Not what I need to write today, as vugging tempus sneakily continues to fugit, but this is on my mind and won’t take long. Americans don’t learn much from history, as even a quick glance back to the not too distant past will demonstrate.
In the early twentieth century many American workers were, apparently, heavy drinkers. Their lives were hard, no laws protected them at work, they weren’t paid much. When they got paid, many of them went and got drunk. Saloons were everywhere, as were stories of families destroyed by drink. A temperance movement, led by militant women and Christian soldiers, supported by xenophobic elements who hated the hard-drinking immigrants, managed to organize and pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of virtually all alcoholic drink.
Prohibition was, by every account, a dismal failure, it did not even curtail alcohol consumption. It gave the consumption of illegal alcohol a titillating cache, made it cool, added a naughty thrill to getting tipsy. Prohibition failed in every respect but one — it created a class of super-wealthy criminals who organized their businesses to provide illegal booze to anyone who wanted it — and millions did. These mega-criminals did not hesitate to arrange bloodbaths when necessary to protect their lucrative empires. After twelve or thirteen years of futility, at the depths of the Great Depression, another amendment to the Constitution ended the failed experiment in legislating “morality”.
Around the time Prohibition was showing itself to be a dead end another intoxicating substance was targeted for prohibition. Cannabis grew like a weed, is called ‘weed’, and was enjoyed by many the same way martinis are enjoyed at the country club. It gives users a nice buzz. It was a favorite drug of Mexicans, jazz musicians (“Negroes”) and other outsiders. It was targeted by some of the same xenophobic, racist fucks who had driven the Prohibition bus. It was criminalized as part of a lifelong crusade by a powerful and unlikable fellow named Harry Anslinger, Assistant Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Prohibition (1929) and Commissioner of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930-1962.
Anslinger was the genius behind such masterpieces of public enlightenment as “Reefer Madness” a terrifying (or hilarious) depiction of the unspeakable evils that flow sensuously from the inhaling of these poisonous, anti-American vapors. I remember watching that film through a haze of marijuana fog at the Elgin theatre, around 1972. Much of the dramatic dialogue was drowned out by the guffaws and cackles of the crowd, high on the evil weed.
I remember Anslinger from a report I wrote in high school on the prohibition of cannabis, which he called “marihuana”, to emphasize its subversive foreignness. I wrote the report under the influence of ‘marihuana’ and I remember how wry I felt the next day when I handed it in. Anslinger was a dick. Like many white men of his time, he was free with his hatred of blacks, Mexicans and other ‘outsiders’ and would never dream of not saying the entire “n-word”, as was his right back then, as it is now, after a quick glance around.
Among his other accomplishments, Anslinger had the ailing Billie Holiday handcuffed to her hospital bed as she was dying to make sure she faced justice for her abuse of drugs Anslinger had crusaded against. This was after years of persecuting her by denying her the right to earn a living (no cabaret license to perform in clubs) after her arrest for heroin possession. He had similar campaigns, although less successful, against musicians like lifelong viper Louis Armstrong.
A few decades later we come to President Richard Nixon, a socially awkward man of great intellect, fierce anti-Communist HUAC (“House UnAmerican Activities Committee”) prosecutor, a suspicious, even paranoid, man hated by the progressive forces that were at the time in ascendance. He may not have welcomed the hatred of those who hated him, as the cheerful FDR famously did, but he was determined to prevail over them.
Nixon won impressive electoral victories in part by courting racist southern Democrats with his “Southern Strategy” that brought these angry states’ rights conservatives, who’d been betrayed by LBJ and his federal Civil Rights legislation, into the Republican fold (where they remain to this day). Nixon shrewdly realized he could further divide the country, and more effectively rule it, by criminalizing the favored drugs of those who hated him, giving him a truncheon to smash them with. He could use the law to vilify them, raid their meetings, break up their demonstrations, jail the lot of the lawless fucks. The law was the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. It classified illegal drugs according to their danger.
Schedule One was for the most dangerous drugs: heroin and marijuana, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms. These drugs, according to the law, had no medicinal value, were highly addictive and very dangerous even under strict medical supervision. On Schedule Two we have drugs like crystal meth, cocaine and prescription opioids, less addictive, less dangerous drugs with some redeeming values, according to the drafters of the Controlled Substances Act. There are also schedules 3, 4 and 5, progressively less dangerous, but still highly regulated, drugs. The CSA was passed in 1970, at the height of the anti-war and Civil Rights movements (and the birth of the environmental movement– the first Earth Day was in June 1970), and, unaccountably, remains the law of the land to this day. I was probably writing that report on fucking Anslinger around the time the CSA became law.
Nixon, we learn, was drinking more and more heavily, eventually getting drunk every night, as the pressures of being a divisive and largely hated president began crushing him. The “Silent Majority” loved Nixon, because he was tough on crime. One of the crimes he was toughest on was illegal drug use. The drugs he declared war against did not include the ones that have done the most damage over the years, the ones currently causing the most death and misery: meth, opioids, alcohol. He declared war, primarily, on the Schedule One drugs, heroin the preferred drug in ghettos nationwide, perceived and characterized as a “black drug” and marijuana, the drug of youthful rebellion against guys like Nixon.
In 1973 Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency. What good is a law without a powerful, militarized agency to enforce it? Zillions of dollars, and many lives destroyed by federal drug convictions and long prison sentences (overwhelmingly for black and Hispanic drug users) later, Nixon’s war on drugs still rages. It is responsible for, among other things, a vast, violent Mexican drug network and vicious drug cartels everywhere illegal, highly-demanded drugs are produced (except in California, where the scene these days, I’m told, is fairly mellow).
In recent years the trend has been to recognize that marijuana is far less dangerous than methedrine, cocaine, prescription pain-killers, even alcohol. There are a host of proven medical uses for cannabis, proven in spite of the decades-long government-imposed difficulty of obtaining it for medical tests. Still, it’s on Schedule One and, under the CSA, the DEA has the power to break down your door if a neighbor smells weed. It doesn’t happen much nowadays, but federal law would allow it.
As an attorney I’m required to take Continuing Legal Education credits every two years to keep my license. Being forced to take these courses is a gratuitous kick in the balls, particularly to an attorney who is not in active practice. Most of these courses are awful. In the current cycle I took a series online about the marijuana laws. The courses were somewhat interesting, if also horrifying. I learned the history of the CSA and how it pre-empts local laws about drugs. State drug laws must be carefully crafted not to conflict with provisions of Nixon’s CSA or the federal government can sweep in with SWAT teams and fuck stoned people up, whatever the law of the state may otherwise allow. The Obama administration had a policy of not interfering in state law on the matter of marijuana. The new administration is overturning all of Obama’s policies, including this one.
Criminal law under our federal system is a matter for the states, each state has its own criminal code and penal laws. Conservatives, like the Confederates who left the Union over the issue of slavery, generally are champions of “states’ rights”. The theory is that the locality should decide what laws it wants and which it doesn’t. There is a certain logic to this position in a nation as large and regionally diverse as ours. One notable exception to this local rule, in the inconsistent world of modern conservatism, is enforcement of federal drug laws.
We were treated recently to the strains of this modern conservative inconsistency delivered in the dulcet tones of the new attorney general, a southern boy once rejected from becoming a federal judge for his selective color-blindness, who stated flatly, like Nixon before him, that “good people do not smoke marijuana.” I’m sure he’s right.
In fairness to the Attorney General, nobody has ever proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has any connection whatsoever to organized racists like the Klan. The guy just gives you a sneaky feeling about his sympathies and lack of them. He was appointed by President Trump, a man of supremely flexible principles, who rewards loyalty, and Sessions has demonstrated fierce loyalty, so there’s that.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, by the way, was the fifth and deciding vote the other day to let Arkansas execute a death row prisoner, who just happened to be black, right before time ran out on the drugs they’d use to kill him with– never mind testing the DNA evidence against him. Just sayin’.
Anyway, just a whiff of which way the wind is blowing for those too impaired by murderous drugs like weed to know how… what was I talking about?