A Blanket Pardon For Non-Violent Cannabis Offenders Would Be An Easy, Huge, Do-Able Win For Joe Biden

Here’s a fact: Joe Biden could probably guarantee the Republicans DON’T take back the House or Senate in next year’s mid-terms in one executive order. The executive branch — Joe Biden — could, all by himself, remove cannabis from The Controlled Substances Act. He can “move to federally legalize cannabis without waiting for lawmakers to act.” Not only can President Biden do this, he’s already set this ship in motion by hiring and appointing people who all want this very thing to happen. In addition, Biden could issue an executive amnesty for every single non-violent cannabis offender in the entire country. This would free all those prisoners now doing time and expunge their and every other record of every single person EVER arrested for growing, buying, selling or just enjoying the myriad benefits of cannabis — a natural product that should NEVER have been prohibited in the first place.

As a move, it would transcend politics because two thirds of Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — want this to happen (but, of course, it could NEVER happen with a Republican in office since they still have to kneel before the evangelicals). Know who else would actually be super happy if Joe Biden did everything he could to de-criminalize cannabis ASAP? The banks. They’ll literally hurt themselves in the rush to cash in on cannabis the nano-second it exits Schedule One and they can begin to invest in it legally. The states also hear the “Ka-CHING!” of money landing in their coffers. “Just in 2020, taxes from adult recreational cannabis sales totaled $2.7 billion” and that’s just part of the EIGHT BILLION TAX COLLARS collected by the 18 states that have legalized cannabis in one way or another.

Know who doesn’t like the “legal cannabis” story? No one. Hey, by righting the cannabis story, Joe Biden also can make America come to terms a little more with its racist past — without it going nuts. Hopefully, America will have a good stone on. We’ll feel the calm. Our minds will open a little.

Best part? For two seconds, it might even get the news media to focus on the bigger picture.

Even as Joe Biden rescues America daily from the cataclysmic precipice Donald Trump drove us to, in the eyes of the news media (still perspective-free), Joe Biden is failing because “bad messaging”. They still pooh-pooh Team Biden’s failure to focus on what’s IN the BBB versus what it costs when it was ALWAYS the news media who blasted the number over anything else because that was an easier (though less accurate) story to tell — disagreement over a bunch of imaginary numbers. The Progressives have always advocated for a specific end result: the level-est playing field possible in America so that every American has a genuinely equal shot at achieving the American Dream. And, every time a Progressive policy actually makes it into practice (the Child Tax Credit or the UBI-like unemployment payments received by millions of Americans), it provides a data set of success. The Child Tax Credit literally cut poverty in half. The UBI kept our economy afloat when, otherwise, it would have slipped deeper into recession because of the pandemic.

Legalizing cannabis has always been a liberal — not a conservative — policy. Let’s be crystal clear: the ONLY reason cannabis was ever “illegalized” in this country was because of racism.

A little while back, I got hired by Weedmaps News (back when there was a Weedmaps News) to write a 13 part, 25,000 word series called “BLUNT TRUTHS” on the history of cannabis prohibition in America. I had pitched them this idea because I’ve always wanted to tell the true story of Harry Anslinger, America’s first “drug czar”, the inventor (for all intents and purposes) of “reefer madness” and the man who, almost single-handedly, created the mess we have today — not just in America but all over the world. Anslinger was a complex character, one we’ve too easily dismissed as an over-reaching cop. He was, but that’s not what made him tick. Anslinger was an out-and-out racist who favored European culture and hated Black culture. He also was a remarkably skilled bureaucrat. That’s the problem.

I recommend the whole series (I would, but then I’m biased) but here’s the thumbnail: At the time of his appointment as first Commissioner of America’s new Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, no drugs were in fact “illegal”. Aside from controlling the importation of opium, the FBN had little to do, little manpower and even less money. Anslinger was an excellent choice having spent a decade at that point mostly in Europe arranging agreements about opium between America and various other nations. “Marihuana” (as Anslinger called it) was of zero concern; at that point, to Anslinger’s knowledge, only Mexican laborers in America’s southwest even knew what it was. Mexicans fleeing the Mexican Revolution (1910) brought marijuana with them as they re-settled in America. In time, marijuana made it across the country to New Orleans where a group of Black musicians were creating a newfangled thing called “jazz”.

This is a key moment both in how cannabis use became popularized but also WHY Harry Anslinger put a target on marijuana and made prohibiting it his personal crusade. Cannabis use spread alongside jazz’s rising popularity. In part, that was because every now and then New Orleans would kick out all the musicians. They’d head north to Memphis, Nashville, Chicago — from Anslinger’s point of view, “spreading” jazz and marijuana to white people. That crossed a line.

In addition to being a very good bureaucrat, Anslinger fancied himself a very good pianist. He loved European classical music. Jazz affronted him like a two by four upside the head. He hated the musicians who created jazz (people like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver), hated the marijuana that seemed to inspire it, and hated that white Americans were taking both the music and the marijuana into their systems. Anslinger was damned clever. He’d take a racist trope — “Black marijuana use was leading to crazed sexual behavior directed at white women” — to a newspaper. They’d print it because Anslinger was the freakin’ Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — would HE lie? Then Anslinger would hold up the newspaper headline and say “See? Didn’t I tell you that Black men were raping white women because of marijuana?”

Anslinger collected what became known as his “Gore Files”. To flip through them is to fully grasp where “reefer madness” came from. It’s absurd.

Ironically, Anslinger wasn’t allowed to actually make cannabis illegal — not, at first. For starters, there’s no Constitutional basis to make any drug illegal. Hemp, cannabis’ cousin, was a vital agricultural product when the founders were founding America. Back in the 1930’s, as Anslinger tried to get lawmakers interested, the AMA came to cannabis’ rescue. All the data, so said the AMA, argued for marijuana’s remaining legal. What the hell does the AMA know, demanded Anslinger. In the end, Anslinger was forced to do an end run around the Constitution to have his way. As with Al Capone, the government made it about taxes and not paying them.

The clever cruelty buried in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 is the stamp itself. The Act decreed that a tax had to be paid every time marijuana either was bought or sold (ditto hemp). In order to prove the tax had been paid, both parties had to obtain a stamp. Except the stamp never existed — and never was going to. By design, everyone who bought or sold cannabis from that point forward was going to be a criminal — a TAX criminal.

Fun fact: The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 scored its first success within days! For real! Samuel Caldwell became cannabis’ first sacrificial lamb on October 3, two days after the law was enacted. His crime: selling three joints. Okay — he also had a couple of pounds of marijuana in his room, but it wasn’t illegal to possess, remember?

Team Biden ought to make a blanket pardon, full cannabis decriminalization and legalization as much of a reality as the tools available to him allow. Sure, sure, plenty of those who’ll benefit are and will remain Trump voters. Not to worry. When all those criminal records get expunged — and those good citizens return to the voting rolls — hundreds of thousands of people will be motivated or re-motivated to vote because voting got them or their loved ones out of jail. This will be one more law that Democrats made happen but that Republicans (who didn’t) ache to claim credit for. We can’t let them do that.

For one thing, ya just know, Republicans will Bogart the hell out of that joint and then hand it off all dripping with their germy spit. Geez, ya can’t even get high with these people without it being a hassle…

At No Point Was America’s “War On Drugs” EVER About Drugs; It was Always About Racism

Remember Prohibition? That was America’s attempt to wage war on the “drug of choice” of most white people: alcohol. Prohibition failed miserably as we know. Not only didn’t it stop anyone from drinking, it made drinking sexier. And, because legitimate providers couldn’t provide during Prohibition, illegitimate providers filled in the vacuum. It was Prohibition that gave organized crime its first real foothold in America. Prohibition gave them a product to sell, a public anxious to buy and no one to regulate what anyone was doing. America put up with Prohibition for thirteen years. But, to be fair to the prohibitionists — judgmental as they were — they weren’t wrong about the harm alcohol abuse was doing to America, Americans and their families. The prohibitionists weren’t conservatives, they were progressives! Prohibition was an attempt to force a moral choice upon a population that wanted a drink instead. Being as the population was mostly white, in the end, that population had its way. Prohibition ended relatively quickly.

We cannot say the same for marijuana prohibition though — even as decriminalization spreads with remarkable speed across the country. Marijuana was effectively “illegalized” by the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937. The law didn’t make marijuana illegal because, as first drug czar Harry Anslinger found out, there is literally NOTHING in the Constitution that makes any substance illegal. In order to make opiates or cannabis illegal, lawmakers had to perform a whole Olympics worth of gymnastics. None them completed a single routine successfully — except for the fact that they did illegalize the drugs they were going after.

When Harry Anslinger became the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, he brought a couple of things with him. First was his skill as a bureaucrat. Whatever else Anslinger was (and we’ll get to what he really was momentarily), he was exceptionally skilled at working the bureaucracy to get what he wanted (even when the law wasn’t on his side — as the law wasn’t when Anslinger put a target on marijuana’s back). Anslinger began as a railroad cop for the Pennsylvania Railroad (where his father also worked). During World War I, Anslinger turned that success into a burgeoning diplomatic career. Working for the US government, Anslinger became deeply involved in the battle against international drug trafficking. Now, let’s be clear about something: in 1920, the “international drug trade” consisted of opium. That’s it.

But, if we dig a little into even that — our battle with the international opium trade — we find racism lurking. The opium wars of the 1840’s were fought because China (knowing opium smoking was problematic to peoples health and productivity), had made opium illegal while the British wanted to be able to trade in opium (in part to make up the massive trade balance they were experiencing with China). China wanted to end the trade in opium while Europe wanted it to continue — because it was enriching Europe. Jump forward a few years. When America wanted cheap (bordering on slave) labor after slavery was finally illegalized, we brought in thousands of Chinese men. We made them keep their families at home because heaven forbid we ever treat workers like human beings — especially when they’re “different”.

Had Europe not insisted on keeping the opium trade open, there wouldn’t have been anything for American racists to worry over when they saw communities of Chinese men — perhaps using opium, perhaps not — who would blame them; we left them with little to do in their off hours other than eat and sleep. The first anti-drug law in American popped up in San Francisco in 1875. It made smoking opium in opium dens illegal. Was that for a reason associated with anyone’s health? No. The law itself is pretty specific about WHY it exists because: “”Many women and young girls, as well as young men of a respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise.”

“Ruined morally or otherwise”. That’s the LEGAL underpinning. When Harry Anslinger started setting up shop in 1930 at the FBN, most drug laws (if there were any) were local not national. Though opium use was being limited at the local level, there was no national law giving Anslinger any comparable power. To go along with his minimal enforcement power, he had a small work force of bureaucrats and an even smaller one of field agents. He was competing at the time with J. Edgar Hoover who was much better at public relations at first than Anslinger was.

Anslinger didn’t care about marijuana when he started working at the FBN. Prior to 1910, marijuana doesn’t really register. It scores some notoriety after Hugh Ludlow publishes The Hashish Eater in 1857 but the whole experience is exotic and foreign. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution sends a gush of people fleeing the war Many settle north of the border and begin new lives in America. They bring with them their food, their religion, their cannabis. As they know culturally, at the end of a work day — or even going into one — cannabis is awesome.

So long as marijuana remained something Mexicans did among Mexicans, Anslinger didn’t care about it. Eventually, marijuana made it over to New Orleans where a bunch of Black musicians were in the process of inventing jazz. Guys like Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver and Louis Armstrong knew (perhaps from experience) that you couldn’t invent anything on opium. You couldn’t make music with heroin in your head. Ditto alcohol. That didn’t mean plenty of musicians (jazz or otherwise) didn’t try to combine music an alcohol. But, as the rest of us know, the person hopped up on hops has lost all perspective. In vino veritas? Not really. In vino lack of candor. In vino lack of judgment. In vino crap motor skills. That’s not the case with marijuana.

The Black musical artists who invented jazz loved cannabis because it opened up their creativity like nothing else. It allowed them to bridge all kinds of jumps they were making in their brains while creating jazz — while inventing music on the fly. Jazz was the first authentically American musical idiom. It couldn’t have come from anywhere else or have been produced by anyone other than the people who made it. And they made it, many of them, while using marijuana.

Among the people who hated jazz — and there were people who despised it because of who created it — was America’s first drug czar, Harry Anslinger. In addition to being a very skilled bureaucrat, apparently Anslinger was a skilled musician, too. He played piano. Loved European classical music. Hated jazz and every single jazz musician for having helped create it But, even so, it wasn’t Anslinger’s hatred for jazz and jazz musicians that spurred him to finally go after marijuana.

When Anslinger heard reports of white people using dope? THAT was the bridge too far for Anslinger. White people using a drug that Black and brown people use? That’s white people being “perverted” by people of color. That, to a racist like Harry Anslinger, could not happen. It’s precisely why Anslinger decided that marijuana was a far worse threat to America than heroin.

For a very thorough telling of Harry Anslinger’s story, I suggest a few of the Blunt Truths pieces I wrote for Weedmaps News (when there was a Weedmaps News). Though a few chapters are missing (one got purloined by one of my editors at Weedmaps News — Nicolas Juarez — that effing scumbag!), the thirteen chapters and 25,000 words tell the only story one can truthfully tell about marijuana prohibition. It happened because of who, early on, was using it. No one ever cared about whether it was good or bad for anyone’s health. No research was ever commissioned to prove such a thing because health was never a factor.

One of the nicest things to experience is the slow, chillin’ demise of “Reefer Madness” as an idea of how people are when using cannabis. Think of how many more millions of Americans across the country are now using cannabis on a regular basis — integrating it into their lives — without their lives falling apart. Or Wester Civilization collapsing.

Frankly, if my young adult daughter quit drinking tomorrow and used cannabis exclusively for recreation and self-medicating? I’d be thrilled. I quit drinking because my mood stabilizer gives all alcohol a terrible, grapefruit skin-like aftertaste. As I was already using cannabis for sleeping, I upped my cannabis use — and discovered almost immediately that just by quitting alcohol, the quality of my sleep improved even more than it had when I quit over-the-counter sleeping meds for nightly indica. If sporting events sold cannabis instead of Budweiser, there would never be another drunken brawl at a soccer game that spills out into the streets. Instead, a crowd that just watched a sporting event while stoned would end up hugging each other even if they supported the other side. It’s just hard to feel that shitty with THC sprinkling you gently with euphoria.

Blunt Truth — Marijuana Prohibition Was ALWAYS About RACISM And Nothing But

From the get-go, every impulse to regulate cannabis has been based on racism.

When the California Pharmacy Board amended the state’s Poison Act in 1913 to include marijuana in the “poisons” under its control, they were simply piling onto the racist legislation that began in 1875 when California passed America’s first anti-narcotics laws to “combat” opium dens. Translation: to legalize anti-Chinese racism and bigotry. Up until 1910, no one had an issue with marijuana because no one in America knew what it was.

But, a keen-eyed California racist named Henry J. Finger — a prominent member of the Pharmacy Board — saw something that needed to be stamped out quickly.

I wrote a series — Blunt Truths — for Weedmaps News (back when they were a going concern) about this very subject. I’m biased but I recommend it. At the time, Weedmaps News was being run by journalists including the former LA Times journalist who hired me to write for them — so long as I adhered to journalistic standards. In other words — I couldn’t rely on bullshit to tell the story I wanted to tell. Among the sources I relied on because of their reliability was Dale Gieringer, PhD., a NORML board member. I highly recommend his The Forgotten Origins Of Cannabis Prohibition In California. It’s loaded with fascinating information that will change the way you think about cannabis.

Considering the radical shift in how we see race relations in America that’s happening right this second — Gieringer’s insights take on greater resonance.

For a taste. Here’s Gieringer citing a correspondence between Henry Finger and Hamilton Wright (in 1911 when Wright is the chief architect of US narcotics policy) —

“Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast…the fear is now that they are initiating our whites into this habit…”

Gieringer notes: “The “Hindoos,” actually East Indian immigrant of Sikh religion and Punjabi origin, had become a popular target of anti-immigrant sentiment after several boatloads arrived in San Francisco in 1910. Their arrival sparked an uproar of protest from Asian exclusionists, who pronounced them to be even more unfit for American civilization than the Chinese.” Immigration authorities quickly cut off the flow. The roughly 2000 “Hindoos” apparently became a threat. They were “widely denounced for their outlandish customs, dirty clothes, strange food, suspect morals, and especially their propensity to work for low wages… no one complained about their use of cannabis. To the contrary, their defenders portrayed them as hard-working and sober. “The taking of drugs as a habit scarcely exists among them,” wrote one observer.”

Henry Finger persisted. “By this time, another menace had appeared on the horizon: “marihuana” had begun to penetrate north of the border from Mexico, carried by immigrants and soldiers during the revolutionary disorders of 1910 – 1920 [aka The Mexican Revolution]. Though hardly known to the American public, marihuana or “loco-weed” was noticed by the pharmacy journals.”

And there you have it. The Pharmacy Board — a supposedly scientific body — was crafting legislation without an ounce of science in it. But there sure was plenty of racism.

Thus marijuana prohibition began. The legislation that followed — most of it with actual “Reefer Madness” in its heart — was driven by America’s first Commissioner of the Federal Narcotics Bureau Harry J. Anslinger — our first “drug czar”. And Anslinger behaved like a drug CZAR. Anslinger — once he came around to the “marihuana is a scourge” point of view (he started out insisting it was harmless) — invented most of what we still think about cannabis. He literally pulled it out of his ass.

His very RACIST ass.

Let’s be clear. Harry Anslinger is a villain not just because he was a racist. He’s a villain because he was also an excellent bureaucrat who knew how to manipulate the system to get what he wanted. Anslinger knew how to go to the press — as the respected, trustworthy Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — with lies (Mexicans and blacks are selling marihuana to our children) that the press would then print — which Anslinger would then hold up as proof that Mexicans and blacks were selling marihuana to our children.

Neat trick, huh?

It’s important to understand what turned Anslinger. What convinced him that cannabis was more dangerous than opium? It was the exact same thing that bothered Henry Finger — not the what, the WHO. WHO was using marijuana. So long as Mexicans and black jazz musicians kept marijuana to themselves, racists like Anslinger might have been able to tolerate it to a degree.

The trouble was white people started taking up the habit — and that was totally unacceptable to Anslinger. Cannabis was illegalized in America to keep white people from using it and to punish black and brown people for “poisoning Americans” with it.

In the 1950’s, after 20 years of selling marijuana prohibition with racism, Anslinger expanded the franchise. World War Two caused profound physical pain to a staggering number of people. In response, opioids exploded in availability. So did opioid addiction. With fear of “Reefer Madness” waning, Anslinger invented “the gateway theory” to reinvigorate the public’s passion for prohibition.

The “gateway theory” — that cannabis is a gateway drug to heroin — is based on zero research. It’s an abuse of statistics and nothing more. But, when the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics says it, so the public thinks, it must be so! The gateway theory gained traction and acceptance. And, racist bully that he was, Anslinger used the occasion to increase the punishments for drug-related crimes — knowing full well on whose backs these new, even more cruel punishments would fall most: black people and brown people.

Anslinger retired in 1962 — on his 70th birthday. But the racism Anslinger had instilled remained. In the late 1960’s, with American soldiers returning from Vietnam with cannabis in their duffel bags, Richard Nixon declared a “War On Drugs”. Nixon — a drinker — didn’t declare a war on alcohol (though he abused it). He declared a war on everyone else’s medication — marijuana especially.

The War on Drugs was (and remains) a war on People Of Color. When Anslinger went to legislate marijuana prohibition, he bumped into a problem: there’s no constitutional basis for making marijuana illegal. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 does not, in fact, make marijuana illegal (because it couldn’t). Instead, the act imposes a very steep (in fact onerous) tax every time one bought or sold marijuana or hemp. In order to prove you’d paid the tax, you needed a stamp.

Problem was — the stamp was not available. By design. Everyone who bought or sold marijuana (or hemp) would therefore break the rule 1) by not paying the tax (who were you supposed to pay it to anyway?) and 2) by not getting the stamp. The first two arrests for “tax evasion” — occurred within 24 hours of the act’s signing — two men from Denver (Sam Caldwell and Moses Baca) were caught, one for selling, the other for buying. They both went to prison.

Our drug laws are morally wrong because they’ve got nothing to do with drugs — and never ever have.