WHAT IS IT ABOUT MARIJUANA that makes politicians hallucinate? The faintest whiff of “the weed of madness” (as government propaganda used to call it) causes them to see distorted images of things that aren’t there and never were: law and order, justice, reelection. But they don’t see the obvious. The war on drugs was lost years ago, and pretending otherwise only makes the problem worse.
Consider the two marijuana-related bills that were introduced in the Texas Legislature during the 2005 session—each eminently practical, neither with serious downsides, and both essentially dead on arrival. The first, written by Democratic state representative Harold Dutton, of Houston, would have reduced the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana. It was approved by the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence but never reached the floor for debate or a vote. In Texas, 97 percent of all marijuana arrests are for simple possession—an ounce or less—at a cost to taxpayers of $480 million a year. (Full disclosure: In 1968 I was arrested for possession of about two ounces of pot, which at the time could have meant life in prison; the charges were dropped after my lawyer got the search warrant thrown out.) In America, we spend nearly $8 billion trying to enforce the laws prohibiting the use and possession of marijuana. All we get for our money is a huge increase in organized crime, an endless string of drug-related murders, and the highest incarceration rate in the civilized world.
The second bill, which was written by several House members, including Republican Terry Keel and Democrat Elliot Naishtat, both of Austin, would have facilitated the use of medical marijuana, or “medi-pot.” It never got out of committee, even though there is ample evidence that smoking pot eases pain and reduces nausea associated with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and other illnesses; it may also have a role in combating heart disease and strokes. The medi-pot bill was simple and straightforward—so elementary, in fact, that it was probably unworkable. It didn’t legalize marijuana, but it did allow doctors to discuss it as an option with their patients and provided an affirmative defense for patients who are busted for following doctor’s orders. But it didn’t address, for example, how and where patients could obtain this still-illegal substance.
A number of witnesses in wheelchairs appeared before the committee in April, admitting that they regularly violated drug laws and explaining that marijuana in its natural form was the only drug that relieved their suffering. Chris Cain, a 36-year-old quadriplegic who has smoked pot for twelve years to control pain and spasms, described how his home near Beaumont was raided by a team of Hardin County sheriff’s deputies with the assistance of two helicopters; they seized a small amount of marijuana and the computer equipment he uses to run his Internet business, then threw him in jail without regard to his need for medical attention. “I’m just asking for a fair trial,” Cain told committee members. “I’m now a university graduate and a successful businessman. Marijuana has not damaged my brain, but it has made me a criminal.”
Polls show that 75 percent of Texans support medical marijuana, and they’re not the only ones. As of February, ten states had adopted laws permitting the use of medi-pot (although in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that medi-pot users can be federally prosecuted), and thirty had recognized its therapeutic potential. Still, the response to it here is mixed at best. One member of the committee, Democratic state representative Juan Escobar, of Kingsville, spent his career fighting drugs as a border patrolman and, later, as the head of an anti-drug task force. Nevertheless, Escobar is so convinced that medical marijuana makes sense that he supported it. Keel, a former county sheriff, told his fellow lawmakers: “We have, for some reason in our pharmacology, isolated that particular herb as not of medical value when, in fact, it is.” Yet Democratic state representative Aaron Peña, of Edinburg, whose vote the bill’s sponsors had counted on, couldn’t bring himself to back it. He acknowledges that the drug war is lost. “All we’re doing is loading up our prisons and burdening our taxpayers,” he told me. “We need a paradigm shift toward treatment and education, and we need it fast.” Ever since his sixteen-year-old son died four years ago of a drug overdose, however, he has dedicated himself to keeping kids off the stuff. “If I voted for it,” he said, “how could I keep telling them that drugs are harmful?”
Though marijuana has been used medicinally for hundreds of years and was prescribed by doctors in the U.S. until the thirties, the government decided years ago that weed is a menace. In 1933 the feds launched their famous “reefer madness” campaign under Harry Anslinger, the zealous federal narcotics commissioner who supplied bogus information to the media that marijuana was responsible for insanity and violence. A federal law enacted in 1937 put marijuana in the same category as cocaine and opium. In 1970 Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, grouping marijuana with heroin as a narcotic with no medical use. In 1988 the Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief law judge declared that “marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man” and ruled that it be made available to doctors, but the agency ignored him.
Over time, law enforcement officials have repeatedly misled the public and the media about the so-called scourge of drugs. General Barry McCaffrey, Bill Clinton’s drug czar, should have known better when he told the Washington Post in April 2000 that “illegal drugs will cost the United States 500,000 deaths…over the next decade.” A twenty-year study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that from 1979 through 1998, illegal drugs were the cause of just over 44,000 deaths, compared with the 380,000 poor souls whose deaths could be tied to alcohol. Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s drug czar, John Walters, has used