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September 2, 2006 - Napa Valley Register (CA)

OpEd: Parallels Between Prohibition And Today's Pot Laws

By Jim Hilsabeck

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After reading the Aug. 28 opinion piece on illegals coming to the Napa Valley to grow marijuana, and as a student of American history, I wondered if there were lessons to learn from America's prohibitions during the last century.

It seems there is a direct parallel between the prohibition of pot and alcohol prohibition, and it is based on a principal tenet of capitalism: If there is a need, someone fills it.

When alcohol disappeared from shelves from 1920 to 1933, booze came from myriad sources. People produced it in small, compact stills in sheds, basements, attics and in the woods. It was smuggled from Canada, Mexico and Europe. Some of the largest names in distilling today entered the business or grew wealthy during the prohibition.

For 60 years, the prohibition of cannabis has been enforced with the same results: closet growers across the United States produce some of the finest illegal hydroponic bud in the world; smuggling from Canada and Mexico continues unabated.

To help understand marijuana's prohibitions, here is a brief historical sketch.

In the early 1900s it was tough finding work in Mexico, so Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande into Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Montana - with them came marijuana. White landowners viewed this influx of Mexicans in racist terms and created state laws against marijuana based on bigotry, not science. The first laws against marijuana had nothing to do with the weed because nobody new anything about it.

On the floor of the Texas Senate, one senator said, "All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff (marijuana) is what makes them crazy."

From 1915 to 1937, some 27 states passed criminal laws against the use of marijuana. What motivated 27 states to enact criminal laws against cannabis?

An excerpt from a 1919 editorial in the New York Times offers this insight: "No one here in New York uses this drug, marijuana. We have only just heard about it from down in the southwest. But, we had better prohibit its use before it gets here. Otherwise, all the heroin and hard narcotics addicts cut off from their drugs by the Harrison Act, and the alcohol drinkers cut off by the prohibition of alcohol, will substitute this new and unknown drug, marijuana, for the drugs they used to use."

Because it might be substituted for booze or narcotics, they outlawed it based on the theory of substitution. Twenty-six of the 27 states criminalized the use of marijuana; Utah was the first and only state to prohibit marijuana based on religious beliefs.

On July 15, 1930, Harry Jacob Anslinger was appointed acting commissioner of a new bureau, the FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics).

Here is an excerpt from a Hearst editorial, appearing Sept. 11, 1935: "One thing that the indolent legislatures should be made to understand is that the 'dope' traffic does not stand still. In recent years, the insidious and insanity-producing marihuana has become among the worst of the narcotic banes, invading even the school houses of the country, and the Uniform State Narcotic Law is the only legislation yet devised to deal effectively with this horrid menace."

In 1937 we got the Marihuana Tax Act.

Like the Harrison Act, this too had a hidden agenda; once again, this wasn't a tax -- it was conceived to prohibit conduct -- not raise revenue.

On the House floor on June 10, 1937, Congressman Snell asked the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, what HR 6906 (Marijuana Tax Act) was about.

Rayburn said, "It has something to do with something that is called marijuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind."

Commissioner Anslinger testified before Congress: "Mr. Speaker (Rayburn), Congressmen, marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death ..."

That was it -- that was the government's testimony supporting the prohibition of marijuana.

Congressmen and senators participating in the hearings accepted the bureau's arguments. There was no probing of government witnesses. In fact, the government made its case in the House in one session.

In 2003, Executive Director of NORML (National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws) Keith Stroup wrote: "Over 724,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges last year, 89 percent for simple possession. We're needlessly destroying the lives and careers of hundreds of thousands of genuinely good citizens each year."

Our drug laws do not reflect well upon current policies and their defenders. It becomes obvious after you have read historical records that bring to light the motivations and judgments of lawmakers who encouraged and assisted with the criminal prohibition of marijuana in the United States.

We must ask what role science, medicine and critical analysis played.

My thanks to Charles H. Whitebread, Professor of Law at The University of Southern California Law School.

(Hilsabeck lives in Napa.)

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