By John Entwistle & Dennis Peron
Medical marijuana was the new face of the evil weed when we wrote the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. It was new to a nation under the influence of a 60 year long reefer madness campaign. It was new to all but the very old. The rest of us were too young to know that from the time before the pyramids right up until 1937 cannabis was medicine. It was new because it was outside our experience of modern drugs keeping us healthy. So we thought it was brand new and what came before – the so called recreational use of pot – was old.
Back then most folks figured recreational pot meant everyone and medical was just for sick and dying people. In other words we were talking about two different groups of users, a few medicating and the majority “getting high.” And most of us would still identify with the latter category if the alternative meant copping to some socially demeaning vulnerability such as illness or even the most minor disability.
Therein lays the misdirection, our fixation on the chimera of recreational pot. That we see two groups instead of one sets us up to be manipulated by those wizards of prohibition. The illusion exploits human ego and misconceptions about cannabis, in particular the trivialization of its many therapeutic applications so nicely accomplished today.
So when the magician asks us to choose between medical and recreational reasons to explain our personal use of marijuana we will pick the answer that saves face. We’ll claim perfect health saying that we toke up for the buzz or some such nonsense. And so we are manipulated into accepting a binary scenario in which we can only see ourselves as non-medical users. It’s a powerful spell. We’ll insist that we’re just getting stoned a hundred times over. Eventually we will believe it. And so will everyone else.
Thus set up we will never ask the revealing question. Is medical pot really new or is recreational use just a slanderous short term memory that should be lost ASAP? The history of the world indisputably backs this second point but the entire experience of our short lives sets us up to think that medical marijuana is a new idea. This mother of all working memory limits is as effective as a blindfold.
As best as anyone can remember, prior to the AIDS epidemic pot was a recreational drug used by people who used superlatives describing the so called “high”; it was illegal and getting caught was bad. To buy marijuana you had to know a criminal and it was more expensive than gold.
Cannabis users lived semi-underground in a world where lying was commonplace. Our collective identity was violently imposed on us through decades of media stereotyping alongside mass arrests to the tune of a half million of us (now closer to 800,000) per year. Many have been arrested multiple times for nothing more than marijuana.
Misunderstood is putting it mildly. As “Potheads” we were broadly regarded as disrespectful of authority, even a bit masochistic for choosing not to get with the program and quit. It was hard not to buy into it; hell, it was futile to argue – we’d just dig the hole deeper. To the extent that we fought at all for our civil rights our banner read: Recreational use. No one, including ourselves had any idea of what the hell that slogan meant (although it did have a nice ring to it). And so we would lose in the poles, the elections and in the courtroom.
As so called recreational users we were marginalized, even by ourselves. This allowed for victimization, disenfranchisement and discrimination to occur uncontested in ten thousand ways. We were thrown out of schools, jobs and even our biological families. In hind sight, it was a failure to communicate. We didn’t really know who we were so we couldn’t find common ground with the greater society. This deplorable situation could have gone on forever had it not been for the AIDS epidemic coming out of nowhere during the early 1980’s. That’s when everything changed.
AIDS killed the appetite for reasons unknown. It left the body vulnerable to diseases that required massive doses of stomach wrenching medications. The early years of the epidemic were a combination of mind numbingly painful images soaked in an atmosphere of frustration. Guys were wasting to death with purple skin cancer lesions, flat hard circles of fungus type growths consuming their bodies eventually “going internal” through the mouth or nose. For several long years there was no treatment whatsoever, no cure, no explanations, no nothing. Many died, slowly in great pain. They exist now as memories in the minds of their surviving friends.
That’s when we found out that marijuana is one of the most powerful wonderful medicines there ever was. The munchies were a medical miracle. In fact, during those dark years cannabis was the safest and most commonly used medication for AIDS patients. As it turned out, the doctors had fancy words for all the qualities we used to joke about when we were just “getting high.” It eased nausea, reduced pressure in glaucoma patients’ eyes, and its qualities as a euphoria promoting agent could bring laughter to the dying. Those diagnosed with cancer were the next obvious demographic to jump on the bandwagon followed closely by glaucoma and multiple sclerosis patients. When the alcoholics and the people in treatment for mental health issues started talking to their doctors the truth was revealed: all use is medical.
So the AIDS epidemic opened our eyes to the truth about cannabis. We finally put the confused rhetoric behind us telling the world who we were and what we wanted in clear precise language. That was the origin of the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 and when 5 ½ million Californians (56%) voted it into law we figured federal rescheduling would be right around the corner. That was 18 years ago. What went wrong?
Curiously, we are seeing a high powered revival of those same clichés and stereotypes that enabled President Nixon to say pot is not a medicine when he put it on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act where it remains to this day. Millions of dollars per year are now being spent through public relations and legal professionals to convince America that cannabis is not a medicine but a “recreational drug” being used for trivial reasons. In some states we’re legislating this point of view.
Ironically this successful ongoing effort to misdirect America’s attention away from rescheduling is being marketed as an effort to” legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.” And that sophisticated little twist of phrase is the magical incantation that stops rescheduling cold in its tracks while disguising that malicious genie of prohibition in such innocuous terms as “regulate, control and tax.” The new narrative, an inexhaustible source of confusion, claims “limited medical use” was just a stepping stone to “widespread recreational use.”
What does this new direction mean to a cancer patient entering chemotherapy or alcoholic using cannabis as an alternative to drinking? It means they are going to be a big herd of cash cows. And if they break any of the restrictions designed to keep the price of their medicine high, then they get treated like criminals. Since that is the outcome we are trying to put behind us it is hard not to see this as a U-turn returning us to a very dark place in recent history.
Are we really going to force seniors treating glaucoma to lie, to have to claim to be recreating when they use cannabis? Are we going to smash their doors down and point loaded guns at their heads if they have too much? Yes we certainly will, we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.
Thus when the smoke clears we see that so called legalization maintains many key problems of prohibition. First we rebrand cannabis as “anything but medicine.” Then we control, regulate and tax it keeping the price high, the black market thriving and the prisons full. Instead of rescheduling the federal government just suspends enforcement of a few laws on a temporary state by state negotiated basis. Abracadabra! Marijuana stays on Schedule I, right where President Nixon categorized it in 1972.
So here we are today, arrested in a state of empty verbiage. I call it magic and misdirection but Noam Chomsky calls it manufacturing consent. Edward Bernays called it propaganda before rebranding it public relations after Hitler and Goebbels gave the trick such a bad name. Call it what you will but this is why the public is no longer even demanding rescheduling of cannabis and that is not only unfortunate, it is also by design.