By Jacob Gross
Throughout its diverse and extensive history, cannabis has been one of the most divisive plants to exist. In the last two centuries, the plant has transformed in public policy from a helpful herbal remedy to a schedule 1 drug. This meant that, legally speaking, any cannabis offender would be treated to the same sentence as if they were peddling heroin or cocaine.
Going into the 1900s, cannabis was mostly regarded as harmless, with no federal regulation. But in 1933, when the prohibition of alcohol ended, Harry Anslinger, The Head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, would be forced out of a job if he was not able to convince the American people that substances were dangerous for the general population, especially for their rich, white children. Having already lost the war against alcohol, Anslinger turned the nation’s attention to cannabis, citing it as a dangerous drug that was responsible for violent crimes.
In 1937, Anslinger printed an article titled “Marijuana—Assassin of Youth.” Printed in “Reader’s Digest,” Anslinger turned the nation against cannabis use, saying that “Marijuana is the unknown quantity among narcotics. No one knows when he smokes it, whether he will become philosopher, a joyous reveler, a mad insensate or a murderer.”
After the anti-cannabis law of 1937, the nation’s legal sentiments regarding cannabis became an excuse to express its racism and animosity towards the rapidly developing hippie culture.
According to Norml.org, African Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for the possession of cannabis than whites, despite white and Black Americans using cannabis at roughly the same rate.
Despite the anti-cannabis laws being ratified in 1937 with dissent from medical professionals, the main heat of the anti-cannabis movement came during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Nixon launched the so-called War on Drugs, which increased the mandatory punishment for cannabis use. The motivation for the War on Drugs was racially and politically motivated, with John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under Nixon saying, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
With the crack down on cannabis, prisons became filled with mostly non-violent offenders who were arrested with small amounts of cannabis. The War on Drugs helped fuel America’s mass incarceration problem, with an estimated 46% of Americans incarcerated for drug related offenses in 2019. Today, roughly 0.7% of Americans are in jail, which puts the land of the free ahead of every other developed nations incarceration rate.
The filling of prisons with non-violent stoners takes away from the government’s fiscal ability to solve genuine problems like student loans, as our lack of healthcare and infrastructure. It costs an average of $14,750 to keep an inmate incarcerated in Alabama for a year, according to “Vera.” For reference, it would cost $5,472 per person for healthcare for all, and an estimated $9,349 to pay for the average college tuition for a year. There is a strong argument for the fact that the decriminalization of cannabis would be economically beneficial and push America to improve its social policies.
So far, the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis has been left up to states. In Colorado and California, there has been a massive economic movement around the legalization of recreational cannabis nick-named the “Green Movement.” In 2021 alone, Colorado brought in an estimated $423 million dollars in cannabis sales.
But during this massive “Green Movement,” the poor and Black Americans that have predominantly supported cannabis and been persecuted for it have largely been barred from making this new profit. It costs an average of $5,000 dollars to have a license to sell cannabis before you even sell any cannabis. These groups of predominantly poor, Black cannabis advocates are still suffering under the anti-drug propaganda of the last fifty years, while the plant they helped cultivate has been effectively monopolized away from them.
In essence, these communities are still viewed as criminals, regardless of whether their plant has been decriminalized. In America’s path to rectify one of the wrongs of its past, it has perpetuated the very sin of the War on Drugs.
In 2021, Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey signed pro-medical cannabis legislation into law.
This law provides for the legalization of medical cannabis for roughly a dozen medical conditions, including psychiatric and physical disorders. The new law states that cannabis can be consumed in oral tablets, tinctures and gel form. This law prohibits flower, carts, gummies and most other traditional forms of cannabis.
Sure, the legalization of medical cannabis in Alabama is a step in the right direction. But the provisions of the law suggest that Alabama’s politicians are still influenced by anti-drug legislation, viewing cannabis as a last result measure. Through the law’s stipulations, Alabama’s law makers are making it clear that they do not want any of the traditional forms of cannabis, letting their voters know that they still view majority of cannabis users as criminals.
It is an obvious failure in our political discord that cannabis legalization continues to be fought again and again at congress, despite the majority of Americans agreeing that there is no serious issue with getting a little high. Not only has it been known since 1900 that cannabis is a natural medicine, but the people remember that despite decades of anti-drug propaganda. The war on drugs might be the United States most humiliating defeat, even more embarrassing is the knowledge is that the war never needed to be waged to begin with.
Jacob Gross is a writer for The Alabamian. He is an English major with a creative writing minor. He has played guitar for a few years and really enjoys painting even though he believes he is bad at it.