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Marihuana and the Law

Brass Tacks

By Andrew T. Weil

Probably, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Timothy F. Leary are looking forward with equal anticipation to Leary's upcoming appeal of his recent conviction for "transporting and failing to pay tax on" less than half an ounce of marihuana. The Bureau will welcome a test case because it believes the drug to be an unequivocal menace and resents propaganda to the contrary. Leary will be happy to have at last a national forum in order to preach to all his Less-Harmful-Than-Alcohol doctrine about the very same stuff.

Marihuana, as everyone should know by now, is a crude preparation of the leaves, stems, and flowering tops of the female hemp plant--Cannabis sativa. Cannabis (accented on the first syllable, like "Canada") is a common roadside weed, bound to be growing on some vacant lot within a mile of your home. The quality of a Cannabis product depends upon its resin content; compared to hashish (the pure, dried resin) and ganja (flowering tops only of specially cultivated plants)--neither available in this part of the world--marihuana is a sort of cubscout variety of hemp. Yet even with its scant amount of resin, marihuana, when smoked or eaten, can provoke bizarre, highly variable symptoms of narcotic intoxication.

A romantic history of Cannabis would include mention of the fanatic Moslem sect of Hashashins (or "Assassins")--who murdered under its influence--and of writers like Baudelaire, Dumas, and some of our contemporaries who have found in it creative inspiration. A less romantic history might chronicle the squalid introduction of Cannabis into the United States by Mexican immigrants and migrant laborers in the South.

It seems astonishing that marihuana was virtually unknown in this country before the 1930's. In a short time it spread north to urban centers where it became popular among jazz musicians, homosexuals, and criminals. Then a lurid press campaign against the "weed of madness" roused the public to indignation over murders, rapes, infanticides, and all manner of heinous crimes supposedly committed under its influence. The most significant outcome of the resulting hysteria over the Marihuana Menace was the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which empowered the Treasure Department and its Bureau of Narcotics to control traffic in Cannabis.

Ever since, the Bureau has treated marihuana as harshly as the opiates and contain, shouting down all opposition to its contentions that the drug 1) cause addition, 2)leads to violence, criminal acts and insanity, and 3)induces users to move up to heroin.

I wonder to what extent the dismal public image of marihuana is a consequence of its route of entry. The medieval Assassins made Cannabis known as a plant that inspired fierce courage. Baudelaire gave it credit for being a gateway to worlds of visionary delight. But the wretched people who brought it to us--people who had high rates of crime and insanity to begin with--used it only to counteract the misery of their lives. Perhaps marihuana has been judged guilty by association.

But no explanation really executes the Narcotics Bureau and its long time (1930-1962) Commissioner H. J. Anslinger for their impassioned dissemination of misinformation about Cannabis. Pharmacologsts have long known that marihuana is not addicting. Psychologists have long known that it does not invite to violence. Sociologists have long suspected that within given social classes, crime rates are the same for marihuana-users and non-users. Yet even today, the Bureau will happily shower the inquisitive with rabid little pamphlets documenting crimes, horrible withdrawal-symptoms, and even cases of "brain-rot" induced by marihuana.

In an article on narcotics in the Spring issue of Public Interest, Dr. Norman Zinberg, a Harvard psychiatrist, writes of Anslinger: "Throughout his career, he did his best to forbid public discussion of the issues involved by denouncing anyone who did not agree with his views as a potential criminal or dupe of criminals.... Whenever any group, even those as conservative as the New York Academy of Medicine or the American Bar Association, questioned Anslinger's policy--in itself a rare event--Anslinger answered by offering to disclose the high percentage of physicians and other public figures who were themselves 'hooked' or who were 'traffickers' in narcotics. By fabricating adroit compounds of fact and fiction, he created an automatic association between narcotics and criminal activity in both the public's and the physician's minds, so that until he retired, research and experimentation were virtually impossible."

Certainly, research on Cannabis has not come terribly far: the drug's mechanisms of action and its exact effects on the body are poorly understood. Still, a standard text of pharmacology (Goodman and Gilman: The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, 3rd ed., 1965) says'...there seems to be a growing agreement within the medical community, at least, that marihuana does not directly cause criminal behavior, juvenile delinquency, sexual excitement, or addition. Therefore, while attempts to limit its use are appropriate, the hazards of its use should not be exaggerated." Interestingly enough, however, the most recent investigations (Hashish: Its Chemistry and Pharmacology--report of the Ciba Foundation study group) suggest that long-term use of Cannabis can cause psychological and physiological deterioration. This is the first piece of respectable evidence in support of any of the Narcotics Bureau's assertions.

The Bureau's new chief, Henry L. Giordano, seems more enlightened than his predecessor; nevertheless, a change in official attitudes toward marihuana is unlikely unless serious opposition crystallizes. The Leary case should be noteworthy because Leary's lawyers have announced their intention of disproving the assumptions on which marihuana legislation now rests. They may, in fact, be able to convince the court that getting high on pot once in a while is less harmful to body and mind than boozing it up. Then, perhaps, the control of this interesting drug--and surely there will always be control--may be based upon more reasonable, less hysterical arguments.

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