Nightmare Prohibition. Why the Prohibition Against Marijuana Has to End

Watanuga Lahele is radiating. His glassy eyes peep out under a large, conical straw hat, his movements slightly erratic. He has been chewing on a dark-greenish kalangi root and the drug tetralin it contains now clearly shows its euphoric and mind-altering effects. Lahele sits at a huge wooden table, as he does every in May, at the kalangi root festival in Bomaki, the capital of the Republic of West Africa. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come here again to get collectively intoxicated at the festival. Lahele does not quite manage to get up from the table, he stumbles and falls sideways onto some other visitors. Soon, several people get in a brawl. The kalangi root is not only highly addictive, but also makes many of its consumers more aggressive. In the Republic of West Africa tetralin is completely legal, despite its mind-altering effects and various dangerous side effects.

A Legal Drug Festival in Africa

During the kalangi festival there are dozens of rapes every year, and sexual harassment is quite common. Many visitors end in emergency rooms after dangerously overdosing the drug. But these aspects are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the destructive potential of Tetralin. Its effects on perception and motor control during strong intoxication are so devastating that tens of thousands of consumers in the Republic of West Africa die or get injured every year. Tens of thousands die from overdoses or from the consequences of prolonged overconsumption and addiction. The side effects of chronic abuse of the drug on the human body and mind are disastrous. Prolonged heavy use can lead to hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, nerve cell damage, psychosis, laryngeal-, liver-, stomach-, or pancreatic cancers, as well as to cardiac insufficiency, depression, and forms of dementia such as Korsakow’s syndrome, a pitiful state in which patients forget earlier experiences and are also incapable of remembering new experiences; their personalities simply fall apart. According to a study by English scientists recently published in the renowned medical journal “The Lancet”, tetralin appears to be less toxic than hard drugs like crack or heroin, but ultimately more dangerous if we take the catastrophic sociological consequences into consideration. The addiction to tetralin, often initiated by even small amounts of the drug, destroys tens of thousands of families each year. According to estimates from government reports, almost every third rape happens under the influence of the drug. It is also involved in approximately one third of cases of aggravated assault and manslaughter and approximately one half of cases of civil disorder.

How is it possible that the Republic of West Africa does not prohibit the drug, that they even celebrate and worship it in their society? Why is this culture so much more permissive than other countries, where a substance like marijuana, which according to many experts is even less dangerous than alcohol or nicotine, is strictly prohibited?

These are the wrong questions, of course. Some better questions would be: Have you realized that I was playing a game with you, that the Republic of West Africa does not exist and that there are no such things as the ‘kalangi root’ or the drug ‘tetralin’? Do you have at least a suspicion of what I was really talking about?


The Largest Drug Festival in the World

Please visualize again the scenery of the drug-consuming West African. From there, let’s cross-fade to reality. We are now in Germany, Bavaria, Munich. Replace Watanuga Lahele with Michael Wohlgemut, the 33-year old project manager of a mid-sized software company. He wears his traditional Bavarian festive outfit: leather pants, a plaid red and blue shirt, and a big grey conical bowler hat. Michael, usually a timid guy and diligent employee, is sitting in a giant tent and belting out Bavarian folk songs while occasionally grabbing the backsides of passing waitresses. He is drinking his fifth beer, and his perception and motor coordination are just as deteriorated as described for Watanuga Lahele above. He is attending the biggest and most famous drug festival in the world, the Oktoberfest in Munich, in Germany, central Europe, the self-proclaimed epicenter of civilized European post-Enlightenment rational society.


So, no, Watanuga Lahele does not exist, the kalangi root does not exist, and there is no tetralin. But Oktoberfest exists, alcohol exists, and all the statistics and facts cited above for ‘tetralin’ actually apply to the Oktoberfest and alcohol consumption in Germany – a drug legal in most countries worldwide. The statistics on fatalities, rapes under the influence, the long list of horrible side effects, all these are well known statistics on alcohol abuse in Germany, and it certainly does not look significantly different for most other countries. And yes, in fact, the mentioned study in “The Lancet” really does say that alcohol should be considered more dangerous than crack or heroin, if you consider the destructive social consequences. 42 The study was published by Prof. David Nutt, the renowned expert and chief drug advisor of the British government, who was fired after publicly stating what many colleagues in his field believe: that substances like marijuana, LSD and ecstasy are, from a pharmacological point of view, far less dangerous than alcohol.

So, do we need a strict prohibition against alcohol to protect our society and especially our youth from this dangerous drug? We could punish even the possession of small amount of alcohol and expel students from high school when consuming any small amount of alcohol – a zero tolerance policy. Illegal alcohol drinkers, which we would then call “criminal drug consumers”, could be stigmatized as such with entries in their criminal records. We could force them to take unannounced blood tests to get a job and to keep it. Certainly, we would also have to start a “war” of epic proportions to fight the illegal market created by our prohibition, with myriads of policemen, undercover agents, soldiers, and border control troops to go after producers, dealers, smugglers and consumers. We could expect a huge illegal market with millions of criminal users, so we would have to send millions to jail. As is the case for marijuana in the U.S. now, we would probably have to send more than half a million consumers every year to jail – wine and scotch connoisseurs well as those who simply enjoy their beers during the Super Bowl final.

Of course, an alcohol prohibition would be a bad idea – we all know that now.

The infamous mobster Al Capone profited immensely from the black market during the alcohol prohibition in the U.S.
The infamous mobster Al Capone profited immensely from the black market during the alcohol prohibition in the U.S.

But as a reaction to the story of Watanuga Lahele, a strict prohibition probably seemed to you a necessary measure to fight the use of the kalangi root – a drug for which I described in detail exactly the side-effects known for alcohol. What is wrong with our perception here? Could it be that we have heard too often phrases like “drugs, tobacco and alcohol”, phrases that presuppose that tobacco and alcohol are not really drugs at all?

Why do we still have a nationwide and almost worldwide marijuana prohibition, while a much more dangerous drug like alcohol is legal despite all of its destructive toxicological side effects and its negative impact on society? It’s been evident for a long time now that marijuana prohibition is just as inefficient and destructive as the alcohol prohibition during the first world war.

Police raid during the alcohol prohibition in the U.S.


We know that some countries with a strict prohibition have higher rates of marijuana users than, for instance, the Netherlands, where the use of marijuana has been decriminalized now for decades.43 Decriminalization of marijuana in the Netherlands and other countries did not lead to higher increase rates of consumption than in countries with a brutally enforced prohibition. On the contrary, the numbers dropped compared with countries with strict prohibition. This shows not only that a strict prohibition fails to diminish the use of marijuana; it also undermines the argument of prohibitionists that without a prohibition, the gates of hell would open and that the numbers of consumers would increase uncontrollably. The prohibition in the U.S. costs billions of dollars and creates a gigantic black market, where uncontrolled and low-grade substances find their way to consumers without being taxed. Why haven’t we learned our lesson?


The Prohibition of Marijuana in the U.S.

The marijuana prohibition for the most part has its origins in a disinformation campaign which began in the 1930s. After the end of the catastrophically failed alcohol prohibition, the federal prohibition agency had to look out for a new task to stay in business. To that end, Harry G. Anslinger, the head of the new “Federal Bureau of Narcotics”, started a mixed media campaign against marijuana. Horror stories about marijuana were invented and placed in newspapers nationwide and found their way into radio spots and propaganda films. Anslinger let his spin doctors portray marijuana as a deadly poisonous drug that would turn consumers into aggressive and out-of-control rapists and killers, leading even the occasional user to chronic insanity and death. One of his extremely cynical strategies was to exploit existing racial prejudices against those minority groups who predominately used marijuana at the time: Mexican immigrants and black jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong. At a time where marijuana was hardly known in the white mainstream, Anslinger’s scare tactics turned out to be remarkably effective. One of his famous statements testified to Congress was:

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others. … The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races. Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality and death. You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother. Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”44

Anslinger’s campaign eventually led to the prohibition of marijuana in the U.S.. Medical experts of the American Medical Association testified against its prohibition, but were ignored. The House of Representatives followed Congress and approved the “Marijuana Tax Act”, which effectively started the prohibition in 1937 after a 90 second long discussion of the bill. During said discussion two questions were raised. In response to the question about the opinion of the American Medical Association (AMA), a committee member falsely informed them that the AMA would fully endorse this measure. The other question was to summarize the purpose of the bill: The speaker of the committee replied: “I don’t know. It has something to do with a thing called marijuana. It is a narcotic of some kind”.

It is hard to believe that such an extensive prohibition would have its roots in a disinformation campaign based on manufactured racist lies and purely invented claims about the toxicological effects of marijuana. Yet, the history of marijuana would take an even more bizarre turn. In the following years, more and more experts doubted Anslinger’s claims. The first serious interdisciplinary study on the subject of marijuana, initiated by New York’s Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia in 1944, refuted almost all of Anslinger’s claims.

New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia
New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia


Experts found that marijuana use would not lead to violent or criminal behavior, that it would not act as a gateway drug and they could not find scientific evidence for the claim that marijuana would be dangerously physically harmful to users. Faced with this evidence, the outraged Anslinger struck back with a new strategy – another disinformation campaign geared to the new political climate. In the heated atmosphere of the anticommunist McCarthy era, Anslinger now claimed that marijuana had to be outlawed because it would make users too peaceful and because communist China would illegally bring in marijuana to the U.S. to undermine the defensive morale of the military and the public. The absurd twist in Anslinger’s argumentation did not seem to bother politicians much. The prohibition was prolonged and the penalties would get even more severe under the “Bogg’s Act”, which was signed by President Truman in 1951.

Anslinger was not only the chief commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962. Additionally, he served as the American representative of the United Nations Drug Commission and used his influence to implement the “Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs”, in which marijuana was put on the same level with opiates. The global ban of cannabis cultivation can primarily be traced back to the efforts of a man whose main sources of information were publications of the boulevard press, as a posthumous searching of his files reveals.


The Ongoing Disinformation-Campaign against Marijuana

Anslinger’s campaign led to a lasting marijuana prohibition and effectively shaped the public’s image of marijuana worldwide. Even today, our understanding of marijuana is strongly affected by negative associations drilled into the public’s consciousness by Anslinger’s previous disinformation campaigns. Cognitive scientists speak of “cognitive priming” if a previous process of conditioning leads to certain associations, such as when we hear a notion and automatically associate images or have certain expectations previously paired with this notion. The ongoing prohibition keeps generating the stereotypes which it needs to survive: marijuana consumers are made criminal by prohibition laws and so we associate marijuana use with criminal behavior. Prohibitionists continue to use their spin doctors to create absurd arguments in support of their cause. It has been argued, for instance, that there would be a growing number of marijuana users in recent years seeking help from therapeutic institutions; there are statistics to back up this claim. However, one key aspect is concealed: there is an increasing number of marijuana users ‘seeking’ therapy because there is an increasing number of users forced to do so as part of a sentence for possession.

Anslinger’s disinformation strategy has been refined by later prohibitionists. The new PR strategies can most prominently be see in the misleading rhetoric of the slogan ‘war on drugs’, which was introduced under President Nixon. But there has never been a war on drugs. If we look at our history, we can only see an ongoing conflict amongst various drug users.

In ancient Mexico, for example, the consumption of alcohol was punishable by death, while the ritualistic use of the psychedelic drug mescaline (from the peyote cactus) was highly worshipped. In Russia, tobacco smokers were threatened with mutilation or decapitation, while alcohol was legal. In Prussia, coffee drinking was prohibited in the second half of the 18th century (except for by higher state officials and noblemen) and was punished with a jail sentence of up to four years or birching, while other drugs like alcohol were legal at the time.

Countless myths about marijuana continue to circulate today, even though they have long been refuted by scientific evidence. In their study “Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts”, the authors Lynn Zimmer and John P. Morgan collected all the myths and quote in detail and summarize the scientific studies debunking those myths.45 To name only a few, they investigate and debunk the myths that marijuana “has no medical value,” that it is a “gateway drug to harder drugs,” that it “causes an amotivational syndrome,” that marijuana “kills brain cells,” “causes crime,” “impairs the immune system,” or that it is “more damaging to the lungs than tobacco”.


The Destructive Consequences of the Prohibition

But even if we agree with a more scientifically informed view about marijuana, which clearly states that the overall risk potential of marijuana is much lower than that of a legal drug like alcohol, we certainly have to take the risks seriously. Every psychoactive substance brings risks for consumers. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to problems with marijuana abuse – mainly not because marijuana would physically harm them, but because psychological addiction and chronic overdose can heavily contribute to failure at a critical stage in their educational careers. Adolescents and people with personal instabilities need the special protection of our society. Tragically, though, it is exactly in this respect that the prohibition of marijuana fails the most. In recent surveys, high school students say that despite the strict and ongoing prohibition, marijuana is easy to get on the street these days.46 In spite of all the efforts, prohibition is not only ineffective – it is also destructive and deadly on a monstrous scale; parents lose their jobs or even go to jail for even minor cases of possession, students are expelled from school or college. Every year, more than half a million marijuana users are jailed in the U.S. alone, most simply for possession of small quantities of marijuana. Families are torn apart and the prohibition generates a huge illegal market, in which gangs violently fight for control and consumers often get laced and contaminated marijuana.

Overcrowding in California State Prison
Overcrowding in California State Prison

Even worse, our youth loses their trust and respect for a government that prohibits a substance widely known to be far less dangerous than the legal substances alcohol or tobacco. This loss of trust is disastrous when it comes to the general relationship between citizens and their state. In connection with behavior towards drugs it may also lead many teenagers to underestimate the much more dangerous toxicity of legal drugs like alcohol. The ongoing irrational treatment of marijuana makes it impossible to correctly and objectively educate an entire generation of adolescents. As a result, we miss our only chance to actively educate and lead millions of citizens to a more healthy attitude and behavior towards psychoactive substances in general.

We can protect our adolescents and citizens in general much more effectively with a regulation of marijuana similar to that of alcohol or tobacco. In order for the government to be credible and effective, it has to start behaving rationally – which means finally listening to scientific experts in the field. However, the sad historic record is that government agencies repeatedly issued scientific studies on marijuana, only to have the governments ignore the results. All the most important studies refuted Anslinger’s myths about the dangers of marijuana and recommended a decriminalization of marijuana, whether it was the Report of the Indian Hemp Commission (England 1984), the study of the Mayor LaGuardia Commission (1944), the Baroness Wooten-Report (England 1968), the Report of the Lading-Commission (Canada 1972), the Shafer Commission Report (1972), or the Report of the Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry Into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (Canada, 2002) – to name only a few.

According to a 2005 report by Dr. Jeffrey Miron, replacing marijuana prohibition with a regulation similar to that used for alcohol would save the U.S. government between $10 billion and $14 billion per year, based on the expected savings and tax revenues.47 Among the endorsing economists are three Nobel laureates, including Dr. Milton Freedman. This money could effectively be used for education as well as therapeutic measures, especially for those who according to medical statistics need it most: alcoholics, and nicotine and prescription drug addicts.


The Rediscovery of the Potential of Cannabis

More than a 15 years ago, scientists discovered an endogenous cannabinoid system in the human brain, a signaling system in our bodies that uses cannabinoids and their receptors to control several types of physiological and cognitive processes. Since then, scientists have made vast progress in the understanding of this system. This research is already useful to understand what thousands of patients have told us about the medical usefulness of marijuana, patients who have claimed that marijuana helped them so effectively in so many ways – without most of the horrible side effects of the prescription drugs they were historically forced to use instead. Of course, the pharmaceutical industry has only limited interest in expensive research of a plant which cannot be patented and which can be grown by anyone in their garden. There’s simply no money to be made. At this point, our government has to take action and invest money in the medical research of this plant which has been listed as useful in the pharmacopoeias of various human cultures for more than 5000 years. Other funds should be used to educate the public about the general risk potential of all psychoactive substances.

It is time now to come to a more realistic treatment of the subject of psychoactive substances. It is unreasonable to think that we should demand complete abstinence from all drugs from our citizens. The use of psychoactive substances has not only been prevalent in all societies throughout human history, but goes much further back in evolution. The American psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel, perhaps the world’s foremost scientific expert concerning the interaction between animals and psychoactive plants, states:

History shows that we have always used drugs. In every age, in every part of this planet, people have pursued intoxication with plant drugs, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances…Almost every species of animal has engaged in the natural pursuit of intoxicants. This behavior has so much force and persistence that it functions like a drive, just like our drives of hunger, thirst and sex. This “fourth drive” is a natural part of biology, creating the irrepressible demand for drugs. In a sense, the war on drugs is a war against ourselves, a denial of our very nature.“48

Instead of trying to preach abstinence or a war on drugs, we should educate people who have decided to use psychoactive drugs to come to a more respectful and meaningful relationship with them. In order to do so, we also need to acknowledge the fact that psychoactive substances have not only risks, but also a positive potential. The dangers of alcohol are clearly evidenced when we see drunk and aggressive hooligans violently and uninhibitedly beating down on their victims. On the other hand, alcohol has a positive potential, not only medically speaking, a potential that many of us have made use of before. The disinhibiting effect of alcohol allows the shy lover to talk to the girl of his heart, the wine gourmet experiences a mind-boggling burst of taste sensations, and writers and many others have used alcohol to better concentrate or to facilitate their stream of thoughts. Millions of us use alcohol, not because they are addicted drug consumers, but because they have made a decision to enhance the quality of their lives in spite of the risks associated with alcohol use.

The findings in endocannabinoid research are not only beginning to explain the medical potential of marijuana. They are also beginning to deliver explanations for the thousands of reports of healthy and otherwise law-abiding citizens who use marijuana for recreational and inspirational purposes. Even if only a fraction of the myriad user reports about the positive potential of marijuana for various purposes is correct, we must ask ourselves if a prohibition is not a severe intrusion into the personal rights of millions of citizens who have obviously decided to explore that potential for themselves – just as millions of people have decided to use (or, abuse) alcohol.

The legalization of marijuana is not a dangerous experiment. Marijuana has been used throughout history in many cultures and has been legal for most of that time worldwide. Even in a country like India, where marijuana has been used by large parts of the population for centuries, studies have not found any of the health or other problems that prohibitionists would predict. Users did not run amok in masses and there was no increase of schizophrenia or other mental problems in the population. In the Netherlands, there has been no dramatic increase of use and no trafficking-related chaos ensued since marijuana was decriminalized. Legalization is not an experiment – the prohibition is the experiment, and it is becoming more and more clear that it has failed dramatically, with millions of victims all around the world. More and more citizens have come to this conclusion in recent years. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, organized to provoke a science-based discussion of humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies, recently presented their new report, which makes a clear case to end the drug war. Members of this commission include such prominent figures as Kofi Annan, the former United Nations’ chief secretary; George Shultz, the former foreign minister of the U.S.; George Papandreou, current Prime Minister of Greece; Fernando H. Cardoso, the former president of Brazil; Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, as well as the former NATO’s chief secretary Javier Solana.

Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations (1997-2006)
Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations (1997-2006)

Many politicians will have to swallow their pride to rectify the fatal errors of the past. Especially ‘law and order’ – hardliners will have a hard time understanding and admitting that their draconic prohibition has never helped to fight criminals, but that it created the catastrophe itself – just as the alcohol prohibition did. We can expect those politicians at best to slowly and silently retreat under extreme pressure, only when they understand that even with their scare tactics they will no longer be able to impress voters. Massive lobbying interests such as the pharma-, alcohol-, and private jail industries still stand in the way of a sensible political change in our drug policies. These lobbyists will need to see that they are out of touch. They need to understand that people have started to wake up from the nightmares Anslinger and his followers made all of us dream.



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