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Past time to prohibit Prohibition

"Since 1980, the number of US drug offenders behind bars has risen by an astronomical 1100 percent. Despite politician's fixation on punishing drug offenders with longer and more severe prison sentences, American's thirst for illicit substances still remains greater than anywhere else on the globe." – NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano

July 17, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

To begin with, the plant's proper name is cannabis. It's not marijuana, although you can find that word written into laws that regulate the use of the plant. Anyone who believes that English should be the one legal language in America, by the way, should be unhappy at this inclusion of a Mexican slang word in the laws of the land.

Taken simply as words, however, marijuana sounds better than cannabis. It's more seductive and somehow sounds dangerous, so we'll probably keep using it out of habit. After all, we Americans have certainly become creatures of habit these days.

Investigators at the World Health Organization analyzed survey data from 54,000 citizens in 17 countries and reported last month that the U.S. has atypically high rates of alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis use. According to the study, 42 percent of Americans have tried cannabis – more than anywhere else in the world and twice the rate of use in the nefarious Netherlands, where cannabis growers can legally sell their crops.

"The U.S. had among the highest levels of both legal and illegal drug use among all countries surveyed," the WHO researchers concluded.

Tinkering with our brain chemistry isn't just the American Way; it's a common human characteristic with solid psychological reasons for why we do it. In 2006, Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University gave psilocybin mushrooms to 36 volunteers and asked them how it felt. Most of them reported having a mystical or spiritual experience and rated it positively, saying that the experience increased their sense of well-being.

"While some of our subjects reported strong fear or anxiety for a portion of their day-long psilocybin sessions, none reported any lingering harmful effects, and we didn't observe any clinical evidence of harm," Griffiths said.

Griffiths and his colleagues reported in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that the volunteers still had a positive opinion of their experience more than one year later, and 67 percent rated it as being one of the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.

"This is a truly remarkable finding," Griffiths said. "Rarely in psychological research do we see such persistently positive reports from a single event in the laboratory."

Yet we ignore science and our own predisposition with laws that restrict certain chemicals and permit others based on propaganda and social acceptance. Our hypocrisy towards our own behavior, past and present, is stunning. A business lunch with cocktails is perfectly acceptable in the everyday urban world. A toke during lunch break in the alley behind the store is a felony in most states. A mystical experience from psilocybin is outlawed everywhere unless you're a research subject or a Native American performing a ritual act.

We add alcohol to gasoline and burn it in internal combustion engines. We use it to sterilize things, including our own wounds. How safe can it be for humans to consume when you can power a pickup truck with it?

Alcohol use sometimes leads to drunken behavior, random violence and a powerful addiction. A lot of people die every year from alcohol-related behavior, but none of that matters – we accept it all and we deal with the consequences.

You can buy alcohol in your flavor of choice, distilled or fermented or brewed from a wide variety of grains and fruits. It's one of the most readily available products in society unless you're under the age of 21, when it takes a little extra effort to get alcohol when you want some.

We tried prohibiting alcohol use in America for 13 years before deciding that we preferred the right to drink over not being allowed to drink at all. It took a Constitutional amendment to outlaw alcohol across the nation, and it took another amendment to repeal it. Of course, this happened during an age when Americans still had some political energy and common sense. These days we don't have enough energy to even get half the people to vote in a presidential election, while common sense is in pretty short supply.

State laws that establish cannabis as a limited-use medicine allow some people to grow cannabis plants or ingest cannabis flowers. They differ from laws that allow a limited production of homemade alcoholic beverages because a doctor's permission is required with cannabis. All of those laws are fundamentally bogus – false compromises between behavior control and personal freedom that make a mockery of both medicine and herbalism.

You can brew or ferment an unlimited amount of alcohol in your own home in most American states, but not all of them. You can't distill alcohol at home in any state, and rightly so – there's a risk of small explosions when operating a still, and they smell bad, too. You don't want one in your neighborhood any more than you would want a methamphetamine lab on your block.

You don't want a commercial cannabis grower in your neighborhood either, unless you're a steady customer. It's an agricultural operation and not every grower is organic. With the current price of cannabis at prohibition values, growing operations tend to draw thieves into the area, too. But in a sensible society, backyard cannabis growers would have the same rights as home beer brewers or winemakers.

Representative Ron Paul of Texas introduced a "Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act" in the House of Representatives in April. His bill would make federal authorities respect all state laws that regulate cannabis growing and stop DEA raids on facilities distributing medical cannabis legally under state laws.

"I would like to point out this is not something strange that we are suggesting here," said Paul. "For the first 163 years of our history in this country, the federal government had total hands off, they never interfered with what the states were doing."

An estimated 3,000 Hawai‘i residents are registered under state law to use cannabis for medical reasons only. They're allowed to grow seven plants at one time to supply their needs. Hawai‘i law also allows the head of any family to produce two hundred gallons of wine and one hundred gallons of beer every year for family use. That law makes no reference to any medicinal use for alcohol.

When was the last time authorities bothered to monitor how much beer a home brewer makes every year? How often do the police raid Auntie's cupboard and count her bottles of homemade fruit wine to make sure she hasn't exceeded the legal limit?

Imagine the benefit to society if we quit spending tax dollars arresting people who grow plants for their own enjoyment in the same way that home brewers make beer to satisfy their own pleasure. Imagine the vastly greater benefit when commercial cannabis growers start grow hemp as well – one of the most useful plants on the planet, one that offers far more benefits to society than burning or drinking grain alcohol.

We've made hemp a pariah plant because of our false moral stance towards cannabis. It's as if we were to ban all mushrooms that resembled psilocybe cubensis, even when they contain no psilocybin, simply because it's hard to tell them apart.

This is why it's important to understand history; it's how we avoid reliving the mistakes of the past. The downside of alcohol prohibition was pretty much the same as the downside of cannabis prohibition is now. The times may have changed, but a bad idea in the 1920's is still a bad idea today.