As marijuana legalization gains traction across the country, some ask “Why now?” A better question perhaps is “How did this prohibition ever last so long?”
People have always suffered the compulsion to hunt scapegoats, and politicians are more than happy to pander to our harshest instincts. With two world wars and the Cold War, the 20th Century in particular, was a time of fear, with a hunger for social control and conformity. The malignant belief of the Communists and other totalitarians in the perfectibility of humanity at any cost, whether in terms of control of the mind, or punishment of the body, was in the air. It spilled over into democratic societies.
79 years ago, in that zeitgeist, marijuana was made illegal.
Nixon, in his era, glommed onto the drug laws as a handy weapon to batter his political opponents.
The counterculture of that time provided the seed of today’s push for policy reform. Young people grew up in a continual state of fear. The government seemed out to get them. Any traffic stop might land you in prison. Profiling — a “peace” bumper sticker — or perhaps the proverbial “broken taillight,” could easily bring on a police search. Even if they couldn’t find anything, one might pull a bag of pot out of his own pocket, and say “gotcha.”
Activists arose everywhere. Despite harassment and ridicule, they persevered. Eventually national figures, such as Allen St. Pierre of NORML and Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, began to lay the groundwork for the present.
Meanwhile, self perpetuating bureaucracies, the vested interests of police, courts and jailers, and ordinary political inertia, continued the expansion of arrests. By the time of the Clinton Administration, it was nearly one million per year.
Stepping aside from the white middle class victims, it was among minorities that the crusade against marijuana users was most terrible. With criminal records crippling employability, every black community has been held back by prohibition.
Race was always a factor. After all, Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner, Harry Anslinger, the point man for the prohibition effort in 1937, argued that marijuana needed to be outlawed because it “makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
(Even today, in Colorado, with “legalization,” there are enough regulations and restrictions that marijuana arrests are not uncommon… and figures show blacks are again being targeted disproportionately.)
Fewer reform leaders have survived in the black community, due to the greater intensity of the crushing pressures. But Robert Forchion, Deborah Peterson, and Neil Franklin are some notable names to remember.
Elders, of whatever race, many of whom may not have even seen marijuana for decades, recall their youthful spiritual explorations, or just their social bonding with friends. They remember the way the authorities treated them as if they were doing something wrong. It still sticks in their craw.
Young people, several generations past, and having no connection to the 30s or to the 60s, continue to be hounded.
It was almost inevitable that a groundswell for repeal would arise.
Not among the political elites however. Though seemingly a gateway drug to the presidency (the last three holders of that office have smoked marijuana), most politicians, at least of the two major parties, still wish to acquiesce in the status quo.
The saving grace is the ability of voters to bypass the elite with citizen’s initiatives. Not, as yet, available to all, it is an option in 24 states. Five states, Massachusetts, Maine, California, Arizona, and Nevada, have legalization referenda on the ballot this fall.
In a few more, including New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, a few legislators are even beginning to recognize their opportunity, break with their Party leaders, and introduce bills to end prohibition.
Opposition does exist. Prohibitionists like Patrick Kennedy still trot out their tired old jeremiads. But compared to the scary Torquemadas of old, they seem so pathetic, one would almost be tempted to feel sorry for them — if it weren’t for their platforms being so pernicious.
A larger challenge for legalization supporters is one few anticipated. Crony capitalism is moving in with a vengeance. Business interests, often with strong political connections, are attempting to write the rules to allow “legalization” for themselves alone. High barriers to entry for licensing, sales restricted to tiny retail quantities, outlawing home growing, etc. Prohibition lite it is being called. A corrupt trend which must be resisted.
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