November 7th, 2014

Marijuana: Where Do VOTERS Stand?

Now we know that in Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia, the voters stand with legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. This would not have been welcome news to Harry Anslinger, who more than any other person was responsible for restricting access to this substance.

When Harry Anslinger became the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, marijuana had been a mainstream medication for almost 100 years, and recreational use was not a major national concern.  During the next 50 years,  Harry Anslinger effectively convinced key legal and administrative organizations to criminalize almost any involvement with it. He accomplished this by hard work and knowing how to manipulate these organizations. In addition, he shamelessly exaggerated the dangers of marijuana in such venues as the now ridiculed the film Reefer Madness.

As a result of his energetic and determined campaign against marijuana:

  • Many states passed laws prohibiting its use.
  • Its use became illegal on a federal level in 1937 when the U.S. Congress enacted the Marijuana Tax Act, despite the active opposition of the AMA. Later deemed unconstitutional, this law restricted use to medical purposes only, but made the paperwork so burdensome that most physicians stopped prescribing it.
  • Medical use was further reduced by its removal in 1942 from U.S. Pharmacopeia, where it had been listed for almost 100 years.
  • International prohibition evolved, culminating in 1961 in a United Nations Single Convention, much to the delight of Harry Anslinger.
  • It was classified as a Schedule 1 drug in the Controlled Drug Substances Act of 1970, along with heroin and other substances deemed to have a “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use in treatment.” This designation discouraged legitimate scientific research, leaving physicians in the dark about its true level of dangerousness as well as its possible medical benefits.

During the last 50 years, government officials from law enforcement and medical agencies have continued to emphasize the dangers of marijuana, equating it with heroin and cocaine rather than with alcohol and tobacco.

American voters, however, are beginning to open the legal closet in which Harry Anslinger had so effectively locked marijuana.  They seem to be sending lawmakers a message that resonates with clinicians as well: Rather than continue to deal with the problems that are associated with marijuana being illegal, we would prefer to work on a different set of problems – those that will result from making it legal again. Hopefully, even those with opposing views, we will collaborate on finding solutions.

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