14
Mar
10

Carrie Nation is trying to bogart your weed

The historical parallels between the two major episodes of drug prohibition in the U.S. aren’t exact in all regards, but they’re close enough to warrant attention at this moment, as marijuana prohibition appears on the cusp of collapse.  I sometimes like to imagine that the one is the other, just to give myself a sense of perspective that I often find lacking in contemporary discussions of our current era of marijuana prohibition.

It’s worth remembering that there was a presidential election taking place during the height of the alcohol prohibition frenzy, back in 1916.  As popular as the issue was among the electorate, neither Woodrow Wilson nor his Republican opponent wanted anything to do with it.  They gave no speeches on prohibition, spoke to no advocacy organizations about their plans for tackling the scourge of alcohol, and took no public stand on the issue in their respective party platforms – neither of them.  Interesting, no?  At a moment in history when the frenzy and manufactured fear of the demon drug was so intense as to prompt a majority of elected representatives in government to alter the constitution – an alteration almost immediately  approved by 36 states – neither of the men running for the ultimate position of national leadership wanted anything to do with it, not even as a way to attack the other.   Those were the days, right?

Or maybe the interesting thing is just how prescient those two, independent political decisions appear in the cold light of history.  Almost a century after the fact, the issue is revealed as the “lose-lose” proposition that both men must have understood it to be.   Independently, they wisely recognized that widespread support among the good citizens of the nation and almost all the lower-level pols in both parties didn’t necessarily mean that there was an upside to taking a public position on the issue at the top level of government.

In fact, not much has changed in that regard.  When faced with the decision of either appearing reasonable or trying to be popular with the public (and yes, I do view those two positions as being mutually exclusive, almost all of the time), most reasonable leaders will choose to avoid making a choice.  That’s not to say that presidents always remain on the sidelines, but they certainly seem to prefer to act through proxies when they can, to have lower-level bureaucrats perform the dirty work of politics from the shadows rather than in the light of day.

Speaking of dirty work and shadows, last week the U.S. Director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Gil Kerlikowske (the embarrassingly-idiotic national spokesperson on the current scourge of drugs in the U.S. ) did his best to prove – yet again – that Obama is “officially” not soft on marijuana, despite the fact that most people understand that Obama isn’t the drug warrior on this issue that his predecessor pretended to be.   Speaking first before the California Police Chiefs Association Conference, and then before the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Kerlikowske reiterated the consistent position of the U.S. on medical marijuana, from the last administration to the current administration:

Surprise, we’re still opposed.  An even bigger surprise is that we’re still opposed because “the science” still proves that marijuana is harmful.  This is IMPORTANT.  It’s not true, mind you; nor is it supported by any real evidence, but such is the game played by politicians when they find themselves between their electorate and the pile of candy that the electorate wants so much that it has to deny its own sweet tooth.  (Mmmmmmm, Sweet Tooth.)   Such an odd game, though.

There’s a long tradition in the U.S. of torturing science for the sake of political expediency, so it should come as no surprise that science was dragged into the previous episode of prohibition, too.  In the early 20th century, in a medical industry dominated by quacks, hacks and P.T. Barnum-styled medicine men, alcohol was one of the few doctor-prescribed potions that actually produced a noticeable effect, thereby proving the magic of medicine.  As one of the few substances readily available that could almost instantly alter a patient’s mood, medically-prescribed alcohol enjoyed strong support among the medical community.  Beyond the “medicinal” effects directly linked to hard alcohol, it was also the medium of choice to float other similarly-psychoactive substances like opium, cocaine, and marijuana.  But it wasn’t just the hard stuff that galvanized the community –in fact, the real rallying point was a pint of plain (as Flann O’Brien would say).  At the time, there was a large body of anecdotal evidence suggesting that beer cures what ails you.  No surprise, then, that one of the strongest arguments against the sledgehammer approach of prohibition came from the medical industry.

In his recent article for The Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Jacob M. Appel calls this prohibition-era struggle “a crucial step in the political organization of the medical profession” and specifically cites the banning of “medical beer” as “the first instance of healthcare being regulated by the national government against the wishes of physicians.”   Beyond the details of this particular fight, Appel argues that the defeat of the medical lobby on this issue “opened the door to an era of much more widespread federal control.”  So, take that, death panels.

No surprise, I suppose, that the medical argument had no real effect upon the political reality of the issue – revolutions rarely come with co-pays.  Still, a fascinating article.  Appel includes a particularly significant  exchange between two of the central players in this “medicinal beer”  argument.  In an appearance before the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dr. John Patrick Davin faced off against committee chairman Andrew Volstead (R-Minn.).  Volstead, speaking for the people, makes the argument that medical decisions really shouldn’t be made by people trained in medicine:

VOLSTEAD: Do you not think that the common-sense judgment of the plain people of the country should be considered? Ought they not have some influence?

DAVIN: In matters of politics, in matters of finance, but not in a matter of engineering or in a matter of medicine. In such a matter, the science of medicine rises above “common sense,” as you call it.

And here’s where my historical parallel breaks down.  Because, hard as it may be to believe, as a nation we were more serious about science back when we thought beer cured everything from anemia to anthrax poisoning than we are today.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s directives to the Feds to back slooooooowly away from the medical marijuana issue reflects the reality of the Obama Administration’s position – the political reality – but Kerlikowske’s tortured reasoning reflects the “science,” such as it is.

Check out the position your national representative passed on to the rest of the world on your behalf.  In his statement before the UN, Kerlikowske said:

“I want to be clear about our Administration’s views on marijuana. In our country, we have seen significant consequences of marijuana use. For example, more and more people are dependent on the drug and treatment and call-in centers cite marijuana as a major reason people are presenting for help. We in the Obama Administration are opposed to legalizing marijuana or any other illicit drug. Research and experience have shown that by widening availability, we increase the acceptance and use of these drugs and the harmful consequences that go with them. We also believe medicine should be determined by science, not popular vote. Currently, in line with international protocols, there are numerous research projects underway which will soon provide more insight into the drug and its many components.”

Flawless logic, right?  The people who make their money on marijuana prohibition have told us that marijuana prohibition is a good thing, so they must be right.  Oh, and medical science should trump the will of the people  – well, except for those cases where medical science is prevented from weighing in because of limitations imposed by the will of the people from a half-century ago.  Like this one.  But rest assured, the research is being conducted that will one day support our political decision.

Even worse than this sort of official hokum, though, is the uncritical celebration of that sort of hokum that goes without examination.  Understandably, the Obama administration is doing nothing to publicize Kerlikowske’s idiotic statements, so the press was largely silent on his recent appearances.  Because they mostly do what their told, these days.  But even though they can’t afford to print on paper anymore, The Christian Science Monitor is on the job.  And why not?  After all, nothing evokes the bastardization of science for political ends like the publication arm of a voodoo cult devoted to that very subject.

In their editorial, “Marijuana Legalization? A White House Rebuttal, Finally” the CSM editors called attention to the ONDCP’s tortured view of science:

“The drug czar couldn’t have been more plain. On medical marijuana, which has strong public backing in opinion polls, the former Seattle police chief said that “science should determine what a medicine is, not popular vote.” As Kerlikowske pointed out, marijuana is harmful – and he has the studies to back it up. Read the footnotes in his speech; they’re sobering, especially No. 8.”

With all due respect (to the newspaper of a voodoo cult), the only thing sobering about the footnotes backing up this specious argument is that they suggest that it’s possible to rise to the level of “Czar” in the government of the most powerful nation on earth with the equivalent of a “freshman writing course” understanding of logic.  Read the footnotes if you want, but all you’ll find is the same collection of hesitant, half-hearted statements produced by anti-drug advocates, and based far more upon the absence of scientific studies than any truly-conclusive results.

As dumb as they seem, though, at least the CSM editors understand that Obama is playing a political game of keep-away with this issue.  The most revealing comment from their article reflects that game far more than the “substance” – if I can call it that – of Kerlikowske’s statement.  They write:

“What’s too bad about the drug czar’s speech is that it was made behind closed doors at a venue not accessible to the press, then quietly put on the administration’s website. Given the confusion over the message, the White House needs to be far more outspoken about this.”

So, the statement is released during a press conference of sorts, but one where the press is dis-allowed from attending.  I think the subtlety of that move might have been lost on the CSM editors.  And by the way, when they say that the statement was “quietly put on the administration’s website,” they mean “quiet” the way a dog whistle is quiet.  As in, well below the threshold of human hearing.  I challenge you to find anything about Kerlikowske’s statement on the White House.gov site.  I gave up after fifteen minutes, but I’m pretty sure there’s no link there.  Sure, you can find it if you go to the ONDCP’s site, but you’d have to be high to do that.

Am I happy that Obama’s Drug Czar is pushing the same idiotic message that the last administration pushed?  I am not.  Am I happy that said Drug Czar is still pushing the junk science and tortured logic that has characterized virtually every policy statement on marijuana prohibition since Harry J. Anslinger first went reefer mad?  Again, no.  I console myself, though, with the fact that reform efforts continue to gain support, even in the face of continuing government propaganda and posturing, halfhearted though it may be under Obama’s lead.  I’m further consoled by the fact that at least Obama has the good sense to keep his fingerprints off this toxic political issue.  Now if only we could return to those enlightened days of the 1920s, when Americans still had a little respect for science.  Bottom’s up, stoners.

Oh, and by the way:

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,

And your face is pale and wan,

When doctors say you need a change,

A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

–Flann O’Brien

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2 Responses to “Carrie Nation is trying to bogart your weed”


  1. 1 Mr. Nice
    March 16, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I’m happy the drug czar is still a buffoon and makes faith-based organizations look like big dummies. That is how it should be. If these people ever came out with some intelligent shit, I’d be worried.

  2. March 16, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    I agree with you when it comes to marijuana prohibition, and it does seem like the U.S. is congenitally unable to address drug use as anything but a moral hazard. That said, there’s a role for government in the prevention of destructive social behavior at times, and some drugs present problems too big to be dealt with in piecemeal fashion.

    I’d love to see a U.S. drug czar focus on the problem of advertised pharmaceuticals, for example. I’m not opposed to the government underwriting, or otherwise taking an active role in drug rehabilitation – just not the kinds of for-profit industries that bribe judges into sending teenage stoners to rehab. And I’d love to see someone tackle the spread of meth in a reasonable way (i.e. in some way other than turning things over to law enforcement agencies that see every drug problem within their existing “hammer-nail” paradigm).

    Lots of perceived drug problems are actually the reflected problems of other, larger social problems. Poverty is probably the biggest of these, but there are others. I wouldn’t expect a city cop to notice that the habitual drunk driver he/she catches could really use a better job, or better coping skills – because the cop has to act at the individual level, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worthwhile for someone with a wider perspective to look at the problem in the aggregate, as a nation-wide concern. In this ideal, imaginary world of mine, it would be nice if the person or people making those decisions weren’t idiots.


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