6 Weird, Outrageous and Entertaining Facts About Marijuana Policy and Rhetoric
By John Garvey
A lot of the history of cannabis prohibition reads like satire. It’s bizarre, muddled and, depending on how you look at it, sometimes quite funny. We wanted to capture a few special moments without revisiting topics that have already been beaten to death. Below are some of those events, as well as the heroes, villains and oddballs that played central roles.
1) Underdog! Meet the bane of drug policy hardliners and the first federally sanctioned medical cannabis patient.
Robert Randall was dealt a tough hand in 1972 when he was diagnosed with advanced, open-angle glaucoma. He was only 24, and doctors told him he’d be blind by age 30. Prescription meds didn’t effectively curb the disease progression, but he discovered one thing that did. (I’ll give you two guesses as to what that was.)
Glaucoma causes vision loss by damaging the optic nerve. Cannabis alleviates it by reducing pressure around the eye, and Randall began growing his own. When he and his wife were arrested in D.C. for misdemeanor cultivation, they contested the charge on grounds of medical necessity.
The case could have been another footnote in the history of cannabis prohibition. But Randall learned that UCLA was conducting federally funded research on marijuana and glaucoma. The head researcher, Dr. Robert Hepler, assessed Robert’s condition and his response to medical marijuana.
“Robert was at UCLA for 10 days of study, which conclusively demonstrated that without marijuana Robert Randall would go blind,” writes Robert’s wife Alice O’Leary Randall in Cannabis Now.
Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically-active substances known to man.
– DEA administrative law judge Francis Young
Randall was found not guilty by means of medical necessity, provided access to federal supplies of marijuana, and thus became “the only individual in the country allowed to legally possess marijuana for medical purposes.”
The Randalls founded the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics—the first medical cannabis non-profit. The Alliance supported dozens of state laws that relaxed strictures on medical marijuana. The Alliance was also the leading party in re-scheduling hearings that, at the height of the Drug War, nearly succeeded in removing “marihuana” from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
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2) A DEA judge in 1988 recommended that the agency authorize medical marijuana.
DEA administrative law judge Francis Young, who presided over the re-scheduling hearings mentioned above, issued a strong recommendation that marijuana be re-scheduled. Young went as far as to state that “Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically-active substances known to man.”
Young dismissed arguments that allowing people access to medical marijuana would “send the wrong signal,” essentially claiming that it was callous and wrongheaded. In an extraordinary display of self-righteousness, DEA Administrator Jack Lawn dismissed the recommendation, questioning the motives of medical researchers, physicians and patients whose testimonies supported the ruling.
3) A counterculture icon overturned the Marihuana Tax Act (sorta).
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 greatly limited any legally authorized use of cannabis and required people in possession to pay a steep tax. Most users couldn’t pay the tax if they wanted to because cannabis was illegal under a number of state laws, and the requirements for federal compliance were burdensome. So the act effectively criminalized cannabis. That’s background.
In 1965, counterculture icon Timothy Leary got busted with a small amount of undeclared cannabis in Texas—a violation of both Texas law and the 1937 Tax Act. A federal judge sentenced Leary to 30 years in prison. Leary, a Harvard psychologist, was an outspoken supporter of psychedelics, which probably motivated the harsh sentence.
For a brief period in the early days of the Nixon presidency, the federal government had
no enforcement powers over marijuana possession.
Leary contested the sentence in a case that wound up before the Supreme Court (Leary v. United States). He argued that compliance with the Tax Act would compromise his 5th Amendment rights by forcing him to admit to possessing an illegal substance. That made the charges under the Tax Act bunk (no pun intended). The Court agreed in the 1969 ruling, and overturned the law.
And so it was that, for a brief period in the early days of the Nixon presidency, the federal government had no enforcement powers over marijuana possession and in-country trafficking.
4) “Pot can make you gay.”
Depending on which side you listen to, Reagan’s drug czar Carlton Turner either claimed marijuana turned young people gay or, at least, suggested that it lead gay people to be more gay. The Newsweek reporter who wrote of this in October 1986 challenged him on the claim that one lead to the other, and his quoted response was that homosexuality “seems to be something that follows along with their marijuana use.”
Turner also floated the idea that cannabis can speed the progression of AIDS.
Turner might have been made to look more inept than he was, and the reporter herself said that the article headline (“Reagan Aide: Pot Can Make You Gay”) was “overdrawn.” But one has to marvel a bit at the way rhetoric evolves to justify policy.
5) The Gateway Theory is supported by very creative data management.
Author Dan Baum writes of the methodology behind the Gateway Theory in the book Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the politics of failure:
“[T]he researchers looked in only one direction, asking heroin and cocaine users if they first used marijuana and predictably finding that a great many had. They didn’t ask, though, whether the addicts had first used alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine – any of which might also be described, under the study’s methodology, as the ‘gateway.’ More important, the researchers failed to track marijuana smokers on how many gradate to harder drugs. Whenever the question is asked that way, the percentage is in the single digits.” (153)
“Amount saved by California from 1976 to 1985 by reducing marijuana possession to a finable offense: $958,305,499.
“Percentage increase in California marijuana use during that time: 0%.”
– Smoke and Mirrors, 223
If you’re reading this, you probably didn’t need to be convinced that the Gateway Theory was fallacious. Still, it’s interesting to know about the methods used to arrive at it.
Gathering data with the intent of confirming a hypothesis? That’s against the rules! Sheesh.
6) We once had a relatively pragmatic, responsible drug czar.
Jimmy Carter’s mid-term drug strategy, drafted under then drug czar Peter Bourne, was a harm reduction approach. Bourne was plainspoken about this:
“Drugs cannot be forced out of existence; they will be with us for as long as people find in them the relief or satisfaction they desire. But the harm caused by drug abuse can be reduced. We cannot talk in absolutes—that drug abuse will cease, that no more illegal drugs will cross our borders—because if we are honest with ourselves we know that is beyond our power.”
Carter echoed this reasoning, backing the decriminalization of marijuana before Congress in 1977:
“Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use. … Therefore, I support legislation amending Federal law to eliminate all Federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.”
Well, you know the rest of the story. It was all downhill from there as far as drug reform goes.
The short reign of Peter Bourne as drug czar stands as the high-water mark of technocratic, scientific, unemotional drug policy. It also stands as the high-water mark of drug-policy naivete.
– Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the politics of failure
Happy 4th! Enjoy your freedoms.
In today’s heady environment of legal, statewide cannabis programs, it’s easy to forget just how difficult it was for those of us involved in MMJ activism in the early days.
– Alice O’Leary Randall, pioneering medical cannabis advocate and spouse of the late Robert Randall
As the events above show, the U.S. isn’t exactly perfect. But it’s still a wonderful country. For all the heated rhetoric taking place on today’s political stage, an appreciation of history can grant a certain perspective: Things have been a lot worse.
Nobody here is advocating complacency. But they’re growing hemp again at Mount Vernon, we have an all-volunteer military, and Americans in over a dozen states can celebrate Independence Day by smoking a doob—no medical justification needed.
Setting politics aside, it’s a pretty good time to be American.