Tuesday, August 27, 2013

School Daze

School Daze


The new school year is beginning across the country.  At the risk of sounding like a Drug Warrior, I have to ask: what message will we be sending to the kids?

·         It’s OK for an administrator to watch a teen age girl pee so he can see what she did away from school last weekend.

·         Sit quietly while armed thugs with dogs sniff around your locker and car.

·         Get wasted on beer this weekend because if you smoke a joint, you’ll be busted.

·         It doesn’t matter if you’re talented, learned all the skills, practiced hard, and made the all-state team last year.  If your pee is dirty, you’re off the team and can kiss a scholarship goodbye.

·         You’re president of the Debate Team and state champion, but you’re not allowed to debate the principal or the school board about drug policy.

·         The school can’t afford a modern chem lab, and you’re sitting in a desk left over from the 1950s, but it can spend thousands for drug tests.

·         Even though studies show drug tests don’t work we have to look like we’re doing something.

Can’t we send better messages to our kids?  Messages like these:

·         Get the facts.  Slogans and fairy tales are no substitutes.

·         Do your own research.  Don’t accept anyone’s unsupported word.

·         You learned your most important lesson when you were two: always ask why.

·         “Because I said so” is not an answer.

·         “No” is not an answer; it’s just an invitation to negotiate.

·         If they try to scare you it’s because they know they can’t convince you.

·         Study the Constitution.  It teaches a lot of lessons like…

·         You have a right to privacy that no one can invade.

·         The government (including the school) cannot search you, your home, or your belongings (including your urine) without a warrant based on probable cause.

·         You can’t be required to testify against yourself.

·         You have the right to free speech, including asking the school why it is searching your car or your pee without probable cause.

(Come to think about it, these are pretty important messages to send to adults too.)

The message we send to the kids determines the kind of adults they become.  If you want them to become mindless sheep, covering at the growl of a herd dog, tell them to sit still and do what they are told.  If you want a crowd of 1984-automotons shouting memorized responses to Big Brother’s slogans, tell them to “Just say ‘No!’”.  But if you want a society of independent adults who think for themselves, tell them to also demand proofs based on real evidence.  Tell them to think for themselves.

We must teach the young to stand up for their rights, or even, in the words of the Beastie Boys:

You have to fight
For your right
to party!


Friday, August 23, 2013

The End of Medical Marijuana

The End of Medical Marijuana


Be careful what you wish for.  National legalization of marijuana (either generally or for medical use) will mean the end of medical marijuana as it exists or is expected to be will disappear.  No dispensaries. No budtenders.  No shiny display cases of varietal selections.  They will be replaced by brown plastic vials with child-proof lids from a professional licensed pharmacy.  Medical marijuana will be absorbed into scientific, allopathic, single-molecule medicine, overseen by the FDA.

As legalized marijuana comes to the attention of practicing doctors, they will insist that its conforms to the norms of medical practice: known and reliable standardized doses, standard and controlled methods of administration, adequate knowledge of side effects, knowledge of interaction with other drugs, and reliable sources of supply among others.  Patients will have the same expectations and will also expect the convenience of using their normal pharmacies as a source of the drug.  As these expectations are met, the identity of the source – and even the names “marijuana” and “Cannabis” – will disappear.

Almost all effective botanicals have made the same journey from plant to pill, from foxglove and willow bark to digitalis and aspirin.  Even the “herbal remedies” in the health food store are sold as extracts or tinctures. Herbals in general have been replaced by single-molecule vitamins, either individually or in multi-vitamin combinations.  No whole plant appears on the shelves.  Cocaine and opium are examples of the process.

Cocaine first appeared as coca leaves expressed into tonics like Vin Mariani and Coca-Cola.  Then pure cocaine was extracted from the leaves and prepared in topical and injectable forms.  Soon derivative drugs like Novocain, procaine, and all of the other –caines used by doctors and dentists were developed.  Coca, in this country, remains only as a denatured flavoring in Coca-Cola.

Opium is the paradigmatic drug for this story of development.  It was used as a tincture or elixir until after the Civil War[1].  By that time morphine, one of the three alkaloids in opium, had become available both as pills and in injectable forms.  These were followed by heroin, a derivative of morphine.  Codeine, the second alkaloid, soon became the primary cough suppressant in medical use.  Thebaine, the third opium component, became the basis of the derivatives hydrocodone and oxycodone, today’s primary pain relievers sold under names including OxyCotin, Vicodin, and Percoset (in the last two, the opiate is combined with acetomenaphin).  To these were added synthetic opioids like Fentanyl and methadone.  Dosage forms were developed to include orally ingested pills (including time-release versions) and liquids, injectables, and transdermal patches.

Marijuana has started down a similar path.  For a century, from O’Shuaghnessy’s articles in the 1830s until the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, it was used mainly as a tincture or elixir, much like laudanum or Vin Mariani.  The rebirth of medical marijuana in the 1970s was primarily through dried flowers ingested by smoking, with a few users incorporating it in edibles.  Many users have now switched from smoking to cold vaporizers, using either flowers or refined hash oils.  Two products have moved further in the progression.

Sativex is a whole-plant extract distributed through an inhaler designed for sub-lingual absorption.  It has gained market acceptance by many users and has been approved by many national health agencies; and trials in preparation for approval by the FDA are underway.

Marinol is a synthetic THC in a sesame oil suspension for oral dosing.  It has approved FDA labeling, but it has never lived down its origin as a DEA creation designed to supplant medical marijuana.  Marinol has two medical problems that have prevented wider use.  First, it was based on older, now outdated science.  When it was developed THC was thought to be “the” active ingredient in marijuana; since then CBD and other cannabinoids have been shown to be more responsible for many of the effects attributed to marijuana.  This realization will probably shape much of the new research.  Second, Marinol is an oral dosage primarily for nausea – not the most promising combination.

Sativex took a different approach.  It is a whole-plant extract packaged in a metered inhaler for sublingual absorption.  It maintains quality control and measured doses by being licensed only for a single cultivar grown only in licensed greenhouses.

Marinol and Sativex suggest the routes for future developments.  First is the isolation of single-molecule drugs and their derivatives from the variety of cannabinoids, similar to the way morphine, codeine, and thebaine were developed from opium.  Second will be investigation of various means of administration: orally, by inhalation, sublingually, transdermally, topically, by injection, or even by suppository.

The main stumbling block on the road to modern medical products from marijuana is the requirement of FDA-approved labeling for distribution.  The research, testing, and application for a new drug product can cost up to a half-billion dollars and take over five years.  This massive investment in time and money is the major reason that pharmaceutical companies rarely apply for NDAs on anything other than new Molecules or delivery devices that they can patent, insuring themselves a monopoly market for the life of the patent.  Since the cannabinoid molecules are already known, private concerns are unlikely to pursue their approval.  Two routes might be possible.  Non-profit groups could combine with academic researchers, with the resultant patents and labeling licensed to manufacturers; or the federal government could impose a small tax (as little as a dime on ounce on general marijuana sales would probably be enough) to support research, testing, and FDA procedures, with the patents to be held by a public entity like NIM.

Whatever route is followed, scientific cannabinoids will soon replace medical marijuana.  Within a decade at most, patients will have three choices: buy their marijuana-based drugs through a pharmacy, grow their own, or, at least in the Southwest, find an isolated curendaro or herbario who will sell to them.

[1] See my earlier postings “Did Everyone Use Opium?” and “Paregoric”.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Pardons, Presidents, and Drugs

Pardons, Presidents, and Drugs



Attorney-General Holder, in a recent speech to the American Bar Association, admitted that the War on Drugs and the criminal justice system are severely broken.  As a step toward repair, he announced that federal prosecutors would begin drafting charging documents in minor drug cases not involving violence so that mandatory minimum sentences would not be required.

Some immediately pointed out that, in a sense, this new approach would continue a major injustice in that, while new defendants would be spared these draconian sentences, thousands were now in prison serving long sentences imposed under those laws.  Many proposed that the president use his pardoning power to grant relief to those currently serving those sentences.

Using the pardon power would involve more than the stroke of a pen.  Determining the wisdom and practicality of that program requires answering at least four questions:

Can he do it?

Should he do it?

How would he do it?

What would happen then?

The power to pardon is granted to the president in Article II, but no details or specifics are enumerated.  Past practice has incorporated commutation of sentences and has used it both prospectively, even before charges are filed, and retroactively, not only to current sentences but to convictions for which the convict has completed his sentence and been discharged from custody.  It has even been used posthumously.  Jimmy Carter may provide some guidance to the extent of the pardon power; he extended a wide-spread amnesty to Viet Nam era draft evaders.  One shadowy area is whether the president’s power extends to state convictions.  It is expressly granted in the constitution without limits, so no reason for limiting it only to federal convictions is obvious.

Should a pardon program be set in place?  As a matter of fairness and justice, imprisoning these people for long terms while others guilty of crimes with much more serious social impact are treated less harshly is unconscionable.  As a fiscal matter, keeping one person in federal prison for one year costs about $50,000; multiplied by thousands affected by minimum sentences, the total is a major burden on the federal budget.  Each year a person spends in prison increases his difficulty in reintegrating into society – finding a job, getting a place to live, reestablishing family networks.  The burden on families living without a breadwinner or doing without a parent is heavy.  All of these costs would be ameliorated by a pardon program without incurring any measurable social costs.

Implementing a pardon program, which would involve thousands of cases, could be an administrative and bureaucratic nightmare.  Even the simple problem of identifying the tens of thousands of cases that would need to be reviewed would require plowing through mountains of records, many of which date back to times before complete computerization of those records (not as long ago as most people would think).  The prison records rarely include anything before the judgment of conviction.  Since most convictions are based on guilty pleas, not trials, even the court records may omit facts needed for pardon decisions; these facts, if anywhere, are in the individual prosecutor’s files.  These court and prosecutorial files are distributed in over four hundred judicial districts.  If state-level convictions are included, the search would have to be on a county-by-county basis.  This mass of records argues against a top-down executive originated system and in favor of a bottom-up method initiated by the individual petitioners.  In either case, a substantial bureaucracy will be necessary to process the cases.  It could probably be superimposed on an existing agency:  U. S. Attorneys, the FBI, or the federal defender’s offices.  Something like Administrative Law Judges would be needed to process the claims, similar to those in Immigration cases or Social Security claims.  In any case, this bureaucratic overload with be temporary, complicating the staffing and budgetary processes.  Although these processes sound expensive, the savings from reduced imprisonment discussed above, will pay for them multiple times.

Commutation, reduction of sentence, will be preferable to pardon in many, perhaps most, cases.  Two reasons support this preference.  First, these are not cases of wrongful or improper convictions; and those convicted do not have a claim to have their records expunged, the result of a pardon.  While their sentences are excessive, these people did commit the crimes with which they were charged, and merit punishment and the resulting disabilities.

The second virtue of commutation, paradoxical as it sounds, is that it could be used to extend the time before the convict is released.  Pardon or commutation to time already served would entitle the recipient to immediate release.  But release is perilous for long-term convicts.  They have lost family and social connections.  They have no current job skills.  Those who have been confined for ten years or more possibly have not seen a cell phone, an ATM, or the internet.  The Bureau of Prisons recognizes this problem and shifts releasees to halfway houses about three months before their release date.  There these people are provided shelter, counseling, and employment assistance, greatly improving their probability of success in the outside world.  Those who have been imprisoned for at least five years should be offered a commutation release date at least three months in the future, allowing them to have the benefit of halfway house transaction.

The United States has been on a Prohibition spree for over forty years.  As anyone who has hosted a wild party knows, the next morning’s mess can be horrible to clean up.  Drug Prohibition is coming to an end.  Part of the sobering up is cleaning up the mess it left.  The suffering of people warehoused by excessive, unjust sentencing is part of that mess.  Now is the time to grab the trash bags and mops and to start the massive cleaning job we have created.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

One Hundred

One Hundred


This post is the one hundredth effort on this Blog.  While that mark is trivial, it is symbolic and provides a time to pause and assess how I’m doing.

Any collection of a hundred separate parts is going to be uneven in quality, with both hits and misses, but overall, I think this collection rates somewhat above average.  There are some glaring misses.  I said almost nothing about federal statutes since 1950 (except for the CSA) and very little about state laws.  Very few numbers are included, and quantification is the basis of most useful knowledge.  My lack of background in medicine and pharmacology is obvious.  I’ve probably tried too hard to share feelings and therefore refrained from saying what I really think about the baleful influence of religious thinking on public policy.  The biggest failing – and the greatest strength – is that I am driven by my own interests, but by overall policy needs.  One of my disappointments is that I had hoped to spark more debates than I have so far.

But as a career teacher, I know that any individual is the most inept grader of his own work.  So it’s time to ask what you think about my efforts.  These questions include:

Which pieces do you like the best and hate the worst?

What new topics should I look at?

What old topics should I explore further and which have hit dry holes?

Is my style readable?  How should I change it?

Am I too long-winded?

I hope the next hundred essays will be better than the ones so far.  I’m confident your advice and criticism will make them so.

Let me hear from you; and thanks for your readership.

I’ve done several multi-part essays: are they effective? Should I do more? Fewer?

What other gold stars can you give? Or rotten tomatoes throw?

Saturday, August 17, 2013




It eased infant colic.  It soothed a baby’s teething pains.  It even calmed so that a frazzled mother could get some sleep.  They called it “Mother’s Little Helper”.

It is paregoric, a six percent tincture of opium.  For over a century, until the 1950s[1], it was a standby in the medicine cabinets of untold numbers of American families and the go-to remedy when their children got sick.  For the first half of the twentieth century, paregoric was to the diaper set what laudanum had been to adults in the nineteenth. (See my earlier post, “Did Everyone Use Opium?”)

Once in the late 1940s, my family went on our annual camping trip in the mountains of New Mexico.  My little sister, who would have been five or six years old at the time, got diarrhea, and we drove to Santa Fe to get some medicine for her.  Mom and Dad discovered that, contrary to the practice back home in Texas, the drug store would not sell them paregoric without a prescription.  We ended up taking her to a hospital emergency room.  If you ask your grandparents – or probably great-grandparents by now – they will probably have paregoric stories of their own.

The story of paregoric is fascinating by itself, and I hope someone tells it soon.  But it is also valuable for its intersection with three other narratives.

The first is with drug Prohibition itself.  Opiates were strictly regulated and limited beginning with the Harrison Act in 1914, and heroin was completely banned by two statutes in the 1920s.  Yet paregoric remained freely available for another quarter century after that.  And its regulation then came, not through the drug-control laws, but indirectly through the control of licit drugs by the institution of prescription requirements.

 The second is the contrast between paregoric use and the hysteria starting with the hype about “crack babies”.  Soon after the crack cocaine scare broke out in the 1980s, alarmists raised the alarm about babies severely damaged by the pre-natal cocaine use by their mothers.  Although the crack baby myth was quickly rebutted, many still insist on pre-natal drug testing of expectant women and fret about the harms drug-using women are doing to their awaited children.

The third parallel may be the most important.  Controversy has arisen about medical use of marijuana by children in states that have approved medical use by adults[2].  In several states courts have ordered the removal of children from the custody of parents who use, or even possess, marijuana even if it is for that parent’s medical use.  Almost everyone will agree that opiate use presents greater dangers (while still small on an absolute scale) to users of any age than does marijuana use.  If more than a century of relatively heavy paregoric use by children created no more problems than the history reveals, then the conclusion should be that limited marijuana use would be even safer.  To this can be added the safe record of use of amphetamines (Dexedrine: Adderall, methamphetamine: Desoxyn) for children with attention spectrum disorders.  

Sometimes the rearview mirror shows us that the bumps in the road ahead are smaller than those in the road already traveled, and the dawn’s sunlight will dispel the monsters lurking under the bed.  A good dose of paregoric may cure some of the Drug War illness.


[1] The federal Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act (the statutory foundation of the FDA) was amended then to require a signed doctor’s prescription for the dispensing of some drugs, creating the distinction between prescription and over-the-counter medicines.  The change had been requested by states troubled by abuse of Benzedrine (amphetamine) inhalers.  Although some states already had prescription laws for some drugs (primarily opiates), these amendments created national uniformity.
[2] Today (8/16/13) Governor Christie of New Jersey vetoed a bill that would have extended the right to use (with parental consent) to minors.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Cop Cams

Cop Cams


This week (8/12/13) a federal district judge found that the New York police stop and frisk tactic violated the Fourteenth and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution.  As part of the remedy, she ordered that some police in each precinct of the city wear uniform cameras while on duty.

A few hours after that ruling was announced, Houston news programming featured dash cam video showing five or six Galveston police officers “arresting” a man on the beach.  They stomped on and kicked him while he was lying face down and even held his face under water.

The time has come to require all police to wear operating cameras at all times while on duty.  The technology is here; the only question is whether to do it.

A teenager’s smart phone shows the technology is available.  The camera is smaller than a shirt button and the transmitter and battery are only slightly larger than a credit card.  Even an undercover agent could, in most instances, wear one undetected.  Data storage has improved to the point at which almost unlimited amounts can be saved cheaply (just ask the NSA).

The question, then, is whether it should be done.

Do cameras work?  I began practicing law in Lubbock, Texas, in 1970.  At that time, police headquarters were in a two story building with holding cells on the first floor connected to detective offices and interrogation rooms on the second by a long, straight, enclosed staircase.  Detectives would take handcuffed prisoners up those stairs for questioning.  A long, continuing series of prisoners were taken to the hospital with injuries suffered while they tried to escape and fell down those stairs handcuffed.  The city installed a camera, connected to a then-new video tape recorder, aimed at those stairs.  These injuries quickly stopped – as if by magic.

Most people were introduced to police videos in 1990 when a bystander recorded four Los Angeles police beating Rodney King.  Their acquittal of brutality charges sparked the most destructive riots in the city’s history.  (The video looked much like the Galveston one mentioned above.)

In an effort to forestall complaint of officer misbehavior, some state police began installing dash cams to record all traffic stops made by their personnel.  Although some of the first videos released showed extremely improper actions, complaints soon tapered off; and now these cameras in patrol cars are almost universal.  Bad behavior was not totally prevented by these cameras however.  Earlier this year two Texas Highway Patrol officers were caught subjecting two women they stopped to roadside body cavity searches.  Both officers have been disciplined.

The criminal justice system would improve greatly if all police officers were required to wear functioning cameras while on duty.  This requirement should include both uniformed and plain clothes police and even undercover agents except in rare, closely controlled situations approved in advance.

Too many trials depend on the unsupported testimony of a police officer or on a search warrant based on the hearsay statements of anonymous informers.  Required video recordings would tie that evidence to objectively established facts.  “Testilying”, the routine perjury by all too many police, would stop.  A federal judge determined that over eighty-eight percent of the New York stop-and-frisk confrontations did not result in citation or arrest.  The police would be much more careful about reasonable suspicion to make a stop if that confrontation were on video.  Trials would no longer be a matter of “He said; she said”, but would rest on fact.

Police behavior itself would be better controlled.  On the day I write this, two officers in different Houston police agencies were charged in separate sexual assaults while on duty.  Even if wearing cameras did not deter this kind of behavior, it would make proof of the offense would be more certain.

Both sides of the table would profit from cop cams.  Police are frequently charged, often unfairly, with misconduct including theft, drug dealing, assault, sexual assault, and oppression.  The honest officer’s best defense would be a video recording of the event in question.

Cop cams would not be revolutionary or without precedent.  Police forces adopted video early and progressed from police station cameras to video in interrogation rooms to dash cams as these systems proved themselves and technology improved.  Cop cams will merely the next step in this progress.  Like dash cams, they will be adopted gradually.  Small units will try them out, and others will join as procedures are developed and technology sorted out.  However, universal use will come sooner than most expect.

Cop cams are coming.  They will protect citizens and professionalize police.  The sooner they arrive, the better off we all will be.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Drugs and the Military

Drugs and the Military


This piece is a confession of ignorance.  I’m going to tell you what I don’t know about drug use in the military in hopes I can attract the eye of some historian eager to spend a little time – perhaps a few decades – excavating through musty warehouses crammed with military records.

The ignorance I am talking about here is about how much drug use has taken place in the American military and what effect, if any, that use has had on military structure, discipline, and effectiveness.  While I am woefully ignorant, I have found some clues indicating that more knowledge about those questions is available and can be discovered.  These clues are tantalizing and I’ll share them with you in hopes that you can add to them or share them with a historian who may want to do the work.  I’ve arranged these clues by the major military engagements the U. S. has had, beginning with the Civil War.

Civil War:  Most people know that after the Civil War, opiate dependency was known as the “Old Soldier’s Disease”, but most of these addictions probably came from treatments for intractable and neuropathic pain incurred after the patients had left the army.  At least one report has surfaced of a Union officer who made his troops drink a daily dose of opium to prevent dysentery.

Indian Campaigns: From about 1865 until 1880, most of the (very small) army was stationed in isolated forts in frontier territories.  These were small, desolate, and far removed from settlements.  Enlistments were for long terms.  At least one soldier was disciplined for using opium to relieve the boredom.  (U. S. Grant was disciplined for excessive alcohol use under similar circumstances in the 1850s.)

East Asia: The U. S. had occupational troops in the Philippines (1900 -40) and Canton, China (1900 – 1930).  The surrounding societies had large numbers of recreational opium users.  Although I know of no reports of opium use by American troops in these zones, the parallels to Viet Nam and Afghanistan suggest such use was likely.

Panama Canal Zone: The Canal Zone was an American Territory from 1904 until 1999, and especially after the canal opened in 1914, large numbers of troops were stationed there.  Early on, the troops used large amounts of marijuana, common in Panama.  The use was high enough that the Army Surgeon-General conducted a study, including experiments giving marijuana to soldiers in controlled surroundings.  His report, published in 1931[1], concluded that marijuana was less harmful than cigarettes (as ironic as that sounds today) and had no negative effects on discipline or performance.  The S-G’s conclusion was that no regulation of marijuana was needed and that none should be instituted.

World War II:  The armies of the world discovered amphetamines just as World War II was beginning (amphetamine in American forces and methamphetamine in those of the British Empire, Germany, and Japan).  Nickolas Rasmussen, in On Speed, gives an excellent overview of this use, not only in WWII, but in conflicts since then, but he does not delve into details.  Use was widespread among combat troops, up to the three- and four-star command level, and leaked back to the support and replacement troops.

Rick Atkinson, in The Guns at Last Light, says that in August, 1944, Allied authorities in Paris were kept busy with wide-spread marijuana sales to GIs.  This was the first assertion of marijuana use by American troops in that war, but it reminded me that large numbers of troops were stationed in North Africa, where its use was endemic for over a thousand years, and fought beside French Colonial troops, many from parts of Africa where marijuana was common.

(A significant number of WW II veterans are still alive, as are greater numbers who served in the military since then.  Oral histories could be a powerful tool to find out about day-to-day drug use by these soldiers.)

Korean Conflict:  None of the popular histories of the Korean War suggest any drug use by troops.  However, one friend of mine, a veteran of Korea, said that the Mexican-American troops he saw there always found some way to get their mota (marijuana).  He also claimed to be unaware of any use of amphetamines.

Viet Nam:  The Vietnamese War was the first time that drug use by American troops came to the public attention.  This use included marijuana, amphetamines, and heroin.

Television news footage included scenes of soldiers “shotgunning” marijuana.  Marijuana shipped or carried home by troops popularized “Thai stick” and “Maui Wowie” as common names for the weed.

A classmate of mine had been a helicopter pilot in ‘Nam.  He told of company hootches (command posts) where amphetamines were placed out in large bowls and the men “gobbled them like M&Ms”.

Heroin was the major dug story coming out of Viet Nam.  Southeast Asia was at that time the world’s primary heroin supplier, and a surprising number of military personnel were returning from there with heroin habits.  The army instituted drug testing for all military returning from there to the U. S., and some units were found to have at least twenty-five per cent of their members who had used heroin (no numbers were given to distinguish habitual from occasional use).

Persian Gulf War:  The brief engagement in Kuwait lasted only a few months.  A later report from the Air Force Surgeon-General revealed that over sixty per cent of air combat missions were flown by air crews using stimulants (known as “go fast pills” by those using them).

Afghanistan: The current war, the nation’s longest lasting, is in Afghanistan, the world’s leading producer of heroin and neighbor to Iran which has the highest proportion of heroin addicts in the world.  Afghanistan is also a major marijuana producer.  Although the military has tightly controlled news reporting since the Gulf War, a few stories have leaked out.

One report claimed that Afghani hashish was being sold to American soldiers for $1.75 an ounce.  This year a story reported that an Air Force flight crew was involved in a fatal car crash in Southern California.  They were reported to have made a non-stop flight of over twenty hours from Afghanistan to California using stimulants to stay awake, then after landing and without rest or sleep, left the airbase, had a few drinks, and crashed their car.

Do these little hints add up to a major narrative?  I don’t know.  Bu if I were a paleontologist and saw this number of bone fragments strewn across the landscape, I would start digging, confident that a dinosaur’s bones were below that surface.

How can you help? If you know a history professor, show her this essay.  If you were in the military, tell us what you did and what you saw.  Ask your grandfather and uncles to tell their stories (grandmothers and aunts as well).  Be sure to record what you get.  And until some competent scholar gets involved, you can post your stories as comments to this piece or e-mail them to me.  I’ll serve as a repository until a real historian gets involved.


[1] And therefore available to Congress when they passed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Roots of the Marihuana Tax Act

Roots of the Marihuana Tax Act


The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 is commonly seen as the birth of modern marijuana Prohibition, but its roots are buried in obscurity[1].  This Act seemed to arise from nowhere, unlike Alcohol Prohibition, which took eighty years to grow from Maine’s first state law to the Eighteenth Amendment, or the Harrison Narcotic Act, which grew from early recognition of the opiate problem at least twenty-five years before its passage.  The brief, uninformative congressional hearings and the almost non-existent floor debates do nothing to clarify the mystery.

The Act’s lack of history fed the growth of several conspiracy theories: Hearst was suppressing hemp competition for his newsprint business; the DuPonts wanted to clear the rope-making field for their new nylon; Morgenthau didn’t like FDR’s agricultural programs.  None of these hold up to scrutiny, but they are not necessary to tell the story.

A deeper look behind the Act shows that it has a history over two decades long, just as the Prohibitions of alcohol and of opiates and cocaine did; and just like those laws its history was primarily xenophobic and racist; but it also included economic issues and limits of federal power.

The story of marijuana prohibition begins with the 1910 outbreak of armed revolution in Mexico, a revolution that continued for at least three years[2].  Great numbers of immigrants streamed north across the border, first into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, but then into non-border states as well.  And many of them brought along their taste for mota, marijuana.

These states quickly saw marijuana as a means of suppressing, or even removing, these Mexican intruders.  The city of El Paso was first with an ordinance in 1915 followed by a Utah state law prohibiting marijuana the same year.  Other states soon followed, Texas and Colorado before 1925.  By the mid-1930s, over twenty states had anti-marijuana laws. (California had outlawed “Indian Hemp” before the El Paso action, and some New England states had even earlier laws against cannabis, but they do not directly affect the main course of development.)

Most of the Mexican newcomers were from rural backgrounds and uneducated, and they primarily filled agricultural laboring jobs in the U. S.  But by the 1930s, agriculture was in sad shape in America.  First, the gasoline engine for cars and tractors had devastating effects.  In 1900, over thirty percent of all cropland was used to grow horse feed; these acres were idled by 1925.  Tractors, much more effective than horse-drawn plows, put many farm laborers out of work.  The world-wide depression almost destroyed farm exports.  Unemployed farm workers put large strains on local economies in rural states, especially those who had received large numbers of Mexican refugees.  (John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wraith presents the best picture of those displaced workers, but Woodie Guthrie’s song “Deportees” highlights the added problems of the Mexican laborers.)

While the New Deal farm programs did much to help farm owners, they did nothing to relieve states of the burden of excess farm workers; and in many of the effected states those workers were viewed through racist lenses as presenting a Mexican problem.  These states asked for federal help; and they based their request on fear of crazed Mexicans fueled on “loco weed”, just as earlier laws were to combat drunken Irishmen, violent southern Blacks fueled on cocaine, or evil Chinese luring innocent girls into their opium dens.  These requests were funneled through Morgenthau, who in turn, recruited Harry Anslinger.

Anslinger, head of the Bureau of Narcotics, was a proud general in the war against heroin, but he was a reluctant draftee in the fight against marijuana.  He moved from the State Department to the Prohibition Bureau, where he first encountered Nicky Arnstein and his protégé Lucky Luciano.  He observed their transition from bootleggers to heroin importers and dealers, and when he moved to the Narcotics Bureau he concentrated on international diplomatic controls of opiates and operations against centralized, organized, and disciplined gangs.  The diffused, unorganized, locally grown marijuana did not fit into his established way of doing things and offered little opportunities to build his fame or power.

Anslinger spent the first part of the ‘30s trying to get the states to accept responsibility for marijuana.  He sat in with the Commissioners on Uniform State Laws as they drafted their Uniform Narcotics Law (The Commissioners are a non-governmental group of legal experts who try to instill uniformity across the country by drafting model legislation which they then lobby the states to adopt.  The Uniform Commercial Code is probably their greatest success, although dozens of their standards have been widely adopted).  They rejected his proposal, including only an optional provision that states could adopt, but without recommendation that they do so.

The tabloid press was Anslinger’s next step in an attempt to scare the states into action.  After his failure with the Commissioners, he arranged for about five lurid stories to be written, and this were each published several times with no investigation into their truthfulness.  Even his congressional testimony in support of the Act was tepid at best.  His claim that only 200,000 people used marijuana, and those primarily Negro musicians, certainly minimized the problem rather than highlighting it.  For a decade after the Act was passed, any BN agent involved in a marijuana arrest would receive a letter of reprimand from Anslinger for wasting his time that could be better spent going after “real” drug dealers.  Only after the Boggs amendment in the early 1950s equated marijuana with heroin did the BN start devoting any enforcement effort to it.

When Morgenthau decided to act on the pressure from the states, he had a new tool at his command.  In 1934, the Supreme Court had upheld the machine gun tax as a legitimate use of congressional Article I taxing power even though it was designed, not to raise revenue, but to make purchase of machine guns so onerous as to be impossible.  With this precedent in front of them, congress was able to prohibit marijuana out of existence by taxing it to death (at least until 1969 when the Court declared the Tax Act unconstitutional because its requirement of a signed tax return violated the self-incrimination provisions of the Fifth Amendment).

The roots of the Marihuana Tax Act sprang from a mix of three fertile soils: racism – an attempt to remove or control the Mexican immigrants, economics – reducing he impact of the Depression on agricultural states, and the taxing power – a means of exerting federal power in an area traditionally delegated to the states.

But we still don’t know why marihuana was spelled with an h.  

[1] Including why marihuana is spelled with an “h”
[2] Some would argue that it still continues.