Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Interview from the Archive: NORML's Paul Armentano says "Americans co-existed peacefully with the marijuana plant until the early 1900s"

Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 26, 2017.

This is the fourth part of my discussion with Paul Armentano. The firstsecond, and third articles are available. 
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

"Unfortunately, it's easy to enforce anti-marijuana laws: just arrest hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, which we do," Paul Kuhn, then serving as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws's chairman, told me in 2012, when I interviewed him for my column at The Washington Times Communities. "Do these arrests deter pot use?  No.  Marijuana use rates in states which have decriminalized possession, for example, are generally no different than in states with harsh penalties.  We have much higher rates of marijuana use in America than in countries like Holland where use is de facto legalized."

Much has changed across the fruited plains since then. Our discussion, along with virtually all other Communities articles published before January 2014, was pulled down from TWT's website; rendering it -- essentially -- lost to historical record. Marijuana, in both medicinal and recreational contexts, has been legalized in eight states. The idea of ending prohibition against pot now enjoys strong support in both major parties. 

What may account for such a radical shift?

"The health risks of marijuana are far less than those of alcohol and tobacco and more akin to those of caffeine," Kuhn explained later in our discussion. "In fact, thousands of studies show marijuana has potential health benefits in fighting diseases like Alzheimer's, Crohn's, MS and even cancer.  A recent Mayo Clinic report found marijuana offers "potentially head-to-toe therapeutic breakthroughs."

"Most hard drug addicts start with tobacco and alcohol, not marijuana. I have friends who consider marijuana 'the exit drug' because it helped them recover from dependence on alcohol and other addictive, deadly substances."

Lock, stock, and barrel reform of marijuana laws in our country is, at core, not a political issue, but one of personal health. That it has become politicized is a testament to how no shortage of 'civic servants' seek to manipulate a quintessentially private matter for public gain. I do not regard driving the criminalization of marijuana into the back pages of history as anything relative to politics, but rather culture; at both the personal and group levels.

Recently, I spoke with Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, about where cannabis stands in the American story. Some of our conversation is listed below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: More than anything else, during the early-to-mid 20th century, what turned the tide of public opinion against marijuana?

Paul Armentano: Americans co-existed peacefully with the marijuana plant until the early 1900s. But staring around 1920, states began instituting some of the first statewide marijuana prohibition laws – acts that were ‘justified’ by fanciful claims that consuming cannabis made users prone to wanton acts of violence and insatiable sexual desires, and ultimately drove human beings to become irreversibly insane. Blacks and Hispanics were alleged to be most susceptible to these effects.

These claims, which sound ridiculous now, were repeated and promoted without question by the mainstream media and by the editors of scientific journals. A June 6, 1927 news report in the New York Times, entitled ‘Mexican Family Go Insane By Eating Marihuana’ epitomized this sort of coverage, as did a 1933 article published in the Journal of Criminology, which opined that the use of cannabis resulted in incurable insanity and, “without exception,” death. This sort of fear mongering and race-baiting led ultimately to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 – the first nationwide law imposing cannabis prohibition.

Some decades later, similar smear tactics associating cannabis use with hippies and the Black revolutionary movement led to a similar legislative crack down and, ultimately, the outlawing of cannabis under federal law via the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. Congress’ decision in 1970 to categorize marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, the most restrictive drug classification under the law, is the reason why cannabis remains federally prohibited to this day.

Cotto: Beyond any other factor, over the last ten years, what has turned the tide of public opinion in marijuana's favor?

Armentano: In recent years, marijuana legalization has gone from theory to practice. Americans can see with their own eyes that we can legalize and regulate cannabis in a way that is responsible and that raises revenue, and that the sky won’t fall.

Proponents of prohibition, and federal officials in particular, have little to no credibility anymore when it comes to the subject of cannabis policy. Modern day marijuana prohibitionists are asking the public to deny their own first-hand experiences and to reject the reality that they are witnessing daily. States like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington regulate the adult use of cannabis and these jurisdictions are among the most economically productive, prosperous, and sought out places to live in the United States. The genie is out of the bottle and it isn’t returning.

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