word for marijuana is "hemp". Until the 1930's the word marijuana didn't exist in the English vernacular. Hemp smoking was never adopted by european culture, and most European strains of the plant are completely devoid of THC. Psychotropic strains of hemp were used medicinally, but not recreationally (except by slaves for whom a glass of beer might as well cost as much as a house, hemp leaves were considered garbage and traditionally were left in the fields to fertilize the next seasons crop).

The vast majority of European hemp crops were tall, straight, fast growing strains of cannabis that had no intoxicating value. It was used as a raw material. Hemp fibers could be used to make all manner of textiles and it was hemp, not parchment or vellum, that produced the vast majority of western and middle eastern civilization's paper. Until modern chemistry came along paper could not be made from wood at all.

Hemp was also a food source. Modern mythology would have you believe that "gruel" was some sort of oatmeal. It was not. Gruel was boiled crushed hemp seeds. Hemp was the food of the poor for thousands of years, and saw millions through times of hardship and famine who otherwise would have starved. It's a good thing that the problem of global starvation has been solved or legalization would be a no-brainer.

While all references to hemp were removed from the Smithsonian Textile Museum under the administration of Bush I it was also, in fact the most important textile in history. It clothed the poor, sure (wool and cotton were reserved for the wealthy), but it was the strength of the textile that made it such an indispensable part of our history. No other fiber could even come close to it's strength and durability. Navies in the age of sail were completely dependant on hemp. All the ropes, sails, and even charts had to be made of hemp. No other material could withstand the rigors of the sea. The salt air would turn other materials to rags in a single voyage. Cotton sails are a myth. In reality anyone desperate enough to use a cotton sail would soon regret it. It would absorb water in the rain and rot. And when it tore, it tore like a modern nylon sail. It would suddenly split from end to end like a zipper opening. Hemp, on the other hand, would last voyage after voyage and when it started to wear out it would do so slowly. The individual fibres were so strong that tears could actually patched!

The hemp plant is deeply ingrained in western culture and to this day the term "hemp" is still used to describe all kinds of course fibres. But the jute that we now call hemp is a pale shadow of the real thing. The word "canvas" is a direct derivation of the dutch word for "cannabis". So vital was Hemp that one of the first laws in colonial Virgina required all landowners to grow it. Even through the industrial revolution hemp remained an important crop. Even after it had been prohibited in 1937 hemp prohibition was suspended and farmers were encouraged to grow it during WWII with posters like this one. The navy still relied on hemp for cordage, and it was vital for making combat and parachute webbing.

The downfall of hemp was its use as paper. Hemp was historically a very labor intensive crop. The process of growing it is easy enough, but harvesting it is a back breaking job. First the hemp is cut and left to rett in the field for 3 or 4 weeks. Then it needed to be broken. Hemp breaking was a ridiculously hard job, but this was the process that separated the fibers from the hurds in the stalk.

In 1838 a chemical process was uncovered to allow wood to be used to make paper. As the process was improved it pretty much replaced hemp. The product was inferior, but it was so much easier to make, and therefore cheaper, that it's tendency to tear easily, rot quickly (eaten from within by the acids used to make it), and dump toxins into the air and water was readily forgiven (ever driven past a paper mill?).

Over the next century wood completely replaced hemp in the paper industry. Then, in 1936 a machine was invented called the decorticator that would break the hemp automatically. What would take a man hours to do a decorticator could do in a minute. The pendulum was ready to swing back to hemp. With the decorticator taking over the labor of breaking the fibers hemp paper would not only be stronger, longer lasting, and cleaner, it would soon be cheaper as well.

Enter William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was a newspaper baron. He's still very famous. In modern journalism circles he's frequently refferred to as "the father of yellow journalism". He had papers all over the country in every major city.

Now one would normally expect a newspaper man would welcome lower paper prices, but Hearst didn't just own newspapers. He owned the logging companies that provided the pulp, he owned the mills that made the paper, and he owned the railroads that moved the product all the way from the deforested woods to the printing presses.

Before you read on I need to point out that Hearst wasn't just doing all this for the money, although he certainly had a vested interest. Hearst sincerely believed he was doing the right thing. After all, he was a white supremisist. He hated non whites with a passion, and above all else he hated Mexicans after having lost hundreds of thousands of Mexican timber acres to Pancho Villa.

Every Hearst paper in the country was touting the evils of a new drug called "marijuana".

It was a brilliant act of journalistic manipulation. Nobody had any idea that the "evil weed" he was lobbying against was really hemp. The campaign was one of pure unabashed racism. I'm reluctant to repeat the specific allegations in this venue. The gist of it is that it made non-whites insolent. Stories concentrated heavily on non-whites raping white women, or seducing white women who were themselves under the influence of the drug. In a modern context the headlines are just funny, but keep it in context people... blacks were being lynched back then. It was not uncommon for a black man in the deep south to be lynched for acts of insolence as minor as stepping on a white man's shadow. There's nothing funny about it.

Hearst found powerful allies. Henry ford was pioneering new ways to polymerize hemp hurds, and a wealthy family named the DuPonts wanted to shut his experiments down. After WWI they had been given German patents in an act of shameless nepotism that would eventually allow them polymerize petroleum by-products and they didn't want to compete with clean plastics made from a renewable resource like hemp. He also teamed up with Harry Anslinger, a former prohibition agent. Ansliger was appointed by his father-in-law, Andrew Mellon, a Dupont Financier and at the time Hoover's secretary of the treasury, director of a newly created agency called the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The primary function of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was to give the Secretary of the Treasury's son-in-law (and select other prohibition agents) a job after alcohol prohibition collapsed, but the public justification was to assist in enforcing existing laws against opium which had been enacted to keep chinese railway workers from trying to unionize.

I'm proud to say I pissed on Anslinger's grave once when I happened to be in the neighborhood.

Their campaign was an outrageous success. They drove hemp prohibition through before anyone even realized what was going on. It's late.

There's a lot more but I'm tired. We all know what happened then.

It sickens me that these laws passed. It sickens me that they still exist. And it sickens me that the veneer of legitimacy bought and paid for so many years ago by a wealthy, racist elite still lingers. It is a shameful legacy and I have very little tolerance for the ignorance and self-righteousness that allows it to flourish.

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