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How I Celebrated My 75th Birthday

Speech Delivered at University of Central Florida

January 14, 2009 -- Orlando, FL

By John Chase

First, thanks for inviting me here today. My credentials.... I am a retired engineer, still married to the grandmother of my 8 grandchildren. My interest in the drug war began just after I went online ten years ago. I remembered that in the mid 90s my brother told me Milton Friedman was calling the drug war "prohibition". I knew what that was, so I started digging, and the more I dug the less I liked it.

Just 10 years ago I connected with Nora Callahan, the founder of the November Coalition. She has me listed as one of her "advisors'. I am not an organizer, but I do write a lot of letters. I brought some November literature with me -- it's the Coalition's Razor Wire. These are past issues; the latest is online. The mission of TNC is to end the injustices of the drug war. Mostly federal cases, but sometimes State cases. More later on that.

Today is my 75th birthday. I was born exactly 40 days after National Prohibition ended, and about 3 years before the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the law that effectively outlawed marijuana. So in my first 3 years of life I could drink AND smoke legally, but I was too young to take advantage of it.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, "Prohibition is bad, but better than no liquor at all"

Until Mason Tvert's SAFER initiative (Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation) won in Denver, I thought it was a waste of time to debate marijuana on its merits, because in the end both sides would have concluded that marijuana is not risk-free. Better, I thought, to start with the premise that no drug is risk free, then debate whether prohibition is the best way to manage that risk.

In principle, that's what the debate should be about. But sometimes "principle" just doesn't cut it.

Problem is, the public has been conditioned to believe that illegal drugs are all more dangerous than legal drugs, that anyone who believes that liberalizing antidrug law protects kids must also believe water flows uphill.

Denver's SAFER strategy reconditions public opinion by comparing pot to alcohol. Today more people smoke, or have friends who smoke, than in the past, so they have a real-time, first-person basis for comparison.

Good that Mason Tvert keeps pressing. I see that he's been here at UCF, making people think. Changing public opinion is like making a cow move over. Anyone who has milked a cow knows that you can't make a cow move over by pushing it over. You just lean on it, and bye and bye, the cow moves over. That's Mason.

How did we get into this mess? It began when the "Enlightenment" of the 18th/19th century reached the so-called New World.... the idea that government could enact laws to improve society. Child Labor Laws, for instance, began in England in 1832, then in the U.S. In 1916.

In 1920, the U.S. went a step further by their "noble experiment" to stamp out alcohol. 1920 was the year that women got the vote. Prohibitionists believed that National Prohibition would be assured because women knew the downside of alcohol. Women were for prohibition at first, then turned against it when they compared it to life with legal alcohol. It had been only 10 years, so they remembered.

In 1930 the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform voted their resolution against National Prohibition. It was, they wrote, "..... wrong in principle, ..... equally disastrous in consequences in the hypocrisy, the corruption, the tragic loss of life and the appalling increase of crime which have attended the abortive attempt to enforce it; in the shocking effect it has had upon the youth of the nation; in the impairment of constitutional guarantees of individual rights; in the weakening of the sense of solidarity between the citizen and the government which is the only sure basis of a country's strength."

In 1883, a Yale philosopher, William Graham Sumner, wrote an essay, entitled "The Forgotten Man." Sumner warned that well-intentioned social progressives often coerced unwitting average citizens into funding dubious social projects. He wrote: "As soon as Citizen A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which Citizen X is suffering, A talks it over with Citizen B, and A and B then propose to enact a law to remedy the evil and help Citizen X. Their law always proposes to determine . . . what A, B, and C shall do for X." But what about C? There was nothing wrong with A and B helping X. What was wrong was the law, and the indenturing of C to the cause. Citizen C was the forgotten man, the man who paid, the man who never is thought of." We call Citizen A a social liberal.

We ended National Prohibition not because we thought alcohol was good. We ended it because life got so bad that Citizen C began to speak up.

Today, Social Liberals are just called "Liberals". Classical Liberals, or what is left of them, are today's Libertarians. Today's "Conservatives" began with Nixon's "southern strategy", that began in 1968, and drew from both groups. So, today, virtually all Republicans and Democrats originated in those two groups.

Neither group had a corner on good public policy. Classical Liberals turned a blind eye to Slavery, the Jim Crow laws and the financial excesses of the Roaring 20s. Social Liberals brought us National Prohibition and Constitution-bending legislation used to prosecute today's drug war. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are to blame. The drug war has failed so badly that Citizen C, the forgotten man, is speaking up.

That brings us back to marijuana. How, exactly, DID we get in this fix? It started in the House of Representatives very late on the afternoon of June 10th 1937... The year "Reefer Madness" was released.

Let me quote part of the transcript....... This exchange was among four of our honorable politicians:

Mr. DOUGHTON [Robert L. Doughton (D-NC), Chairman of Ways and Means]. "I ask unanimous consent for the present consideration of the bill [H.R. 6906] to impose an occupational excise tax upon certain dealers in marihuana, to impose a transfer tax upon certain dealings in marihuana, and to safeguard the revenue therefrom by registry and recording."

The Clerk read the title of the bill.

Mr. SNELL. [Rep. Bertrand H. Snell(R-NY)]. "Mr. Speaker, reserving the right to object, and notwithstanding the fact that my friend, Reed, is in favor of it, is this a matter we should bring up at this late hour of the afternoon? I do not know anything about the bill. It may be all right and it may be that everyone is for it, but as a general principle, I am against bringing up any important legislation, and I suppose this is important, since it comes from the Ways and Means Committee, at this late hour of the day."

Mr. RAYBURN [Sam Rayburn(D-TX), later to become Speaker himself]. "Mr. Speaker, if the gentleman will yield, I may say that the gentleman from North Carolina has stated to me that this bill has a unanimous report from the committee and that there is no controversy about it."

Mr. SNELL. "What is the bill?"

Mr. RAYBURN. "It has something to do with something that is called marihuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind."

Mr. VINSON. [Fred M. Vinson (D-KY), later a Supreme Court Justice] "Marihuana is the same as hashish."

Mr. SNELL. "Mr. Speaker, I am not going to object but I think it is wrong to consider legislation of this character at this time of night".

Later, when the bill returned, very slightly amended, from the Senate, the only question asked was whether the AMA agreed with the bill. Mr. Vinson said not only did the AMA did not object (In fact their committee witness had dissented strenuously), he also claimed that the bill had AMA support.

FDR signed the bill on August 3rd. After that there was a 13 year lull in enforcement. To this day it is not clear why the bill was pushed so hard to become law, then barely enforced. Conspiracy buffs think they know, but no one knows for sure. I have a book whose chapter 9 called "The Marijuana Recession 1938-1951".

Some states, some communities have a tradition of liberalism... But not yet in Florida.

Each election year there is another state, or county or city or community voting to liberalize marijuana. Some vote for medical marijuana, some that marijuana enforcement will be a low priority; a few vote to decriminalize, that is to make possession like a traffic ticket. (That's the usual meaning of "decriminalize": to make adult possession of a small quantity less than a felony. This meaning is often misunderstood, sometimes interpreted to mean legalization ) . Both MI and MA voted Nov 4th for significant changes to marijuana policy.

MI's is well-written law for MMJ. It includes explicit protection for the caregiver and the doctor, missing from California's Prop215, passed in 1996. The law is now being put into regulations by the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) and the MI State Police. From what I read it is being done constructively.

My only connection with MI has been reading the history of National Prohibition, that the Detroit River was a major entry route for good liquor from the UK, particularly after 1928, when the Coast Guard blockaded "Rum Row".... Florida's lower East Coast and the Jersey Shore.

At the federal level, there is support for "rescheduling" from its present Schedule A to B, where it would be legal -- at the federal level -- for doctors to prescribe it. This is essentially what the Michigan law does for Michigan.

No question that it is the compassionate thing to do, but it will not scale back the war on pot, not if the 1920s is an indicator. Medicinal alcohol was freely available throughout National Prohibition, but it didn't reduce the lawlessness and violence of the 1920s. And it won't help wind down the drug war, other than to help persuade the public that marijuana is not scary. But even if all the states, and the feds, rescheduled marijuana so it could be prescribed by doctors, the societal damage will continue. Doctors will be arrested for prescribing "too much" marijuana. I know how that works first-hand.

I was involved in the case of Richard Paey, the sick man who was finally granted a full pardon by the FL Clemency Board in September 2007. The same FL prosecutor hounded Richard through 7 years and 3 trials and finally got him. Paey was sentenced to the 25 year "mandatory minimum" required by the FL Trafficking statute. No parole possible; the only hope was Gov. Crist and the FL Clemency Board. It's a long story... Ten years, total. I'm going to take a few minutes to tell it because it is exactly what can happen with medical marijuana if it becomes the law of the land.

I picked up the story halfway through. In August 2002, I happened to read in the St Pete Times that Richard was to be sentenced to 25 years, so I drove to the West Pasco County Courthouse. I watched Paey's attorney persuade the judge to throw out the jury conviction on a technicality. That was the 2nd trial.

Paey had been in a traffic accident in 1985 in NJ that hurt his back, then back surgery that made it worse. It left him in chronic pain. His NJ doc was prescribing painkillers. Then the Paey family moved to Florida, to Hudson, in Pasco County. Richard couldn't find a doctor who'd take him on, so his NJ doc mailed him prescriptions. When the local sheriff discovered that Richard was using a lot of pills he went to NJ with a FL DEA agent and told the doc that Richard was selling the pills.... They threatened the doc with 25 years and the doc abandoned Richard to the street..... actually not literally to the street. Richard was in bed by then, with MS. (A person living with undertreated chronic pain seems to be more susceptible to such diseases as MS.)

So Richard stayed at home and Xeroxed the prescriptions his doc had been mailing, and his wife drove him around to have them filled. The local sheriff staked out the Paey house to see who Richard was selling his pills to. In almost 3 months, no one came to the house, but they'd invested so much effort to get Paey that they arrested him anyhow. A SWAT team broke in, masked, guns drawn, etc. Paey was in bed saying "call my doctor, call my doctor", but they didn't do that. His wife was on the floor in handcuffs, three young children in the home. Fortunately, Richard is a man of principle, and his wife had a good job as an optometrist. So they fought the system, for 10 years total. It meant mortgaging their house and digging into Linda's 401k.

The November Coalition's mission is to stop the injustice of the drug war. It is aimed chiefly at the feds -- the DEA -- but makes exceptions in certain State cases. The Paey case was one of those. Nora Callahan, the founder of TNC, printed over 4000 postcards featuring one of the cartoons Richard drew in Prison for people to mail to Governor Jeb Bush. Those cartoons are still on the November website. This went on for years. Opinion pieces in the SP Times, NY Times, Tampa Tribune, International Herald Tribune. Reported on 20/20, Nightline, finally on 60 Minutes. He'd still be in prison but for the national -- and international -- reporting. And for that I credit mostly the Pain Relief Network, a nonprofit started by Siobhan Reynolds, woman whose husband's doc was threatened by the DEA because he was prescribing "too much" painkiller to her husband. It made her very angry. My contribution was introducing those two women. Linda Paey and Siobhan Reynolds.

So, why did I take the time to tell that long story? Two reasons. First to emphasise the enormous amount of work -- and good luck -- it takes today in the U.S. to remedy a single, exceptionally egregious injustice. There are many 1000s almost as bad that fly beneath the radar. Second, even if marijuana is rescheduled from Sched A to Sched B, patients will run the same risk as Richard Paey. The DEA is playing doctor and causing a lot of damage. MMJ won't change that.

Massachusetts new law, their "Question 2", passed on November 4th with 65% of the vote. It removes the criminal penalty for adult possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Police departments in MA are trying to figure out how to live with it. They will still be free to go after bigger fish, of course, but big fish are more dangerous than smokers, and they know it.

At the federal level, Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced a bill in April 2008 that would have removed federal criminal penalties for possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana and the not-for-profit transfer of up to one ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana. That bill died in committee. Even during National Prohibition, there was no limit on how much alcohol a person could possess for personal use. But I think Barney Frank can take major credit for educating MA citizens to vote 65-35 for their Question 2 to liberalize marijuana under state law.

I am one of the few drug policy reform activists who thinks decriminalization will backfire because it will do nothing to take profit out of the illegal trade. On the contrary, it will INCREASE the profit. The law of supply and demand says that price will rise if demand increases or supply decreases. This was obvious in 1928 when the then-Drug Czar boasted that she'd driven the price of a case of good liquor in Miami from $35 to $125 by blockading Florida's lower East Coast. Bootleggers then cut their liquor with wood alcohol to meet demand. But that wasn't the worst. The added profit attracted more violent men to the trade. Al Capone's St. Valentine's Day massacre came in 1929, and the feds responded by increasing the penalties against the bootleggers. If they had arrested drinkers instead of bootleggers, demand would have decreased. But drinking was not against the law. The 1920s was a time of decriminalized alcohol, although we didn't call it that.

The only way to stop the societal damage being done by the drug war is to take out the profit, and there is only one way to do that. Legalize everything. If that's not politically possible, legalize what can be legalized..... Marijuana. Put it on the same legal plane as beer and wine. Legal marijuana would be a cash cow for tax revenue.

Coming back to Denver for a minute, the latest news -- in the Denver Post -- is that the pot fines of Federal Heights -- that's a suburb of Denver -- are being reduced because people can't pay them in these tough economic times, and many pot smokers are near the bottom of the ladder. I am waiting for Florida to INcrease the fines to fill the budget shortfall because pot smokers don't deserve any better.

Remember what Lili Tomlin said.... something like "No matter how cynical I get I just can't keep up".

My recommendation: Don't "legalize" anything. Just get the feds out. Stop seducing local politicians with federal money to "fight drugs". Let the states handle it. We did it in 1933 and it has worked for 75 yrs.

Marijuana is gaining acceptance, so start with that, then decide if it should be done for other drugs.

There is a fallback position. Don't try to stamp out ALL use. Just stamp out PROBLEM use, the way we do with alcohol. We have severe penalties for DUI offenses. If we could identify problem use before the fact, that would be best of all. The vast majority of drug use is casual use, not problem use, and casual users are no problem to society, by definition. When we read that that drug prevalence has gone down it means nothing because the decrease is virtually all in casual use. If beer were to be illegal again, I'd probably stop, but it would not help society. Problem users will get their drug, legal or not.

Finally, thanks for letting me go first. It's only 10 PM. I can cut out now and drive back to Pinellas County.

Richard Paey is featured in the documentary The War On Drugs
The War on Drugs: A Documentary

For more on John Chase, visit

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