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The Lessons of History

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As the movement to legalize marijuana is now well into its 5th decade, what has history revealed?

First, to be clear, opposition to marijuana prohibition and the drug war emerged long before the 1970s with some key historical figures including Charles Woodward, Alfred Lindesmith and Rufus King (just to name a few favorites).

This column, though, is not about people, it’s about knowledge, discovery and accomplishment.  What does America know now about marijuana legalization that it didn’t know then? That is, since prohibition began, and then the effort to end it began, what’s new?

When prohibition began no one knew the active ingredient in marijuana was tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It was discovered by Raphael Mechoulam and Yechiel Gaoni in 1964.

Until the late 1980s, no one knew, though, how marijuana caused its characteristic effects. The endocannabinoid receptor system was discovered in 1988 by Allyn Howlett and her research team at Washington University in St. Louis.

Therapeutic effects of marijuana have been observed for centuries, but over the last several decades, and especially since the discovery of the endocannabinoid receptor system, a cascade of important discoveries have emerged about the therapeutic and medical benefits of this neuropathway and this drug. One of the most recent discoveries is that marijuana could play a crucial role in curing Alzheimer’s Disease.

So, since prohibition began in 1937 (at the national level), marijuana’s active ingredient, its method of action in the human body and its diverse medical properties have all been documented by science. In other words, when marijuana was made illegal, no one knew how it worked—now they do.

America has learned a lot about the enforcement of marijuana laws.

First, they don’t discourage marijuana use. Marijuana arrests doubled in the United States in the 1990s with no impact at all on marijuana usage.

Second, a key realization about the resulting war on marijuana was recognized in the last decade. Tremendous racial disparities exist when marijuana laws are enforced, with blacks being arrested at three times the rate as whites. Given the racist rhetoric used to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which established prohibition, this was no surprise, but most people conveniently forgot about this element of prohibition until racial disparities in marijuana arrests were publicized.

When marijuana was made illegal, no one knew it had the potential to be a major cash crop, whether illegal or legal. However, it was widely known that a low-THC version of the cannabis plant had proven economic value, known, of course, as hemp, which fortunately is making a comeback due to cannabis reform activism and entrepreneurship.

Another great discovery by marijuana reform activists was that the ballot initiative process could be used successfully at the state-level to legalize marijuana and that the federal government would not be able to prevent such reform. However, we also learned that the philanthropy of a few wealthy benefactors, the most important of which was Peter Lewis, would be required to make this work.

In other words, grass-root activism alone was not enough to get marijuana legalized.

Since marijuana has been legalized in a few states, another important lesson has been discovered. Marijuana legalization does not result in an increase of teen use. And for that matter, it doesn’t result in massive changes in the level of adult use either.

That’s nine important lessons of what Americans know now that they didn’t know then. Here’s a 10th. When told the truth about marijuana and the enforcement of marijuana laws, the public supports marijuana’s legalization.

Public policy works in the same way as science. In science, a theory serves as a prediction as to what will happen given specific activity and circumstances. Public policy, which includes passing laws, is also based on the idea that it will produce certain, specific results.

Prohibition was supposed to curtail and eliminate marijuana use and the marijuana market; it was also a prediction that science would prove marijuana was a dangerous drug. Furthermore, prohibition was a prediction that the public would continue to support the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of people for marijuana-related offenses. History tell us, now, that these predictions failed to occur. Indeed, history teaches us just the opposite. The lesson of history is that prohibition is a failure.

There is another lesson here, and it has two parts.

First, democracy works. Second, democracy works, but interest groups need a little help.

In this country, in this system, no one is the judge of their own cause. (Read up on this, it’s James Madison’s Federalist Paper #10.) Effective social change requires coalitions; it needs broad-based public support. It requires both generous benefactors and grass-roots activism.

In a word—marijuana legalization requires compromise, meaning the compromises necessary to form effective and powerful political coalitions. Remember that. It’s a lesson of history.

Jon Gettman is the Cannabis Policy Director for High Times. Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy, teaching undergraduate criminal justice and graduate level management courses. A long-time contributor to High Times, his research and analytical work has been used by NORML, Marijuana Policy Project, American’s for Safe Access, the Drug Policy Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations. Jon’s research contributions to the topic of marijuana law reform have included findings on the economic value of domestic marijuana cultivation, attempts to have marijuana rescheduled under federal law and racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates. Serving as NORML’s National Director in the late 1980s, he was instrumental in creating NORML’s activist program.

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