Monday morning's headlines after SSY's legalise cannabis march
Every human society since we first evolved has experimented with drugs, pyschoactive substances, and altered states of consciousness.
Many leading psychologists and anthropologists believe that this is a normal part of human life, and experimenting with substances like cannabis or magic mushrooms has actually played a role in the evolution of modern, intelligent humans.
But in the last 200 years human society has changed dramatically. With the arrival of capitalism came the rise of modern states, with their borders, armies and police forces. As the technology to control their own people developed, states have had an ever increasing urge to monitor and discipline their populations.
One of the ways they have done this is implement a worldwide system of prohibition of drugs. While the two biggest drug killers, alcohol and tobacco, remain legal billion pound industries, relatively harmless drugs like cannabis and ecstasy remain the target of expensive police operations, and users are turned into criminals who can face imprisonment for doing nothing but experimenting with their own bodies.
The drugs laws we have in Britain and throughout the developed world have never borne any relation to real medical or scientific information, but instead have been shaped by the prejudices and scapegoats created by elites to divide and control the people. One of the main ways they have done this is to use racism, associating certain substances with foreigners or ethnic minorities.
Now, in the 21st century, many countries around the world are finally beginning to wake up to the fact that prohibition has been a costly disaster that has caused untold misery across the planet. The time has at last come to begin treating drugs as a health and social issue, not a criminal one, and base our drugs policies on real scientific evidence, not prejudice and racism.
The first modern drugs laws were formulated in the 1870s in the US. After the end of slavery, the US began to thousands of Chinese indentured labourers to replace black labour as virtual slaves building the American economy.
Chinese immigrants faced extreme racism and discrimination. The first laws against opium were directed specifically to stop Chinese people from smoking the substance, and excluded whites from punishment.This racialised pattern of justice was to set a pattern that would be repeated again and again, such as the modern US laws which punish crack cocaine, used by in poor ghetto communities, mush harsher than the cocaine consumed by wealthy whites.
Contemporary cartoon of a San Francisco opium den. This was part of a propaganda campaign that saw Chinese workers harassed and killed. In 1886 the Oregon constitution barred Chinese from owning land
Throughout the 19th century however, drugs like cannabis and cocaine remained freely available, with famous patients such as Queen Victoria using cannabis to cope with her menstrual pains.
The biggest reduction in drug addiction achieved by US law was nothing to do with prohibition of recreational drugs. In 1900 around 5% of the US adult population was addicted to morphine. The reason for this is that in the absence of any proper healthcare, travelling salesman hawked their own patent medicines to gullible customers. Most of these had a very high morphine content, and were unsurprisingly popular. No matter what’s wrong with you, if you drink a solution of 80% morphine you’re going to feel pretty good.
In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act regulated the market for medicines, forcing all drugs for sale to the public to be licensed by government scientists, sold on prescription, and labelled appropriately. This was not a criminal law, but did more to reduce the level of addiction than any other single statute the US passed in all of the times from then to now. What it shows is that the best way to reduce harm caused by drugs is to regulate and control the market, rather than allow those making money from drugs to peddle whatever they want in an underground, uncontrolled market.
Unfortunately other laws passed throughout the early 20th century weren’t as sensible. From 1899 onwards the US began its expansion as an imperial power, occupying Cuba and the Philipines. In the Philipines their imperial occupation featured repression against opium smokers. Following this, during the First World War, both the US and the UK began to pass laws against heroin and then cocaine, worried that their own troops, despairing in the slaughter of the trenches, were turning to drugs.
The Treaty of Versailles which ended World War One incorporated restrictions on opium, setting a long term pattern of powerful countries like the US forcing their own views about drugs all over the world through international negotiations and treaties. The history so far has been all about America, but that’s because American governments again and again have been the ones that wrote the drugs policies of nearly every country in the world, imposed by their power.
The British government had conducted a massive study into the use of cannabis in it’s Indian colony. Published in 1894, the report found that almost all cannabis users used the drug moderately, and that moderate use caused virtually no ill effects. Despite running to seven volumes, the report was never seriously discussed in Britain. When cannabis was made illegal in Britain in 1928, it was not even discussed in parliament! The amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 that prohibited cannabis followed international negotiations at the League of Nations that had conflated cannabis with opium, and, in a pattern that’s familiar today, MPs passed a foolish law on the basis of misinformation and ignorance.
At the time an internal Home Office memo suggested that coverage of one particularly overblown cannabis case were evidence of journalists “having nothing better to do”.
Racism and cannabis prohibition
In the US, the campaign against cannabis was fueled by prejudice against Mexicans. In the Mexican-American war of 1846-8 the US had conquered almost half of Mexican territory, and with it a large number of Mexicans. Just like today many Mexicans moved into the US in search of work.
Creepy looking racist sack of shit: Hearst
The Mexican revolution of 1910, in which the poor majority attempted to take power and control their country’s resources for themselves, fueled the hatred of the American elite. One of the most powerful anti-Mexican racist figures was the newspaper baron Randolph Hearst, who was the Rupert Murdoch of his day. He was furious that Mexican revolutionaries had confiscated timber lands from him during the revolution, and wanted revenge. He used his media empire to spread fear of marijuana (a Mexican term he brought into English so that his readers wouldn’t realise he meant the same plant as the crop hemp, grown for rope and clothing throughout the US.)
His racist campaign against the drug was also based on the fear by racist whites that black people, asserting their cultural independence and influence through the growth of jazz, were spreading use of the drug. Ridiculous scare stories appeared in Hearst’s papers claiming that cannabis caused insanity, murderous rage, and drove black men to rape white women. “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice,” wrote one editorial.
Hearst was supported by other rich business owners who controlled the Dupont chemical company as well as the pharmaceutical industry. Dupont owned the patent for nylon, and wanted to eliminate the hemp crop in order remove competition from their new synthetic material. Drugs companies meanwhile found it difficult to synthesise profitable drugs because they couldn’t identify what gave cannabis its medicinal properties, and besides recognised it would be difficult to turn a profit from a plant that people could simply grow themselves. They’d much rather that people used the drugs they manufactured, such as morphine.
But the biggest leader of the anti-cannabis crusade was Harry J. Anslinger, who was appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. This new government agency was a huge job opportunity for Anslinger, a relentless self-promoter. It gave him the chance to create a problem for society where there wasn’t one before, and then present himself and his policies as the solution. He was the creator of what’s known as a “moral panic“, where powerful figures create fear of a certain group as a way of defending the existing hierarchy of society. Here are some choice quotes of Anslinger’s:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”
“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
“Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
“Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing”
“You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
In 1936 the insane propaganda film Reefer Madness was released, showing cannabis smoking leading young people to attempt murder, suicide and madness.
This relentless campaign resulted in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the beginning of cannabis prohibition in the US. Following this, Anslinger pushed an endless campaign of racist, anti-Communist propaganda against cannabis. Through his participation in drugs treaty negotitations at the United Nations he was able to impose the US prohibition policy, which originated in racism, prejudice and the need of elites to scapegoat Mexicans and blacks while protecting their own interests, on most countries around the world.
Another racist sack of shit, and Mussolini lookalike: Harry J Anslinger
The tragedy of all this is that the US seemed to have learned nothing from their disastrous attempt to make alcohol illegal between 1920 and 1933. This was the biggest boost the mafia and American organised crime had ever received. Within a year they had an industrial, corporate scale distribution operation across North America. People still wanted to consume alcohol, and began drinking illegally made supplies that were extremely strong and in some cases poisonous, leading to blindness or even death. In the the area of Windsor, Ontario, Canada (where alcohol was also illegal) alone, alcohol consumption per capita increased from just 9 gallons to 124 in just a few years!
The mafia became hugely powerful, and this fueled violence. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 after the recognition of the terrible damage it was causing to American society. There’s clear demonstrable evidence that prohibition increased arrests, imprisonment and violent crime.
In Britain, some drugs were at least being treated more sensibly. Up until the 1960s, British doctors administered what was known as the “British system” in relation to heroin, which allowed them to prescribe heroin to addicts. However, when this was curtailed as the British government and police clamped down on all drugs in an attempt to undermine the 60s counterculture, the first serious social problems resulting from addicts unable to supply themselves except on the black market began to bite for the first time.
In both the US and UK, as radical social movements, usually heavily involving the huge post-World War Two generation of youth, presented a huge challenge to the government and elites. The growing repression against drug users helped justify ballooning of funding and powers to police forces, and an excuse to search and monitor young people.
On July 24th 1967 The Beatles paid for a full page advert to appear in The Times, headed “The law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice.” It went on to talk about the harms done by the law, compared to the relative harmlessness of cannabis itself, and quoted expert medical and scientific opinion that moderate use of cannabis caused no major health problems. It was signed by MPs, journalists, artists, writers, Nobel Prize winners and doctors, as well as The Beatles.
But the governments of the next few years failed to heed this wise advice. Labour Home Secretary and future Prime Minister Jim Callaghan said he disagreed with the expert advice he’d received to decriminalise possession of cannabis, and blocked publications of official reports that recommended it. Callaghan suggested said they’d been influenced by the ‘notorious’ Times advert and the ‘pro-cannabis lobby’. He told the ‘leads-to-heroin’ story and said that he was glad to help ‘halt the advancing tide of so-called permissiveness’.
The 1970 Misuse of Drugs Act represented the culmination of the government anti-drugs push came, originally written by a Labour government but implemented by a Tory one. It established the system British law still uses, which is completely unscientific and based on prejudice. Prohibited drugs are divided into one of three categories, A,B, and C, based on supposed harms. However, the nonsense of the system can be seen that drugs like ecstasy (shown by former government adviser Professor David Nutt to be safer than horse riding) or magic mushrooms are placed in the most serious category, class A. Cannabis, meanwhile, is classified as class B, meaning you can get several years in prison just for possession.
Between the 1970s and today, numerous government inquiries by countries all over the world have found the health risks from cannabis to be neglible, but the policy of prohibition and repression remains in place against cannabis users. In that time, cannabis use has continually risen, as have much more serious problems with hard drugs like heroin.
Drug wars and imperialism
For the US, hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, though persecuted at the local level of street dealers, also presented a key opportunity. In US imperial wars around the world they have tolerated their local allies producing and trading in drugs that often ended up in the US. The cash raised from the drugs trade allowed them to go on fighting for America’s side in the Cold War.
In the Vietnam war, which went on to spread to Laos and Cambodia, pro-US right wing fighters produced most of the world’s heroin, which was sold at a profit for their continued fight against Communist forces. When the war in Indo China came to an end, the US then went on to make a covert intervention in Afghanistan, to fund Islamic fundamentalists to take on the pro-Soviet left wing government. Again, these warlords and their friends in the intelligence agencies of the US-allied Pakistani military dictatorship went on to make a killing from heroin that funded their dirty war.
In Latin America the US has tolerated cocaine trafficking by its right wing allies in order to continue to fund their dirty wars against left wing groups in Nicaragua and Colombia. In Nicaragua, the US funded right wing paramilitaries known as the Contras to fight against the revolutionary government, and they funded their operations by trafficking in cocaine, which became the crack which flooded poor urban communities in the US in the 80s. In Colombia, there is a long history of fascist death squads, which are closesly connected with the US-allied government, using trafficking to fund their campaign of torture and assassination against left wingers, community activists or trade unionists.
A paramilitary SWAT team unit
The emergence of crack as a major commodity in the 1980s in the US was intimately connected with the wars the US government was fighting, either directly or by funding local allies, in Central and South America. It absolutely devastated black communities, especially as it came as the same time as the Reagan administration was pulling back all it’s support for the less well off through a neoliberal programme that came to be known as ‘Reaganomics.’ At the same time, there was a huge increase in funding to the police, the FBI and paramilitary law enforcement units like SWAT teams. The police in the US became like an army to be used against its own people, something which has proved very useful as the state prepares to confront any kind of challenge to it’s power from oppressed communities.
This was also the beginning of the era of private prisons, with all the evil they bring. A private prison is a business, and for the business to expand and make more money, more people need to be locked up. So the law comes under pressure to be harsher, and more minor offences such as possession of cannabis get a jail sentence. Whole towns become dependent on the prison for jobs, and so support tougher penalties. Private prison owners use their money to get candidates elected to office who promise to be “tough on crime” or “fighting the war on drugs.” Prison numbers in the US have exploded in the last 30 years, and, of course, in a society riven with racism it’s hit black people disproportionately hard. The US has only 4% of the world’s population, but 25% of those in jail on Earth are in the US.
In Europe around the same, the war in Afghanistan encouraged greater heroin production, which, with the support of the Pakistani military and intelligence, and the awareness of the US, was sold on to Europe to finance the war with the USSR. Countries like Scotland were devastated just like the US had been by the combination of mass unemployment, poverty and the arrival of plentiful supply of a dangerous, highly addictive drug. Instead of being treated as a social and health problem, the Tory governments of the time again turned to the drug war rhetoric, meaning many lives were lost and people imprisoned who really needed help. The damage done by treating these people as criminals (while at the same time the US and UK governments were lauding the Afghan warlords who produced the stuff as heroes) is incalculable.
The cost of prohibition
When you make the argument that we should properly fund support for people with addiction problems, a common reply is, “Why should they get all this help when there’s nothing for law abiding people?” Ignoring for a moment the fact that there’s enough resources to help everyone, (especially if we stop funding drug fueled wars like Afghanistan or Colombia), the point is that we are already paying much more than proper health and social support would cost on the crime that those who have an addiction so powerful that withdrawal could make them seriously ill or could kill them are forced to commit to maintain their habit. A recent study suggested that an end to prohibition would save Scotland £2.2 billion a year by cutting the prison population, lower crime and less waste of police resources pursuing people with health and social problems.
In the UK in recent years, drugs moral panics have been about presenting youth as a social threat, and youth subcultures as inherently dangerous. There was the outcry about ecstasy in the early 1990s. At this time there was a thriving rave scene, where people would gather at secret locations for free parties where ecstasy was often used to enhance the experience. But there was no big bar and profits being made for the alcohol industry, and the parties posed a threat to the established, profitable ways young people were supposed to socialise. So there was heavy repression against the drug, and even the music itself, with the 1994 Criminal Justice Act specifically outlawing gatherings with the “emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
This of course came with a hysterical media campaign painting ecstasy as deadly. Now, after over 20 years of its common use among youth, many young people know that the drug is far less dangerous than we were told. It is in fact a relatively safe drug, and much less damaging to your health than alcohol or tobacco. But that doesn’t deter the government from keeping it at Class A.
The campaign reached fever pitch when Essex teenager Leah Betts died shortly after her 18th birthday in 1995. She died as a
result of drinking too much water, concerned by health warnings of dehydration which were in fact aimed at people taking the drug and dancing, which she wasn’t doing. But her parents mounted a campaign against Ecstasy, supported by the right wing media that wanted to paint the drug as responsible when in fact a panicked reaction to health advice was the cause.
Posters soon appeared throughout Britain with Leah’s face on them and the caption: ‘Sorted: Just one Ecstasy Tablet Took Leah Betts.’ These posters were funded by the advertising/marketing companies Booth Lockett and Makin, Knight Leech and Delaney, and FFI who had contracts with the brewers Löwenbräu and the energy drink Red Bull, which was deliberately marketed as an alternative to ecstasy. In other words the alcohol industry directly funded a campaign aiming at keeping people using their own potentially deadly, but legal, products.
Most recently of course we’ve seen the tabloid created panic about mephedrone, a substance on which there is still no substantial scientific research, and that tabloids attributed dozens of deaths to over the earlier part of this year, none of which has so far turned out to be substantiated by coroners or toxicology tests.
The enormous growth of the legal highs industry is a by-product of other things going on in the global capitalist economy. With the growth of the capitalist pharmaceutical industry has come a much better understanding of the physical and chemical processes of the brain. Research into Serotonin can help develop new anti-depressants, but also new party drugs. Just like the rest of the economy, factories for drugs have been moved to China for the cheap labour. But these factories can also produce drugs like mephedrone, or the synthetic cannabis alternative Spice, that have been designed by sophisticated neuro-scientists who have studied the scientific literature to be able to create a product that is legal but structurally similar to illegal drugs. These can then be distributed and sold much more easily than in the past because of the internet.
This means that governments that want to ban these products are in a permanent “chemical arms race” with scientists in the legal high industry, who will always be a step ahead and have a new product ready for release. When Germany banned Spice, there was a replacement product on the market within 4 weeks, a product that it would have taken detailed scientific knowledge and equipment to produce. With the banning of mephedrone, we’ve seen the emergence in recent months of ‘NRG-1′, a drug which anecdotal evidence suggests is much more dangerous than mephedrone was. (Which of course ignores the fact that if people could legally use MDMA, the most important chemical in ecstasy, which is relatively harmless, then a lot fewer people would have bothered with mephedrone.)
Monitoring projects reported 24 new drug products appearing on the internet last year, the biggest annual increase ever.
Drugs prohibition has never been based on reducing harm, but instead has always been about pseudo-scientific prejudices against youth, and racism. Drugs provide the state with an excuse to police our private lives, and monitor society closesly with paramilitary police forces. Internationally however, these same states recognise the great unspoken truth: just because illegal drugs are prohibited doesn’t change the fact that they are commodities that people want to buy. Commodities that are produced and distributed by huge businesses that are little different from their fellow global corporations, except they operate in an illegal market. Therefore they are controlled by violent gangsters who are able to muster political influence over governments and police forces to keep themselves free from interference. Many have other political and social aims, and use drugs merely as a way of funding their fight. When their objectives are the same as those of the US or other big imperial powers, then they are tolerated and supported by those powers.
There are many drugs that are currently illegal which are far less dangerous (as demonstrated by scientific study) than alcohol or tobacco. All drug taking carries potential harm, but it’s time we recognised that the way to deal with drugs like cannabis or ecstasy is to create a legally regulated market where people would be able to buy these drugs in a controlled way, with guarantees about what they were receiving.
For more dangerous drugs like heroin, it’s time we stopped treating those with addiction problems as criminals, and recognised that addiction is often the result of other factors in a person’s life, such as abuse and poverty. We could save vast sums of money and untold misery by properly supporting and helping those with addiction as a society.
Ultimately, in the long term modern society has to re-learn something that many tribal peoples never forgot: it’s ok that many people want to experiment with altered states of consciousness, and it may well be of serious advantage to our intellectual development to do so. They recognised the best way to do this safely was in a socially regulated way, so they incorporated drug taking into their religions and rituals. We need a modern, secular version of this, where those who want to experiment with drugs are given help and advice rather than treated as social deviants or criminals.