Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.
This Op-Ed appeared in the Boston Globe in 1995
by Peter Gorman
© all rights reserved
In November, 1894, The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission published the findings of an exhaustive research project devoted to discovering whether the use of cannabis, known in India as bhang, should be allowed to continue or be made illegal in that country. Among the things looked at by the British commission were the drug’s effect on both the infrequent and frequent user, its cost to society, and the potential problems related to its possible criminalization.
In its conclusion, the commission stated: “The moderate use of these [cannabis] drugs is the rule...excessive use is comparatively exceptional. The moderate use practically produces no ill effects. In all but the most exceptional cases the unjury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable. The excessive use may certainly be accepted as very injurious, though it must be admitted that in many excessive consumers the injury is not clearly marked. The injury done by excessive use is, however, confined almost exclusively to the consumer himself; the effect on society is rarely appreciable.”
The Commission went on to suggest that prohibition of cultivation or use of cannabis was not warranted. Instead, it recommended that controls be put into place to assure adequate taxation and to limit the extent of legal possession.
One hundred years later, between 300,000 and 400,000 Americans are being arrested annually for marijuana use, more than three-quarters of them for simple possession. Several thousand of them are serving mandatory sentences of 5 years or more.
This past June 12, a poll taken by Parade Magazine, found in hundreds of Sunday newspapers, showed that 75 percent of more than 50,000 respondents favored marijuana legalization for general use, and nearly 90 percent favored its availability for medical use. At nearly the same time the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released it’s annual Household Survey of Drug Use in America, which indicated that at least nine million people had smoked marijuana during the past month.
Given that marijuana does not look like it’s going away any time soon, it may be time to broach the question of whether we as a country are better served by devoting our energies to searching out and criminalizing marijuana smokers and growers, or whether we would be better off legalizing and controlling its use?
The question is three pronged because of the various uses of the hemp (cannabis) plant: industrial, medical, and as an intoxicant.
Pragmatically speaking, there are several reasons to allow hemp’s cultivation for industrial uses: it can be made into fabric, paper, plastics, used as fuel, and food. It’s cultivation on a large scale would allow us to slowly convert from a culture based on cotton and tree fiber—both of which use an enormous amount and array of environmentally harmful pesticides and chemicals in their processing—to a renewable-resource which utilizes minimal chemical processing. Nearly two dozen countries around the world, including England, France, and Switzerland have already legalized hemp for such industrial uses, and find ready markets for their products.
Additionally, the hemp plant’s use as an alternative medicine— currently outlawed for all but eight Americans who receive their medical marijuana from the U.S. government—would be a potential boon to the thousands of glaucoma sufferers who go blind annually, to thousands with spasticity disorders, and to hundreds of thousands of cancer and AIDS patients who are dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy and AZT treatments.
But the primary question in the public mind concerning legalizing hemp is what damage will society sustain if people are allowed to go to the store and purchase marijuana? Reefer madness stereotypes, formed during the days preceeding marijuana prohibition in 1937, persist in many quarters, largely through a compliant media. The Partnership for a Drug Free America, funded primarily by cigarette, alcohol and pharmaceutical companies, has been given free full-page ads in almost every major newspaper in America—many of which have huge timber holdings that would suffer from the legalization of industrial hemp—and thousands of free radio and television spots. Little space in those same media outlets has ever been devoted to the number of ads the Partnership was forced to pull because they were complete fabrications. But the Partnership is not the only culprit in continuing stereotype of the marijuana smoker. As recently as April 19, 1994, the Lassen County Times, of California, printed a story stating that marijuana smoking produces brain damage, nervous system damage, lung cancer, immune system dysfunction, male impotence, damages female eggs and causes birth defects. Additionally, the paper reported that smoking marijuana produces breasts in male smokers that female marijuana smokers grow hair on their chest, face and arms.
None of the above is true, at least according to several U.S. government funded studies, which have investigated marijuana’s effects on humans for more than 50 years. Many of those myths however, simply refuse to die. But while we have been waiting for the millions of breasted-men and bearded women to appear, there has not been a single case of either cancer or emphysema ever attributed to marijuana smoking, nor a single death.
Which does not mean smoking pot is a free ride: some people have severe, though short term, anxiety reactions to it. Those people should simply not smoke. And though marijuana is not physically addictive, some people become psychologically dependent on it. The same could be said about people who eat potato chips or too many chocolate chip cookies, though the marijuana smoker—unless he is also the chip or cookie addict—will not eventually die from the complications of clogged arteries, obesity or heart failure.
Another stereotype that persists is the connection between marijuana smoking and crime. But the U.S. Bureau of Justics Statistics has never linked marijuana to criminal activity, other than the criminal activity of buying, using, growing or smuggling marijuana. Again, this is not to say that there are not criminals who smoke marijuana and continue to commit criminal actions. It is to say that non-criminals who smoke do not commit criminal actions.
But if marijuana is not a physical threat to the user, and does not pose a threat to society from resulting criminal activity, why does it remain illegal? One of the arguments prohibitionists use is that it leads to harder drugs. Yet the National Institute of Drug Abuse suggests that alcohol and cigarettes are the gatway drugs, not marijuana. Of the 70-100 million Americans who have smoked marijuana, less than 2 percent have ever used heroin. A second, and currently very popular argument by prohibitionists is that marijuana is as much as 30 times stronger now than it used to be. Again, U.S. government statistics don’t back up that argument. The most recent National Institute of Health statistics, through its Marijuana Potency Monitoring project show that the average THC (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) content of marijuana seized by law-enforcement during 1992 was 1.90 percent, the lowest figure for pot potency since 1980.
Which leaves many of us wondering exactly why marijuana remains illegal, and what would be the consequence of re-legalizing it? Is there a single person in America today who is unable to find a joint on any given day in the year? Probably not. Would use surge if it were legalized? Probably for the short term, though if the history of alcohol prohibition and its relegalization are any model that surge would level off.
On the positive side of things, the production of tax dollars and the savings to the criminal justice system would be in the tens of billions annually. Thousands of disenfranchised and criminalized marijuana smokers and their families would be refranchised into the system. The potential medical benefits could be judged by patients and their doctors, rather than by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Additionally, the industrial use of hemp could fuel several major industries while providing important environmental benefits.
That the single loudest voice against re-legalization during the past several years has been the Partnership for a Drug Free America, with their drug company backing, ought to tell us something.
And what it ought to tell us is the same thing the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission spelled out 100 years ago: regulate, tax, and let people who are not harming anyone do what they want, since they are going to anyway.