Monday, December 8, 2014

Did you know joints were sold legally in the US in the 1870s? Neither did I.

Yesterday I stumbled across this ad for Grimault & Co.'s "Indian Cigarettes" in an 1876 edition of the Daily Argus in Rock Island, Ill. I was aware that, during the nineteenth century, Cannabis indica was used in a variety of remedies and carried in pharmacies across the nation. But I had never heard of anyone selling joints before the early twentieth century, when cops started rounding up pot-puffing Mexicans along the border.

The folks over at the Antique Cannabis Book have more details on these early legal reefers. They note that Grimault & Co.'s Cannabis cigs were available since 1870, and they were apparently the only ones on the market. This, along with the general dearth of reports of intoxicating Cannabis use during the nineteenth century, seems to suggest that Americans at the time just weren't that interested in using Cannabis to get high. Opiates could also be legally obtained then, too, so maybe those who wanted a trip just chose the stronger stuff instead.

Isn't it funny how some thirty years later, when poor, migrant, brown-skinned, non-English speakers started bringing the same exact product across the border, we completely lost our $hit and banned them?

Granted, the middle and upper classes in Mexico didn't exactly paint a sparkling image of marijuana for Americans, and the unruly behavior of pot-smoking soldiers and prisoners didn't do the plant's image any favors, either.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Modern-Day Reefer Madness: How the Ferguson Police Department Used Michael Brown's Cannabis Use to Cheapen His Life

Police investigators repeatedly stressed Michael Brown's Cannabis use prior to his death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson displayed a stunning mastery of nineteenth-century racist rhetoric when he described Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager he shot and killed, as a "demon" whose freakish strength mirrored that of "Hulk Hogan." "I had to kill him," Wilson said.

After the shooting, as is common after a non-black kills a young black person for no good reason, media personalities and the public showed respect for the dead teenager by digging into his personal life and piling up as many excuses for his killer as they could: Brown was a a cigar-snatching bully and a career criminal! Wilson was working in a dangerous (read: black) neighborhood; you can't expect him to exercise the same kind of calculated judgment with all those scary black bodies walking around! Brown was a "thug" who liked guns and liquor and money: See, here's a picture of him holding a gun and money next to some liquor  (oh wait, that wasn't Brown; it was just another black person profiled by another white police officer)...

And then there was my personal favorite, Brown was a drug user!

As if Wilson's harrowing story of Brown's super-Negro strength was not enough to convince the Ferguson police "investigators" that their fellow officer was squeaky clean in this incident, Brown's toxicology report showed he had been smoking pot at some point before he died. A construction worker then told police investigators that he saw Brown with some marijuana the day of the shooting and asked the teenager whether he had tried  "wax" - highly concentrated Cannabis oil. Brown was not seen smoking any Cannabis preparations the day of the shooting. The worker did not offer Brown any wax, or say anything about where he might get it. Brown told the worker he had never tried wax before, and that was the end of what should have been considered an irrelevant conversation.

But you can almost see the police investigators' eyes light up upon hearing this tangential information: "SUCCESS!" their tiny brains must've cried, "Not only was Michael Brown a black criminal, but he was also high! We got him! ... er, well, we already got him, but now WE'VE GOT HIS REPUTATION, too!"

In their ensuing questioning of witnesses, investigators proceeded to lay out the absurd possibility that extremely concentrated hash oil made Brown hallucinate that he was invincible, thus explaining the bizarre part of Wilson's story where a "demon"-eyed Brown "charged" him and required the officer's astute unloading of six rounds into the body of the drug-fueled beast.

Again, nobody saw Brown smoke any kind of pot that day. Depending on rate of use and body type, THC, the primary psychoactive compound in Cannabis, stays in the system for days or weeks. Brown could have smoked the small amount of pot the construction worker saw him with that day, or he could have smoked pot a day or two before. Herbal forms of Cannabis, like the kind Brown allegedly had, rarely have enough THC to induce hallucinations. High concentrations of THC, such as those found in hashish or wax, can. Again, there was no evidence that Brown had access to, possessed, or smoked anything besides enough weed for a joint. Case closed, right?

"... prosecutors still pursued the waxing angle.

The jurors first heard the term from a police chemist Oct. 7, as he was being questioned by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kathi Alizadeh.

“If one were to ingest that, you would be consuming a higher level of THC than you would if you were to have smoked or ingested the plant material?” Alizadeh asked.

The chemist answered, “Yes, you would.”

The questions did not lead to any mention of Brown’s waxing, though, leaving it unclear why they had been raised."
The Post-Dispatch writer seems confused. This is understandable. Allow me to explain: the purpose in pursuing the "waxing angle" was not to discern whether or not Brown actually was suffering from drug-induced hallucinations during the struggle with Wilson. It was pursued and brought up in front of the grand jury in order to highlight - to plant in the minds of the jury, onlookers, reporters, and commentators - yet another possible reason that Brown's life may not have been worth all that much anyway. One does not have to look far to find precedent for such a strategy: Earlier this year, attorneys for Theodore Wafer, the Detroit man who shot 19-year-old Renisha McBride to death for knocking on his front door, also fervently claimed that the victim's use of Cannabis and alcohol that evening somehow justified her dying. (The difference is that Wafer, a private citizen, was put on trial and sent to jail, whereas Wilson, a cop, never even got close)

The idea that Cannabis fuels crime and violence, especially among poor minorities, is nothing new. In the 1930s, during his push for federal Cannabis prohibition, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger maintained that "Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negroes" who smoked marijuana were responsible for 50 percent of the violent crimes in their neighborhood. Anslinger also warned that blacks were using marijuana to steal and corrupt virtuous white women, claiming that "marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes." Similarly, a newspaper editorial from 1934 claimed that  "Marijuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men's shadows and look at a white woman twice."

Anslinger's racist testimony - really the only testimony that was heard at the time - was instrumental in Congress' decision to pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively legalized the racial profiling of minorities under the guise of rooting out potentially dangerous drug users. But the most chilling resonance to the Michael Brown case is found in the Bureau's explanation of marijuana's effects, which it published in pamphlets during Anslinger's reign as chief from 1930 to 1962. This was the text as of 1962:
"The drug produces first an exhaltation with a feeling of well being, a happy, jovial mood, usually; an increased feeling of physical strength and power. Those who are accustomed to habitual use of the drug are said eventually to develop a delirious rage after its administration during which they are temporarily, at least, irresponsible and prone to commit violent crimes. The prolonged use of narcotics is said to produce mental deterioration."
Sound familiar? The above government-concocted myth about Cannabis fits like a glove on the hand of the mythical hulking beast Negro. I'd like to remind you all that it is now 2014, and both of these myths were just deployed - with depressing efficacy - to support the claim that a white police officer was justified in shooting an unarmed black teenager to death, and then leaving his uncovered body to rot on the sidewalk.

The persistent idea that the lives of drug users, especially minority drug users, are worth less than any others amounts to nothing more than absurd discrimination and hypocrisy on the part of the American authorities and the drug-shaming (but secretly drug-loving) American public. The Michael Brown case is yet another example of how our awful and unproductive history of stereotyping and punishing drug users, especially those who have already been "othered" by racism, lives in the present.

As someone who reads a great deal about race in America, the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson did not surprise me. What did surprise me, however, was the slew of blatant, centuries-old myths that the white public and white authorities have subsequently used to justify that decision. The only conceivable reason these myths were drudged up is that, somehow, somewhere, people still believe them. The whole scenario has resulted in a profound distortion of the space-time continuum, in which every day I have trouble answering the deceptively simple question of "what century am I in?"

Although, as Harry Anslinger and the Ferguson police would argue, maybe it's the pot.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"A little reefer by the woodstove:" A Short History of Marijuana in Alaska

Courtesy of CannabisCulture magazine.
In last week's midterm elections, Alaskans approved Ballot Measure 2 by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, making theirs the fourth US state in two years to legalize recreational cannabis use. Oregon became the third earlier Tuesday night, joining Colorado and Washington, states that legalized in 2012. Add in marijuana's quasi-legal status in California, and Alaska's vote brought legal weed to the entire West Coast of the United States (perhaps to the chagrin of oft-busted bud growers in Canada's B.C.).

In an age of near-universal public support for some kind of cannabis legalization, it may not seem very surprising that Alaskans voted to legalize weed by a fairly wide margin. I mean, the stuff had pretty much been legal in the country's northernmost reaches since 1975, when the Alaskan Supreme Court ruled that personal cultivation and consumption of marijuana in the home was protected under the state constitution's right-to-privacy article [1]. Under that ruling - which made marijuana laws in staunchly conservative Alaska the most liberal in the country by far - Alaskans could possess up to four ounces of cannabis and grow up to 25 plants in their home. When that ruling was challenged by a 1991 initiative that re-criminalized cannabis, barely anything changed [2]. State troopers refused to enforce it, with some even agreeing that they'd rather try to take a man's gun than his stash of weed.

Yes, you read that right: In Alaska, a state where people love (and actually need) their guns more than they do in Texas, state troopers in the 1990s preferred grabbing guns instead of ganja. Alaskans further undermined the '91 law when they legalized medical cannabis via a ballot initiative in 1998.

Alaska is a cold, unforgiving place, populated by people who, as their state constitution's privacy article suggests, value their individual liberties above most everything else. It's safe to say that telling people what they can and cannot do in a state where nature's laws undoubtedly govern more effectively than man's has never been popular. In such a harsh environment marked by half-years of total darkness, it's also completely understandable why Alaskans have some of the highest rates of marijuana use in the country (see footnote #1 and the map to the right, where as of 2008 the percentage of monthly marijuana users in Alaska was surpassed only in three other states and Washington, D.C.).

But when we discuss Alaskans' historic relationship with cannabis in a purely political or social context, we gloss over one of the most fascinating and important elements of the story: namely, how did a plant that thrives in the most sun-drenched parts of the world come to find a happy home so close to the Arctic Circle?