All self-medication is not created equal.
Alcohol culture and cannabis culture come from two distinctly different places. Their hold on Americans are both distinctly different. One has always been incredibly unhealthy (fun as hell — make no mistake — but damned unhealthy). The other is cannabis culture. Both inspired prohibition but cannabis’ prohibition endured long beyond alcohol’s. That wasn’t a coincidence. It had to do with who, in the early days, was using cannabis — which was why the nascent Federal Bureau of Narcotics under its first Commissioner Harry Anslinger flip-flopped on “marihuana”; the FBN stopped seeing it as a very minor, innocuous Mexican habit brought across the border by Mexicans fleeing the Mexican Revolution and, instead (almost overnight, in fact) started seeing it as an invented crisis with racism at its core: “reefer madness”.
The very reason Harry Anslinger hated marijuana and declared war on it was because white people started to smoke it. The vector between Mexicans smoking it and white people smoking it was Black people smoking it. And the Black people who drove marijuana’s growing popularization — as it literally travelled up the Mississippi from New Orleans — were the musicians who’d invented jazz, many of them while smoking marijuana. Anslinger was both a die hard racist and a brilliant bureaucrat. Turns out, he also fancied himself a good pianist with a passion for European classical music. Jazz was anathema to Anslinger. He hated the musicians who created jazz. He hated the Blackness of their music. He hated the marijuana they smoked before and during their playing. But, he especially hated the fact that this Mexican and now Black habit was spreading from non-white usage to white usage.
Harry Anslinger personally invented “reefer madness” — that bizarre way of seeing and thinking about cannabis, divorced from any sort of practical cannabis experience. But Harry had a problem. He may have hated marijuana because of the people he saw smoking it in his mind’s eye, but no one else did. The law didn’t hate marijuana, quite the contrary. The law was rather pro-hemp. It didn’t care whether or not anyone smoked it. And the Constitution gave Harry no openings either. Nothing in our Constitution supports marijuana prohibition whatsoever.
That’s what everyone told Harry as he tried to formulate a law that would give him the power to arrest and prosecute people he hated because of racism.
But, as I said, Harry was also a great bureaucrat. Instead of quitting, he went bureaucratic. Our federal government didn’t nail Al Capone for being a gangster. It nailed Capone for being a tax cheat. That was Harry’s tack.
First, he seeded the ground with racist bullshit. Harry would go to the press and tell them — with all the gravity and authority of the Commissioner of the FBN — that Black men were smoking marijuana and then getting sexed up and raping white women. Or getting white women to smoke marijuana themselves — and then getting so sexed up that they’d give themselves to these Black men! Oh, the horror! The press — and in their defense, why would they doubt Harry? — printed Harry’s bullshit in their newspapers which Harry would then hold up as proof that what he was saying was absolutely true.
This collection of clippings grew quickly into what Harry called his “Gore files”. Slowly, but surely, Harry’s racist magic worked its way through Congress. Now, the law was still the law; no one was going to indulge Harry by writing law that would get them laughed at. But, being a clever bureaucrat who understood how to catch a mobster, Harry proposed a tax instead. Every time anyone bought or sold cannabis — and, just to be safe, Harry through hemp into the mix, too — they would have to pay a tax. In order to prove they’d both paid the tax, both would have to get a stamp designed just for this purpose. Here’s where it got complicated. No organ was set up to collect any such tax — and none was going to be created. And (the cherry on top), no actual stamp was ever created either. The stamp was literally unattainable.
Any time anyone bought or sold marijuana or hemp, they were going to violate the tax code. The Marijuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 sailed through Congress (despite considerable opposition to it by organizations like the AMA who were keenly aware of marijuana’s considerable positives as a medication). Interesting story? Within twenty four hours, the Stamp Act had its first criminals. In Denver.
Samuel Caldwell got arrested on October 2, 1937 for possessing marijuana for which he could not provide the stamp as evidence that he’d paid the tax in order to possess that marijuana. Now, to be fair, Caldwell was no prince; he was a criminal with a fair-sized rap sheet. But that simply made it easier to prosecute Caldwell and establish a precedent.
For the record — a Mexican man named Moses Baca would have been the first arrestee except his arrest happened two weeks before the Tax Law was enacted. It was only after the law was enacted — and Baca couldn’t produce a stamp to prove he’d paid the tax — that he became a “drug criminal”.
Everything — literally everything — about cannabis prohibition was based on racist bullshit. For contrast, as stupid and doomed to failure as alcohol prohibition was, at least it was based on reality. While we think of the teetotalers and Temperance Society wackos who drove prohibition as old fashioned and repressive, in fact, they were being very progressive about a very real social problem: drinking. Then, as now, alcohol addiction ruined lives. Ruined whole families. Whole communities. Prohibition’s misguided aim was a better society. It used a sledge hammer when micro-surgery was in order.
When prohibition finally met its well-deserved end, America made damned sure such a thing could never, would n ever happen again. They put the liquor manufacturers in charge. And the distributors. They began the process of indoctrinating Americans from a very young age into thinking that alcohol is a right of passage. It’s the organizing principle around which most socializing revolves. A restaurant will almost never be profitable without alcohol sales to make it profitable. Bars are built on selling alcohol. The more, the better. Being big, corporate businesses now, alcohol manufacturers think globally. And they dutifully invest in keeping America’s youth fixated on that key rite of passage — legal drinking. That’s why alcohol manufacturers invest so much in creating products that make alcohol seem innocuous, fun, and candy-flavored.
No one reads a warning label on a beer bottle (or a packet of cigs) and thinks “Oh, wait — I hadn’t thought of that!” A better warning would be to point out something practical: “After consuming this alcoholic beverage, please wait at least twenty minutes before deciding you need another because you probably won’t”. It’s one of the weird things about alcohol and drinking. It’s like drinkers forget (after drinking) how alcohol works inside their own bodies. They drink — and keep drinking — like they’ve never had a drink before. Like they’re surprised to find themselves as over-the-limit as they are.
That’s a big part of our collective problem with alcohol: it screws with our memory. Screwing with our memory screws with our perspective. We keep forgetting all the dumb things we do when alcohol is inside us. We get it into our heads that they’re all isolated incidents rather than tiles in a mosaic that says: your relationship with alcohol isn’t what you think it is and alcohol’s the alpha.
I stopped drinking alcohol in early 2017. The mood stabilizer I started taking to deal with a decade long depression that was literally killing me gave alcohol a terrible, grapefruit skin-like aftertaste. That was heartbreaking at first. I loved the taste of a perfect gin martini (depending on the gin). I loved every aspect of a glass of big, dark, inky red — from first tentative sniff to last, satisfying swallow. An aversion to alcohol wasn’t one ofA the possible side effects the literature warned about. Lamotrigine was developed as an anti-seizure medication; its mood stabilizing effects were a ridealong. From the first moment that grapefruit skin aftertaste hit, I turned away from alcohol and never, really, looked back.
I’ve felt better since I stopped drinking. I sleep better. I work better. Let’s be clear however — alcohol was never my problem; I was. Now — to be fair — have I merely swapped one self-destructive bad habit for another? Isn’t cannabis just as bad in its way as alcohol is in its?
I’d answer it this way: there’s a very good reason we actually think of cannabis as a medicine while we only jokingly think of alcohol that way. It’s just a stone cold fact — alcohol and THC are entirely different chemicals that act in entirely different ways inside our bodies and especially our brains. Alcohol depresses our inhibitions by uniformly suppressing our motor skills and our ability to process information. Our reaction times slow and then our vague motor skills fudge the rest. THC, on the other hand, isn’t a depressant. Our thoughts are caused by electrical impulses flowing across our synapses. THC causes more of those synapses to be open (they’re a lot like digital circuits).
The reason everything seems a little more intense (colors, tastes, smells) is because our brains are literally processing more information than we’d be processing without the THC. That’s what some people experience as paranoia. They’re conflating that awareness of more information with someone outside of them. Because of cannabis’s bad boy past, that “someone” is inherently threatening because they “know”. That negative aside, for most cannabis users — especially those who recognize the difference between sativas, hybrids and indicas — the whole point of using cannabis is to achieve a particular effect. For instance, when I wake and bake every morning, I light up from a collection of sativas that I know will focus my brain and get it ready to write coherent thoughts. When I get to the end of my writing day and it’s time to chill, I’ll break out my hybrid collection (though some hybrids –Trainwreck especially — are excellent for work). When the evening is coming to its end and bedtime approaches, out come my indicas. I know that not only will indicas put me to sleep, they’ll give me a good, solid, restful night’s sleep from which I’ll awake the next day ready for battle.
Once I wake n bake, of course.
Alcohol culture isn’t going anywhere. There’s way too much money in it. And humans really like alcohol. But cannabis culture is on the come. The moment our government removes cannabis from schedule one — and the banks can finally invest their money in it? The cannabis business will boom like nothing before it. This is not a terrible thing except for the corruption that will ride shotgun alongside it. And it will suck when Big Cannabis becomes the power vortex and all the mom n pop operations get run out of business.
But, I believe, the culture cannabis will slowly impress upon us will be much more civilized than alcohol culture ever could be — because of alcohol’s nature. Think about it: if we stopped serving beer at sporting events and sold cannabis instead (hybrids, let’s say), violence would NEVER break out at sporting events ever again. Instead of screaming at each other at game’s end, opposing sides would be hugging, telling each other how well they played (regardless of the final score). Some fans might be dozing peacefully. No one would spill out into the streets ready to rumble.
People who smoke cannabis do not go home and beat their loved ones. They don’t get argumentative. They don’t get belligerent or combative. They do get funny though. And they do get the munchies.
Harry Anslinger hated jazz because Black people invented it. But — here’s the key — guys like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton all used cannabis as part of their creative process. These musicians were attempting to draw an abstract idea — jazz — out of their heads and into the air via their instruments. And they did this while ON CANNABIS. They knew from experience that no one can create music or play it well with a drink inside you. Heroin? Forget about it. Heroin turned the amazingly talented, handsome Chet Baker into a hollow shell of himself. It did not make him better at anything other than self-destruction. If only he’d been exclusively a dope fiend, he may have come to a happier ending.
Long before Big Alcohol turned to Big Advertising to improve its image, people had it in their heads that “in vino veritas” — that alcohol would lead to truth. I can only speak from personal experience. Alcohol, at best, leads to angry truthiness. That’s baked into its culture.
If I want real veritas? I’m tapping some Durban Poison into my Genius pipe and sparking it to life!