The American Prohibition Death Rattle

By Benjie Cooper

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Once Congress voted to pass Harry Anslinger’s Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the story of the cannabis plant in the United States quickly turned into a tragic tale of tyranny, treachery, and countless violations of the rights of American citizens.

And while the federal government didn’t take any significant steps to criminalize cannabis until 1937, states across the country had already begun enacting prohibitionist laws during a Progressive Era surge of anti-narcotics legislation.

California is widely known as the first state to pass a law allowing citizens to use medical cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation through the passage of Prop 215 in 1996, but it was also one of the first states to ban marijuana in 1913 after placing a series of restrictions on opium, morphine, and cocaine.

But before the long-armed era of U.S. prohibition began winding its destructive course through the remaining decades of the 20th century and beyond, American doctors commonly prescribed cannabis for a variety of conditions, though they were concerned about the consistency of product potency at the time.

In the 1926 edition of the Dispensatory of the United States of America, the authors wrote, “One of the great hindrances to the wider use of this drug is its extreme variability. We are inclined to the opinion that one of the important reasons for the lack of confidence in this drug has been insufficiency in dosage. Because of the great variability in the potency of different samples of cannabis, it is well-nigh impossible to approximate the proper dose of any individual sample except by clinical trial.”

Noting how doctors would sometimes prescribe inadequate amounts of cannabis to compensate for the intense effects that some might infrequently experience from improper dosage, they wrote, “Because of occasional unpleasant symptoms from unusually potent preparations, physicians generally have been overcautious in the quantities administered.”

It is this phenomenon of potency variability that has led modern legal states to develop cannabis product manufacturing guidelines so that THC levels are consistent and properly indicated on the item’s packaging.

The American Medical Association (AMA) was opposed to Anslinger’s 1937 Tax Act because it imposed the tax on the cultivation, manufacturing, and retail sale of cannabis as well as on the prescribing physician. The AMA suggested that only the production, importation, and distribution should be levied under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act from 1914 the same way that opiates and coca products were taxed.

Regardless, under the threat of federal prosecution anyone involved in the production, distribution, possession, and use of the cannabis plant in the decades since was forced to retreat to the underground shadows of the black market where they have stayed for decades since.

On October 5, 1937, only days after the Marihuana Tax Act had been enacted; the FBI arrested 57-year-old Samuel R. Caldwell in Colorado after he sold three marijuana cigarettes to a man named Claude Morgan. Caldwell was also found to be in possession of four pounds of cannabis which he’d smuggled into Colorado from Kansas.

Samuel Caldwell was fined $1,000 and given four years of hard labor for trafficking. He served the majority of his sentence and was released in 1940. He died a short while later of liver cancer on June 24, 1941.

23-year-old Hispanic man Moses Baca was arrested two days earlier for possession of a quarter-ounce of cannabis at a house in Denver where he was renting a room. According to the police report, Baca also “came home drunk and beat his wife.”

According to an unconfirmed story by the Denver Post, Baca said that the marijuana had made him violent and that “under its influence, he became a wild beast, and two weeks ago tried to murder his wife, the mother of his three children.”

When the time came for Caldwell and Baca’s sentencing, Henry Anslinger made the two-day trip from Washington D.C. to Denver by train to personally witness the first two public examples under his new prohibitionist law firsthand. Though papers of the time stated that Anslinger stopped by to visit the courthouse because he was “between trains.”

In 1965, professor and activist Timothy Leary drove from New York to Laredo, Texas with his son Jack, daughter Susan, and his girlfriend, Rosemary. The group was going to Mexico where Leary intended to write a book during an extended visit.

When they reached Nuevo Laredo, they discovered that they would have to wait until morning to obtain the proper visa for an extended stay. They turned back and drove across the International Bridge to the American inspection station where authorities searched Leary’s car and found cannabis seeds and a small amount of marijuana.

Leary took responsibility and was arrested on December 20 for marijuana possession under the rules set by the Marihuana Tax Act. On March 11, the court fined him $30,000, sentenced him to 30 years in prison, and ordered him to undergo psychiatric care.

But Leary appealed his conviction and challenged the Tax Act, claiming that it would have required self-incrimination in his case and that it violated his 5th Amendment rights. Cannabis was illegal in Texas at the time, and Leary argued that compliance with federal law would have required him to provide self-incriminating evidence.

In the case of Leary v. United States, the Supreme Court ultimately sided with Leary and reversed the conviction. A small victory for cannabis was achieved, but its prohibition story in the United States was nowhere close to being over.

The 91st United States Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The new legislation established the scheduling framework for narcotics, and rules for regulating the importation, manufacture, distribution, possession, and use of certain substances.

Since the implementation of the CSA, marijuana has resided in the Schedule I spot that is reserved for narcotics or other substances that have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S., and no accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

In contrast, the list of CSA Schedule II drugs with a currently-accepted medical use includes cocaine, methadone, methamphetamines, amphetamines, barbiturates, opium, and morphine.

But because many of cannabis’ medicinal uses are widely known, practiced, and researched throughout the world, the fact that it is still included in the Schedule I category in 2018 demonstrates an ignorance, willful or otherwise, by portions of the federal government when it comes to modifying sections of such overarching policies as the CSA; even after it’s become strikingly obvious marijuana doesn’t belong in the category that it’s been in for almost four decades.

But even in the face of federal prohibition, between 1973 and 1978, eleven states had passed some form of legislation decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of cannabis.

President Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ didn’t result in a significant change in the number of incarcerations during the 1970s, but the rise of the for-profit prison industry in the 1980s led to a 126% increase in drug offense arrests. In 1994, it was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that one million Americans were being locked up every year because of the drug war.

Marijuana arrests, which make up the majority of drug arrests, would eventually hit an all-time high in 2011 when they reached a total of 663,034—an amount that exceeded violent crime arrests for that year by 123,328.

But as more people found themselves victims of an increased nationwide focus on imprisoning cannabis users, and feeding the lucrative prison machine, Americans weren’t ready to give up fighting to legalize marijuana.

In 1991, San Francisco cannabis activist, Dennis Peron put together Proposition P in honor of his late partner who used cannabis to treat AIDS symptoms. The initiative passed with a 79% vote and declared the city’s support of medical marijuana though it held no actual legal power.

While other cities like Santa Cruz started enacting their own similar legislation, Peron and renowned cannabis activist Dr. Tod Mikuriya began working to organize an initiative which would come to be known as Proposition 215.

As written, Prop 215 provided protections to ensure that anyone, regardless of age, could obtain a recommendation from a licensed doctor to use cannabis medicinally if it provided relief for whatever condition they might have. Protections for primary caregivers were also written into the law for medicinal users who might need assistance with growing or acquiring their medicine.

The bill was the subject of staunch opposition from drug prevention and law enforcement groups, three former Presidents, and then-California Attorney General, Dan Lundgren, but ended up passing with a 55.6% yes vote. The affirmation of Prop 215 would prompt other states across the country to begin enacting their own medical marijuana laws in the coming years.

But state laws did not prove to be sufficient protection from the reach of the federal government. After a string of federal raids on medical marijuana patients, U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchley introduced the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to try to prohibit the Justice Department from interfering in states where medicinal cannabis use was legal.

The amendment was introduced and rejected five more times until it finally passed the House in May 2014 with a 219-189 vote.

In the meantime, over half of the United States voted to pass medical cannabis legislation, and others like Colorado, Washington, and Colorado began legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for legal adults as well.

In 2013, United States Deputy Attorney General James Cole drafted a four-page memorandum (Cole Memo) which followed the spirit of a memo from previous AG, David Ogden. Ogden’s document directed U.S. Attorneys to, “not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

While stating the federal government’s position that marijuana is a dangerous drug, the Cole Memo gave a list of guidelines and criteria for determining which cannabis activities had higher priority in regards to prosecution. Prevention of money laundering, interstate trafficking, and sale to minors were among the practices covered in the document.

And though the Cole Memo offered no real legal protections for states wanting to legalize cannabis for recreational or medicinal use, combined with the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, federal interference still waned after 2013.

But in 2018, only days after the rollout of new regulations for the marijuana marketplace in America’s most populous state, California, a line in the sand was drawn by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vocal opponent of cannabis use overall.

On Thursday, January 4, the Justice Department released a single-page memorandum by Sessions that announced a “return to the rule of law’ and rescinded James Cole’s previous set of guidelines. In the memo, Sessions states that “These statutes reflect Congress’s determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.”

The memo’s release was met with vocal opposition across the country by, among others, senators and governors from a number of states where citizens have voted to legalize medical and recreational cannabis.

On Twitter, U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer stated, “There is broad recognition that the War on Drugs is an abject failure. After $1T spent, the problem is worse than when we started. Its tragic effects felt in every US community & in countries around the globe. It’s past time we change our approach.”

But for the moment, it seems to be a bit unclear as to whether or not the Department of Justice will increase prosecution for marijuana-related activities or not. Sessions’ memo acknowledges the department’s limited resources, and advises U.S. Attorneys to take into consideration, “the seriousness of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative impact of particular crimes on the community.”

In a statement, Colorado Representative Ed Perlmutter said, “Congress needs to take matters into its own hands. I have been urging Congress to act on this issue since 2013…It’s time to find a real solution that will keep our communities safe and respect the will of voters in the majority of states in the country.”

And even though Sessions threw out the Cole Memo and replaced the document with one of his own, the move has appeared to have had more of an empowering effect for cannabis supporters than he may have anticipated.

In a tele-press conference, Representative Dana Rohrabacher said that “The announcement today on the Cole (Memo) will actually serve our purposes in the sense that it will mobilize people around the country who have taken Rohrabacher-Blumenauer for granted.”

While there has been talk of introducing a bill similar to the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment where the Justice Department would be prohibited from using federal funds to interfere in states where cannabis has been legalized, some say that more is needed.

Four new bills, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017 (HB 975), Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act (HB 1823), Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act (HB 1841), and the Ending Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017 are among the first pieces of legislation to gain representative signatures in the week since the release of Sessions’ new memo.

Over half of the states in the U.S. have enacted medical cannabis laws, and the number of places where recreational marijuana is legal is also growing. As time goes on, the harder it becomes for the federal government to stop the constantly-growing wave of legalization.

It’s already been established that the Department of Justice has limited resources to prosecute cannabis activity of any kind, and their access to funds to attack medical states has been denied repeatedly since 2013.

To stop and reverse the momentum that the cannabis legalization movement has gained at this point in 2018 would be a difficult, if not impossible task to accomplish considering the variety of roadblocks that are in the way.

While Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department may have the authority of the CSA and the federal government to support the rule of law, it’s clear that they don’t have the public support, assets, or influence to enforce it fully.

The Department and some of its Attorneys may find a few last opportunities to make examples of select offenders of federal marijuana laws, but minor intimidation is all they are likely to accomplish at this point. The fear and propaganda that were successfully used by the government in past decades to keep cannabis under wraps just don’t work anymore.

The hoarse death rattle of the era of American cannabis prohibition has been wheezing past Uncle Sam’s lips ever since the first decriminalization law was set into motion in the 1970s. It’s only a matter of time now before the rest of the air runs out.