Alcohol was ever illegal
Why was cannabis banned? The real reason is worse than you think
More and more people in the world are asking: Why is cannabis banned? Why do people still have to go to jail for consuming or selling it?
Most believe that one day someone looked at scientific evidence and found out that cannabis is worse than other drugs we use all the time - alcohol and cigarettes, for example.
Someone will have understood it and checked it out.
I started rummaging through the official archives as research for my bookChasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.I wanted to find out why cannabis was banned back in the 1930s. I realize: Nobody has understood and checked it.
Not even close.
In 1929 a man named Harry Anslinger took over the Department of Prohibition in Washington. The prohibition of alcohol was a disaster. Criminals controlled entire neighborhoods. Alcohol - controlled by criminals - was suddenly even more toxic than before.
So the alcohol prohobition was finally stopped - and Harry Anslinger was scared. He was suddenly in charge of a huge ministry that had nothing to do. Until then, he had always said that cannabis was not a problem. It doesn't harm people, he explained, and there is no “more absurd fallacy” than that it makes people aggressive.
But then - when his ministry needed a new meaning - he suddenly declared that he had changed his mind.
He told the public what supposedly happens when you smoke cannabis.
First you fall into a "delirious rage". Then you get gripped by "dreams of an erotic nature". Then one loses the "ability to link thoughts". At the end you reach the inevitable final state: "madness".
Marijuana turn a person into a wild beast. If marijuana met Frankenstein's monster in the stairwell, Anslinger warned, the monster would drop dead of fear.
Harry Anslinger was particularly obsessed with one case. In Florida, a boy named Victor Lacata had killed his family with an ax. Anslinger announced: This is what happens when you smoke the "demon weed". The case became famous. Parents in the US panic.
What evidence did Harry Anslinger have? It has since emerged that he wrote to the top 30 scientists in the field asking them if cannabis is dangerous and should it be banned.
29 wrote back and said no.
Anslinger looked for that one Scientist out who said yes and presented it to the world. The press, obsessed with Victor Lacata's ax, applauded him.
Panic spread across the country and marijuana was banned. The US told other countries to do the same. Some countries thought the idea was stupid and refused to ban it.
Mexico, for example, decided that its drug policy should be decided by doctors. Their medical opinion was that cannabis was not harmful and they opposed a ban.
The US was angry. Anslinger ordered Mexico to submit. But the country stood firm - until the US finally cut off the delivery of all legal painkillers to Mexico.
People died in agony in the hospitals. So Mexico fired the doctors - and started a drug war.
Questions arose in the United States. The renowned doctor Michael Ball wrote Harry Anslinger. He stated that he used cannabis as a medical student and it only made him tired. Perhaps cannabis drives certain people crazy, he wrote - but we have to fund scientific studies to find out.
Anslinger wrote back resolutely. "The evil marijuana can no longer be tolerated," he wrote. He will not promote independent science. Not then and not later either.
For years doctors presented him with evidence that he was wrong. He hissed back that they should "venture into dangerous territory" and watch what they say.
Today much of the world still lives with the prohibition that Harry Anslinger introduced in the nationwide panic following Victor Lacata's bloodbath.
But there is a catch even in this one case. Years later, someone was looking at Victor Lacata's psychiatric files.
It turned out that there was never any evidence that he had ever used cannabis.
There were many mental illnesses in his family. A year before the incident, parents were advised that he belonged in an institution - but they refused. His psychiatrists never mentioned marijuana in connection with him.
So does cannabis drive people crazy?
Former UK government's chief drug policy advisor, David Nutt, explains: If cannabis was directly related to psychosis, it would show up directly.
If more cannabis is used, the number of psychoses should also increase. And if less cannabis is used, the number of psychoses should decrease.
Is this happening? We have a lot of data from many countries. And it turns out that this is not the case. In the UK, for example, cannabis use has increased 40 times since the 1960s. And the psychosis rates? They stayed the same.
In fact, scientific studies suggest that cannabis is safer than alcohol. Alcohol kills 40,000 people each year in the United States. Cannabis doesn't kill anyone - although country singer Willie Nelson said that a friend of his died after dropping a bale of cannabis on his head.
So in 2006 a young Colorado man named Mason Tvert challenged then-mayor of Denver and later governor, John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper owned bars in some states that made him rich.
But he said cannabis was harmful and should remain banned. So Mason challenged him to a duel. The mayor should bring a case of alcohol. Mason wanted to bring a pack of joints. For every sip of alcohol the mayor drinks, he takes one drag on a joint. Let's see who dies first.
Mason later led the campaign to legalize cannabis in his state. His fellow citizens voted in favor - with a majority of 55 percent. Now adults are allowed to buy cannabis in licensed stores there.
It is taxed and schools are built with the proceeds. After a year and a half, support for legalization rose to 69 percent. And even Governor Hickenlooper now describes it as "sensible".
Oh - and Colorado wasn't overrun with people killing their families with axes.
Isn't it time to listen to science - and finally bury Victor Lakata's hatchet?
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