The alcohol-marijuana conundrum


One of the things that has fascinated me over the years is why so many people are so intent on not allowing me or millions of other Americans to use marijuana.

Think about it. Since the days when Richard Nixon was president and the Controlled Substances Act became law, the United States government has been trying desperately to stop me and lots of other people from doing something they find enjoyable and that seems pretty benign, especially when measured against the alternatives. So pleasurable, in fact, that millions are willing to continue to break the law to do it.

The demonization of pot in America originated with Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who spent the years between 1930 and 1962 stirring up the original reefer madness and using the concept of “drug abuse” to control minorities. And then along came the DEA under Nixon’s reign that criminalized the use of marijuana just at the time that a lot of young Americans were curious about it.

Nixon was phobic about a lot of things: Jews, gays, hippies and drug use, among them. The man who wandered the White House corridors drunk and babbling in the dark days before his resignation, talked with counsel John Ehrlichman in the Oval Office on June 2, 1971 about pot.

Richard Nixon: “Why in the name of God do these people take this stuff?” 

John Ehrlichman: “For the same reason they drink. It’s a, they’re bored, it’s a, it’s a diversion.”

RN: “Drinking is a different thing in a sense. Uh, Linkletter’s point, I think, is well taken, he says, ‘A person may drink to have a good time.’” 

JE: “Mm-hmm.” 

RN: “But a person does not drink simply for the purpose of getting high. You take drugs for the purpose of getting high.”

JE: “Yep, yep.” 

RN: “There is a difference.” 

In a nutshell, that’s the crux of the problem, and it’s still a prevalent attitude. People who should know better actually believe, or at least espouse, this point of view. I’ve heard Bill O’Reilly and others on Fox News say exactly the same thing: that somehow a person who has a couple of drinks after work is different than a person who fires up a bowl. Alcohol is a “pick me up,” they say. A “thirst quencher.” A “social lubricant.”

Sorry, Richard Nixon. There isn’t a difference.

Saying there is assumes that alcohol, unlike marijuana, is not a drug. Altering your consciousness with alcohol is OK, but doing it with cannabis is not. And because they believe this so strongly, these people are content to impose their will on everybody else. Is it really any surprise that they have failed so miserably?

Give the drug war credit for one thing: It has been extremely effective at putting Americans, especially minorities, behind bars.

But that’s it. Despite the endless cash ($26 billion federal dollars, and about an equal amount at the state and local levels this year alone), the “Just Say No” and “This is Your Mind on Drugs” campaigns, zealous border patrols, ever more sophisticated gadgetry, mandatory sentencing and harsher punishments, the government hasn’t been able to stop anybody from using cannabis.

Hemp can’t get you high. Yet the entire hemp industry here was destroyed solely because of its resemblance. The government sprayed Mexican fields with the herbicide paraquat and even subverted television scripts with anti-cannabis rhetoric, and still, people use it in their homes for the same reasons as those opposed to its use do with alcohol.

Nothing made more of an impression on me about this subject than a book that came out about the same time the DEA was first firing up its engines. Released in 1972, Andrew Weil’s The Natural Mind deals with the human quest to change consciousness. It still strikes a powerful chord today. “The use of drugs to alter consciousness is nothing new. It has been a feature of human life in all places on the earth and in all ages of history,” Weil wrote. “The ubiquity of drug use is so striking that it must represent a basic human appetite.”

Weil warns not to mix the drive itself for people’s choices. “Clearly, much drug taking in our country is negative in the sense that it is ultimately destructive to the individual and therefore to society. But this obvious fact says nothing about the intrinsic goodness or badness of altered states of consciousness or the need to experience them.”

In their hearts, people opposed to cannabis must know this. Why are more non-users voting for legalization and Congress people sponsoring bills to end the Drug War? The arguments for criminalization are as senseless as ever, yet the spending for prohibition continues endlessly.

You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column and Colorado cannabis issues each Thursday morning on KGNU.

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