Marijuana is a psychoactive product derived from the hemp plant (cannabis indica and cannabis sativa ). Also known variously as cannabis, ganja, weed, grass, pot and many other monikers, it is one of the strongest naturally-produced psychotropic drugs there is, with over 150 million users the world over. It is the most frequently used prohibited drug in the country, with almost 17 million Americans reporting past-month use.
The use of marijuana as a psychoactive substance has been recorded from as far back as 600 B.C. However, the hemp plant itself has been used as a farming crop for much longer, possibly between the Neolithic and Chalcolithic period, around 9,000 – 11,500 years ago. The plant is believed to be indigenous to Central Asia, although it is now found in almost every corner of the globe.
While marijuana has been present in North America for several centuries, massive quantities emerged and began to be traded commercially in the United States at the start of the 20th century at the onset on the Mexican Revolution when a number of Mexican immigrants who were fleeing across the border brought their hemp stockholding along. In fact, the term marijuana was popularized with their arrival, overtaking the then prevalent ‘Indian hemp’, among others.
II.What’s cooking, pot?
The primary psychoactive ingredient of the hemp plant is the delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The THC, which is obtained from the leaves, oil and resins of the plant, activates the cannabinoid receptors in our nervous system, which facilitates the neurotransmission of the chemically generated stimulatory psychological and physiological effects to our brain.
There are multiple delivery methods of the THC to human users. Some of the most popular ones include:
Marijuana is a Schedule I (d. Hallucinogenic Substances, Code No: 7360) substance under the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Code of Federal Regulation Title 21 (Codified U.S.C. Controlled Substances Act, Section 1308.11), which places it alongside amphetamines (speed), bufotenin (found on the skin of poisonous toads and mushroom) and N-methyl-3-piperidyl benzilate (ingredient for military grade chemical weapons).
The DEA notes that,
“Drugs listed in Schedule I have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and, therefore, may not be prescribed, administered, or dispensed for medical use. In contrast, drugs listed in schedules II-V have some accepted medical use and may be prescribed, administered, or dispensed for medical use.”
It remains a source of great consternation among the pro-marijuana lobbies that it is classified under Schedule 1, despite the absence of even a single recorded case of death resulting from marijuana consumption, while the far more dangerous substances (statistically, medically and psychologically) such as codeine, opiates (morphine and heroin), methadone and cocaine are categorized under Schedule II (…substances, vegetable origin or chemical synthesis… produced directly or indirectly by extraction from substances of vegetable origin…
The criminalization of marijuana came into motion early in the twentieth century through a series of legal and extra-legal actions that began in 1906 with the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act and culminated on July 1, 1973, with the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Based on several decades’ worth of empirical evidence, there is a strong consensus among the scientific community that, used on its own, marijuana presents no danger to the user. It is not physically addictive (although psychological addiction reportedly accounts for 10% of marijuana users) and does not generate adverse physical effects even for long-term users. Essentially, it is safer than alcohol, cigarettes or trans fat.
Economically, hemp is considered as one of the most valuable and versatile plants for single-crop farming. It is a source of food, cooking oil, fiber (used by the wood, paper and fabric industry), building material, livestock feed, fuel, medicinal products and much more. The exceptionally fast growing hemp is also noted for its ecological efficiency (almost every part of the plant is useful) and resilience to natural pests.
All this of course brings into question why marijuana was criminalized, despite being a legal crop for 162 years. The federal government effectively banned marijuana with the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act Of 1937. The Act, coinciding with the ‘Reefer Madness’ hysteria of the 30s, received the support of a majority of Americans, who were convinced that marijuana was an addictive drug that promotes a criminal lifestyle, causes health complications, perverts the natural order of society and possesses none of the claimed medical properties. There was a perception that its users were degenerates, criminals and immigrants, a perception that was shared by the majority of the legislators in Congress.
The campaign for marijuana’s banning was headed by the infamous Harry Jacob Anslinger, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (FBNDD), who was once quoted as saying that,
“Marijuana is the most violence causing drug in the history of mankind… most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.”
Pro-marijuana lobbyists, however, conclude that the real reason for the criminalization of marijuana was an economic one. In his book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Jack Herer explained that the invention of the decorticator machine presented a serious threat to the industrial empire of William Randolph Hearst (the timber and newspaper baron), the DuPont firm (which had invested heavily in the new nylon technology) and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (Chairman of the Mellon Bank, who loaned enormous sums of money to finance DuPont’s nylon research). Anslinger, who was reportedly the husband of Mellon’s niece, Martha Kind Denniston, was roped in to head the offensive against the hemp industry.
The decorticator would’ve been able to harvest the hemp plant at 400% efficiency against existing timber processing technologies. Consequently, the hemp industry will be able to produce fibers for the paper and fabric industry at a phenomenally lower rate compared to the timber and cotton industry. Furthermore, the hemp plant grows exponentially faster than normal trees and cottons, while offering farmers added revenues from its leaves, flowers and seeds. It would’ve led to a swift downfall of Hearst, DuPont and Mellon’s business empires.
However, critics contend that the theory has no evidence behind it and is purely circumstantial. The alleged connection between Anslinger and Mellon remains unconfirmed, as there is no record that Martha Kind was the niece of Mellon.
Furthermore, DuPont’s main source of income was from its chemical and weapon plants, and the failure of one arm of its business would not have been as catastrophic as depicted. More importantly though, nylon and hemp fabrics are not natural competitors, as both targets different buying demographics.
The country is divided, if not by facts, by emotion and dogmatic beliefs on the subject of decriminalizing marijuana. Despite the small victories of the pro-marijuana lobbies in the last couple of decades, they appear to have reached a stalemate with their opponents.
The anti-marijuana lobbies are adamant in their belief that legalization of marijuana will herald the arrival of tsunami-like wave of drug-related crimes, social and health issues. Such a decision will be construed as tacit approval of the drug culture, and aggravate the already precarious moral slope that the youths of the nation are now perched on.
Additionally, many argue that marijuana is a gateway drug, a substance that will eventually drive a user to experiment with hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin. The decriminalization will inevitably open the floodgates to an irrepressible surge in recreational use of the drug, which will undoubtedly expose even non-users to danger. Bus drivers, machine operators, teachers and police officers, for instance, will all be exposed to the temptation of using. After all, for a substance that is supposedly less dangerous than cigarettes, what is there to stop someone from smoking a joint while on duty?
There is also evidence that marijuana causes dependence (if not outright addiction), respiratory, cognitive and motor impairment to long-term users. Several studies have also shown a link between chronic use and increased instances of mental illnesses. Of course, while some may argue that THC is not as dangerous as nicotine, the fact remains that smoke from a joint cause the same level of exposure to carcinogens as smoking a cigarette would.
Furthermore, the often cited tax windfall from legalization is misleading, as the resulting social and health care cost from a significant increase in user base would outstrip any estimate revenues, as can be observed from the cigarettes and alcohol industry, which contributes $39.5 billion in revenue in 2007, but costs the nation an estimated indirect cost of $385 billion.
May 3, 2005: Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona speaking about marijuana at the Office of National Drug Control Policy
“Marijuana is a serious drug problem in the United States. Continued use is affecting the mind of our nation's youth and can distort their priorities that they have for their lives and their future. Of all teenagers in drug treatment programs, more than half have a primary marijuana diagnosis. More teens are using marijuana at earlier ages. We really need to stop this trend. As parents, leaders and community members, we need to face this problem head on and teach our youths that marijuana is dangerous and addictive.”
Pro-marijuana lobbies charged that the entire case for the opposition to decriminalization is built on stereotypes, disinformation and questionable facts. The fact that the country legally permit the sales and consumption of two substances that kills 541,340 Americans last year (tobacco related, 430,700; alcohol related, 110,640) but criminalize a product that did not directly cause even a single death last year is reason enough to legalize marijuana. The travesty of the past 74 years must be halted, through a serious dialogue and eventually, legislative reforms.
Decriminalizing marijuana will decrease the pressure on the American criminal justice system, law enforcement and prison authorities, which handles in excess of 800,000 marijuana-related cases annually, and in the process, prevent the permanent tarring of a citizen’s record for the crime of carrying over 40 grams of the drug on their person. It will also provide the economy with an immediate stimulus from taxes, and generate a new economic activity (marijuana resale outlets).
No conclusive evidence has yet been presented to support claims that marijuana affects cognitive, motor or mental complications for heavy users of the drug. However, it has been proven that marijuana possesses a myriad of medical benefits, foremost for its painkilling properties, as well as its positive effect for a range of psychological disorders.
Another important consideration lays the concept of individual liberty. Do the government have the right prevent Americans from consuming marijuana, especially in the face of their continued tolerance of the eminently more dangerous cigarettes?
A final point of note lies in the decision of the Dutch and Portuguese government to legalize marijuana in 1976 and 2001, respectively. Their decisions have been vindicated many times over, and the prophesized social breakdown and explosive rise in crime rates were wildly off the mar.
October 17, 2010: Former Surgeon General of the United States, Joycelyn Elders, CNN Interview
“Marijuana has never really caused anyone to die. It’s not a toxic substance and I just think that we can use our resources so much better and I think we need to legalize marijuana for adults and tax it, so we can use the money for much better things. Make it such that you can’t smoke it around children… you can’t sell, it’s illegal to sell it to children… I just think that this is the thing that we should do rather than grabbing up young people, throwing them in prison. They lose their opportunity to ever get a federal scholarship and to me that’s just wrong… Marijuana is not addictive, physically addictive anyway. And the most addictive substance we got out there is nicotine… What I think is horrible about all of this, is that we criminalize young people. And we use so many of our excellent resources ... for things that aren’t really causing any problems.”
Presidential Candidates Formerly Known As Pot Smokers
Obama narrated his experience with marijuana in his book, Dreams of My Father. Feelings of
alienation and the burden of expectations drove him to experiment with drugs for a short period of
“I had learned not to care. I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped,
and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though-Micky, my potential
initiator, had been just a little too eager for me to go through with that. Said he could do it
blindfolded, but he was shaking like a faulty engine when he said it. Maybe he was just cold; we
were standing in a meat freezer in the back of the deli where he worked, and it couldn’t have been
more than twenty degrees in there. But he didn’t look like he was shaking from the cold. Looked
more like he was sweating, his face shiny and tight. He had pulled out the needle and the tubing,
and I’d looked at him standing there, surrounded by big slabs of salami and roast beef, and right
then an image popped into my head of an air bubble, shiny and round like a pearl, rolling quietly
through a vein and stopping my heart….
Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black
man. Except the highs hadn’t been about that, me trying to prove what a down brother I was. Not by
then, anyway. I got high for just the opposite effect, something that could push questions of who I
was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my
memory. I had discovered that it didn’t make any difference whether you smoked reefer in the white
classmate’s sparkling new van, or in the dorm room of some brother you’d met down at the gym, or
on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school and now spent most of
their time looking for an excuse to brawl. Nobody asked you whether your father was a fat-cat
executive who cheated on his wife or some laid-off joe who slapped you around whenever he bothered
to come home. You might just be bored, or alone. Everybody was welcome into the club of
disaffection. And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at
least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit
and cheap moralism...
I had tried to explain some of this to my mother once, the role of luck in the world, the spin of
the wheel. It was at the start of my senior year in high school; she was back in Hawaii, her field
work completed, and one day she had marched into my room, wanting to know the details of Pablo’s
arrest. I had given her a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry, I
wouldn’t do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had
learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves.
They were more than satisfied; they were relieved-such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered
young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.
Except my mother hadn’t looked satisfied. She had just sat there, studying my eyes, her face as
grim as a hearse.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little casual about your future?” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean. One of your friends was just arrested for drug possession. Your
grades are slipping. You haven’t even started on your college applications. Whenever I try to talk
to you about it you act like I’m just this great big bother.”
I didn’t need to hear all this. It wasn’t like I was flunking out. I started to tell her how
I’d been thinking about maybe not going away for college, how I could stay in Hawaii and take some
classes and work part-time. She cut me off before I could finish. I could get into any school in the
country, she said, if I just put in a little effort. “Remember what that’s like? Effort? Damn
it, Bar, you can’t just sit around like some good-time Charlie, waiting for luck to see you
“A good-time Charlie, huh? Well, why not? Maybe that’s what I want out of life. I mean, look at
Gramps. He didn’t even go to college.”
The comparison caught my mother by surprise. Her face went slack, her eyes wavered. It suddenly
dawned on me, her greatest fear.
“Is that what you’re worried about?” I asked. “That I’ll end up like Gramps?”
She shook her head quickly. “You’re already much better educated than your grandfather,” she
said. But the certainty had finally drained from her voice. Instead of pushing the point, I stood up
and left the room.
Dreams of My Father, Barack Obama
Obama’s position on marijuana has change over the years. In 2004, he stated his support for
decriminalization, but not legalization.
In terms of legalization of drugs, I think, the battle, the war on drugs has been an utter
failure and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws but I’m not somebody
who believes in legalization of marijuana. What I do believe is that we need to rethink how we are
operating in the drug wars, and I think that currently, we are not doing a good job.
January 21, 2004, Northwestern University
However, the 2011 National Drug Control Strategy released on May 11, 2011 notes that,
“Marijuana and other illicit drugs are addictive and unsafe especially for use by young
people. The science, though still evolving in terms of long-term consequences, is clear: marijuana
use is harmful. Independent from the so called “gateway effect”—marijuana on its own is
associated with addiction, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and cognitive
impairment, among other negative effects.
Despite successful political campaigns to legalize “medical” marijuana in 15 states and the
District of Columbia, the cannabis (marijuana) plant itself is not medicine. While there may be
medical value in some of the individual components of the cannabis plant, the fact remains that
smoking marijuana is an inefficient and harmful method for delivering the constituent elements that
have or may have medicinal value. As always, the FDA process remains the only scientific and legally
recognized procedure for bringing safe and effective medications to the American public. To date,
the FDA has not found smoked marijuana to be either safe or effective medicine for any condition
(see more on medical marijuana below).
The Administration steadfastly opposes drug legalization. Legalization runs counter to a public
health approach to drug control because it would increase the availability of drugs, reduce their
price, undermine prevention activities, hinder recovery support efforts, and pose a significant
health and safety risk to all Americans, especially our youth. Many “quick fixes” for
America’s complex drug problem have been presented throughout our country’s history. In the past
half-century, these proposals have included calls for allowing the legal sale and use of marijuana.
However, the complex policy issues concerning drug use and the disease of addiction do not lend
themselves to such simple solutions.”
On medical marijuana, despite the controversy of the DEA and IRS’ aggressive policies towards
Californian marijuana related facilities, it appears that Obama’s personal position on the subject
remains unchanged. “My attitude is if the science and doctors suggest that the best palliative care, the best way
to relief pain and suffering is through medical marijuana, then that’s something I’m open to and
because there’s no difference between that and morphine when it comes to just giving people relief
from pain. But I want to do it under strict guidelines.”
November 24, 2007, Obama speaking to supporters during a campaign stop in Audubon, Iowa;