Up in Smoke: U.S. Bucks Trend on Marijuana Laws

While Canada is moving to decriminalize marijuana, the U.S. is becoming stricter than ever. Don't miss this insightful and informative article in Sunday's New York Times by Eric Schlosser, author of "Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market."

The number of marijuana arrests now approaches three-quarters of a million annually, largely for simple possession. More people are in prison for marijuana crimes today than ever before. Dozens, if not hundreds, are serving life sentences for nonviolent pot offenses. Attorney General John Ashcroft has called for full enforcement of the pot laws and spearheaded a crackdown on medicinal marijuana providers in California, though their efforts are legal under state law.

Some interesting factoids:

  • The first American law about marijuana, passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1619, required every household to grow it. Hemp was considered a valuable commodity.
  • Popular fears of marijuana arose in the early 20th century, prompted by the use of the drug by Mexican immigrants. Rumors spread about the "killer weed" that incited violent crimes and drove its users insane. The fears quickly spread to blacks and to jazz music.
  • Marijuana was first outlawed in 1937. Not long after, the feds planned to conduct a national raid to round-up black jazz musicians who smoked pot. The plot failed because the agents couldn't infiltrate the "jazz milieu."

In a nutshell,

Marijuana has always been associated with minorities and subcultures that seem to threaten mainstream America. America's marijuana laws usually expressed that fear of outsiders in moralistic terms, while proving ineffective at stopping pot use.

Oregon was the first state to decriminalize pot--in 1973. Jimmy Carter supported decriminalization at the federal level. With Reagan, the pendulum began to swing the other way.

Moral condemnations of pot smokers and long prison sentences were revived by President Ronald Reagan, as a part of that era's culture wars. Mr. Reagan's first drug czar, Carlton E. Turner, felt that marijuana use was linked to anti-authority behavior and insisted pot could turn young men into homosexuals.

Today, it is largely poor people and minority offenders who are imprisoned for marijuana offenses. Pot smokers can now lose their cars, houses, jobs, student loans and food stamps after getting busted.

And now we have Ashcroft.

The nation's harsh marijuana policy increasingly isolates Washington from many of its allies. In February, the Justice Department staged a nationwide roundup of bong and roach clip manufacturers. Even as the nation feared seemingly imminent attacks by Al Qaeda, an inchoate danger, Attorney General Ashcroft announced the success of "Operation Pipe Dream."

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