I grew up in the American Deep South, in Lower Alabama, with Jim Crow and Old Crow, where fire-breathing preachers, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and I all knew that one may never kill a mockingbird.
And in that day and place, the “War on Drugs” was actively waged county by county. The drug was alcohol and the method of war was called “local option.” Every several years, the Baptists and the bootleggers would team up politically to try to get their county voted “dry” again. But like all the wars on drugs in Western civilization, it was only temporarily and geographically somewhat successful.
The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the Volstead Act) was ratified in 1919 and went into effect in 1920, making illegal the manufacture, distribution, and sale (but not the possession for personal use) of ethyl alcohol as a beverage.
Prohibition did sharply decrease the amount of alcohol consumed for several years, but was never popular and was circumvented in numerous ways by a public that liked to drink. Al Capone typified that era’s gang-drug wars. Franklin Roosevelt ran for president on a platform that included repeal of the 18th, a promise delivered upon in December 1933.
When President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971, he was merely placing a new administrative emphasis on the American prohibition of many psychoactive substances that began in 1914 — 41 years later, it isn’t even surprising for this columnist to agree with many others, including noted conservative Pat Robertson, who have declared that war to be over, the country having suffered ignominious defeat.
Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander in her acclaimed new book argues eloquently that the Drug War is The New Jim Crow. It seems that Nixon’s failed drug war was never only about drugs.
It was, and is, about subjugating African Americans by incarceration on felony drug charges, intended to deny them the right to vote, as one element of Nixon’s long successful Southern Strategy for Republican success.
So although this “war” failed in its efforts against drugs, it did and does succeed as a political strategy by depriving millions of citizens of their right to vote, even lifelong.
As a toxicologist and forensic pathologist, I have been on the record since 1971 that marijuana is far less harmful than either tobacco or alcohol.
The drive to take psychoactive drugs is and always will be overwhelming to many people. But when the laws intended to prevent harm from a drug are more harmful for individuals and for society than is the drug, it is sensible to change those laws.
And that time is now for marijuana.
Recognizing full well that our society has not done a good job regulating either tobacco or alcohol, and that marijuana is not harmless, I nonetheless believe that cannabis cultivation, possession, marketing, sale, and use should now be made legal, regulated, and taxed in all 50 of these United States.
George Lundberg is a MedPage Today Editor-at-Large and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
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