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the column of lasting insignificance: June 15, 2013
by John Wilcock

IF YOU’RE OLD ENOUGH to remember when a cartel of Middle Eastern states boldly jacked up the price of oil in the seventies, you’ll probably agree that that was an action that changed the world. But it was an industrial and commercial decision which, however much it contributed to increased prices and even the demise of some businesses, didn’t provoke much thought from the man in the street apart from grumbling about how much more he had to pay at the pump.
    But take the subject of pot—officially named cannabis [sativa or indica]—a substance that was off most everybody’s radar until the sixties, but is now so universal that even a closeted nun has doubtless met someone who smokes it. And those millions of smokers now have a different attitude about life and the way it can be lived.
    Clearly it has changed the world of most individuals who enjoyed it, so many of whom know that they have been altered not only physically, by becoming more aware of their bodies, but also through mind shifts brought about in their attitudes and beliefs.
    One filmmaker, whose experience with marijuana now goes back almost half a century, explained: “It changed my attitudes and my values and many beliefs, one of which turned me into a sexual revolutionary. I became determined to tear down the barricades of sex guilt. The other thing about it is that it produces a substantial shift and, since I spent most of my time thinking and being in my head, having that shift from linear/verbal reality to spatial/sensual body-oriented reality was like stepping through a looking glass. A whole different way of perceiving myself in life… and other people. In that respect it opens up all sorts of possibilities which, in our normal everyday consciousness we may not be aware of. It does it much more so than alcohol. In fact, I really don’t have that great a response to alcohol. A little alcohol maybe. But with marijuana it’s a whole different game.”
    Perhaps Timothy Leary said it best, when asked to explain why so many people had tried drugs: “Takes you out of your box.”
    But change the world? Surely that’s an exaggeration?
    Not really—not when you try to come up with any other single thing to account for the mindset of millions of people today compared to, say, half a century ago. Some might like to maintain that only people could bring about such wide-ranging changes. But, then, who might we be talking about? Adolf Hitler certainly changed the world—but for the sake of argument let’s dismiss negative influences.
    So perhaps the title of this book should be “Marijuana—the Weed that changed the world for the better.” John F. Kennedy? Nelson Mandela? Pope John Paul? They all did good deeds but in a relatively limited way. The number of people whose thoughts, actions, lifestyle each of them influenced surely can’t compare with the vast hordes of individuals in a score of countries who never thought quite the same way again after toking on their first joint.
    And let’s expand the scenario. Cautiously, somebody smokes pot for the first time and lo, and behold!—it’s not at all like he’s been told. It doesn’t make him violent. Doesn’t turn him into an addict. Doesn’t lead him into other drugs. But it does make him feel better, does stimulate his imagination, and most definitely makes him feel warmer towards his fellow man. So he tells his friends and they try it, too. And he begins to wonder, as so many people have wondered before, if the law really is an ass.
    Is it a good thing to disobey the law? Well, sometimes yes. Especially when that is the only way that an unjust and outdated law can be changed. The filmmaker quoted earlier has some things to say about that, too.
    “I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to both Richard Nixon and G. Gordon Liddy,” he suggested. “Because the first time in modern America when there was a popular defiance of laws was during prohibition. Until then it just wasn’t popular to defy laws. But then it became quite socially acceptable. So Nixon wanted to come down hard on dope and pot and Liddy closed the borders to Mexico, and as a result they created a flourishing local industry which competed to produce the highest quality pot possible and now they have pot that was unbelievable twenty or thirty years ago. It’s so good that now it’s copied all over the world. Also it spread all over the world because it’s such high quality. If it were just that mediocre stuff that we used to get back in the fifties from Mexico it might not be nearly as popular.”
    Of course, this fact in itself has lent weight to the specious arguments of the anti-pot crusaders who claim that smoking weed has always been dangerous and now is infinitely more so. One of their highly publicized hypotheses is that marijuana is a “gateway” drug whose use leads to the ingestion of stronger “hard” drugs such as cocaine or heroin. Millions of smokers who never move on to anything else ridicule this, suggesting that the percentage is possibly equivalent to the number of drinkers who go on to become alcoholics. But not only is there no empirical evidence that marijuana is a gateway drug leading to heroin, but should it be decriminalized it could be an effective gateway drug leading in the other direction—i.e., in gradually helping addicts get unhooked from the stronger drug.
    There is ample corroboration of pot’s harmlessness. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1982, after a four-year study, that evidence of its health hazards were inconclusive and that partial legalization was preferable to criminal penalties. “Never has so much money been spent trying to find something wrong with a drug and produced so few results” was the comment of an official of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
    Former drug czar and army retiree Barry R. McCaffrey blithely (and mendaciously) maintains that marijuana has “no generally accepted therapeutic value.” In fact, McCaffrey thought nothing of outright lying about such matters as Holland’s famous tolerance for marijuana use when he maintained that that country’s policy had caused its murder rate to soar to double that of the United States.
    Great sound bite! But the cold, indisputable truth is that Holland’s rate is about a quarter than of the U.S.’s, leading one to wonder what in the world McCaffrey may have been on at the time of his remarks—other than the public dole, of course.
    One thing that can be stated without any doubt whatsoever is that the effects of marijuana are pacifying, and that it’s a peace-loving drug whose exponents usually want to do nothing more than chill out while regarding their surroundings with a benign tolerance. It is hardly a coincidence that the sixties protests against the Vietnam War and the calls for the decriminalization of marijuana were the twin aspirations of the “Underground Press” agenda when it would have been nearly impossible to find an alternative paper anywhere in the world that didn’t proclaim these as its immediate goals.
    But there was also a more significant result which can be summed up in the popular bumper sticker: QUESTION AUTHORITY. Whatever the law-and-order types might think, this is an important message for every generation and in that particular era it was a proposition that had long been overdue. For the first time in history—emancipated at least partly by the music—the young actually had tangible, usable political power and many of them used it well, loudly and publicly questioning the way their elders had abused the world and the accepted standards that had become shopworn. Their goals were vividly righteous: a greater appreciation of ethnic and sexual differences, less sexism and, perhaps most important of all, a deeper understanding of the environment and a determination to preserve it.
    Bottom line was that young people everywhere looked at their elders and felt that quite frankly they’d made a mess of things. Of course, this had probably been true of every generation in history, but here was the first generation—empowered by their new sense of freedom—who felt they could actually do something about it.
    Now those baby boomers are all grown up (some still smoking pot) and many of their ideas have prevailed. And the question that has been asked countless times before is still cogent: “How much sense does it make to send somebody to prison for smoking in his own home, a plant that he grows in his own garden?” The question is even more significant when we add the factor that the victim is often suffering excruciating and constant pain, dying of cancer, and that for this self-administered medication offers the only relief? Speaking for thousands of patients who have found relief from cannabis, glaucoma sufferer Elvy Musikka wrote: “I lost one eye through surgery and conventional treatment. Marijuana is helping me save what I have left.”
    There is ample evidence, is this book and elsewhere, that the effects of marijuana can be therapeutic however much the anti-potters continue to deny it. They are stubbornly unable to give an inch because, whatever anybody might say to justify its use, for them it’s part of “the drug problem.” But what drugs are we talking about? Aspirin? Caffeine? Nicotine? Heroin? Prozac? Viagra? Whiskey? They’re all drugs, and all are dangerous if taken in excess. Some, indeed, even cause death and overall do infinitely more harm than cannabis.
    Also when does use cross over into abuse? Is smoking one joint, for example, more harmful than three drinks of scotch? There’s no doubt which of these two examples is more likely to impact negatively on other people.
    Yet, as the Chicago Tribune’s George S. Holland points out: “We still lay on marijuana users $10,000 fines, property confiscation, loss of jobs and jail. The laws against marijuana use are persecutory, their enforcement usually doing far more harm to the accused than the accused had done to anyone, including himself or herself.”
    One curious effect of this modern-day witch-hunt has been to draw people together in protest, from every political, social, and financial class. “The blood lust by the DEA against marijuana users is being used to justify an abuse of civil rights,” opined conservative sage William F. Buckley Jr., echoing the thoughts of virtually every free thinker who has expressed an opinion.
    But perhaps some of pot’s opponents might well ponder the following, from seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “He who tries to determine everything by law will foment crime rather than lessen it.”

from the introduction of my soon-to-be-published book
"Marijuana—The Weed That Changed the World"

[JW is currently visiting Hadrian’s Wall]

6/8/13

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