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Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It
The Absurdity and Hypocrisy of Marijuana Prohibition

By Sahand Rabbani

I RECENTLY ENCOUNTERED an article in Advertising Age that summed up quite nicely one of our society's most pressing problems.

"If Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde were sharing a bong," we are invited to imagine, "the conversation would sound approximately like this:

"Einstein: 'Whoa, man, did you ever really stare at your hand, man?'
"Wilde: 'Did you ever really stare at your man, hand?' (laughs till he chokes).
"Einstein: (also laughing hysterically) 'Epic!'"

"Not that we think one joint is an addictive dose leading immediately to harder drugs and unprotected sex with junkies," the author, Mr. Garfield, says in his defense, "but experience teaches us that dope, at a minimum, makes you stupid."[1]

Perhaps Mr. Garfield would have us resort to opium instead, so that we may produce great works of drama and poetry. Or maybe he just watched one too many movies on the drug-addicted adolescent culture of our decadent era and mistook that ubiquitous frizzy-haired actor-boy for Albert Einstein.

But in all fairness, Mr. Garfield's critique of an advertisement posted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was not based solely on his (slightly anachronistic) reverie of our reputable Mr. Einstein and Mr. Wilde. Indeed, the ad, which featured New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg admitting to having smoked pot, is founded on what Mr. Garfield deems "dubious statistics" backing the ad's statement that "It's NORML to Smoke Pot."

Cheesy? Perhaps. Dubious statistics? Not likely. More than a fourth of all Americans have admitted to using marijuana.[2] But a tagline like that makes you wonder if the folks at NORML were high when they put that one together. Maybe we could seek Mayor Bloomberg's opinion, who might be able to provide some insight into the minds of those who smoke pot--with any luck, something a little more than "Whoa, man, did you ever really stare at your hand, man?"

On second thought, that may not be such a great idea. After all, Bloomberg is more than a little disconcerted and probably not entirely flattered over NORML's decision to feature his face alongside a cartoon dialogue bubble containing the words, "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it." That, of course, is in response to a New York magazine reporter's question along the lines of, "Have you ever smoked marijuana?"

Seeing links to Bloomberg's face all over the reform-oriented web almost makes us forget that Bloomberg promised to crack down on drug use and drug users during his term.[3] (You "enjoyed it," Mr. Bloomberg?) Despite this promise, however, New York's mayor admits that he will respect NORML's right to freedom of speech.

Ah, yes, the First Amendment. Why is it that we always remember the first one? What about the Fourth Amendment ("the right of the people to be secure in their persons")? Or the Ninth ("The enumeration…of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.")? See what happens when we lose track? Our head officials begin to speak of things like freedom of speech as some sort of philanthropic and enlightened permission from their highnesses. It truly is wonderful that Mr. Bloomberg will allow NORML to continue to exercise its freedom of speech. And surely, that he smoked pot maybe once or twice is quite all right. But law forbid that he allow others to do it.

Don't you get it? Here, maybe the epitome of conservatism himself can help us understand: Newt Gingrich admitted to smoking pot, saying that it "was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era."[4] But today, it's entirely out of the question, as Gingrich's accusative statements toward pot-smokers suggest. At the time he did it, it was "illegal," Gingrich admits, but at least it wasn't "immoral."

Epic, man! Maybe too much drug use chipped away at Mr. Gingrich's common sense.

Speaking of legislating morality, aren't we reminded of another disastrous time in this country's history when the government overstepped its bounds? Prohibition of the Twenties. How quickly we forget. In fact, right now would be a great opportunity for one of our many hypocritical pot-smoking politicians (e.g., Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards and, yes, even George W. Bush[5],[6]) to jump in and suggest that maybe if we weren't so busy toking up in the Sixties, we may not be so forgetful.

Let's face it: the reasons offered by modern prohibitionists just aren't relevant anymore; they wither in light of economic sense, medical research, and the basic liberties that are the foundation of this country. So what does the Drug Enforcement Agency do when common sense threatens its existence?


THROW MONEY AT IT. Fight the green with the green. And "if you want to see money thrown at a problem to no good effect," the Economist magazine says, "you need look no further than America's 'war on drugs.'"[7] The infamous "war on drugs" is just that--a war. But, unlike the buzzword suggests, the enemy are not drugs. No, the enemy are the otherwise law abiding citizens of this country.

Four hundred and fifty thousand of the two million prisoners in the United States--nearly twenty-five percent--are in jail for drug offenses. That's a lot of people. That's a lot of money. And we're paying for it. We're paying to ensure that our government can serve and protect us by keeping nonviolent "criminals" off the streets; we're paying, furthermore, to ensure that should our sense of morality and reason abandon us, penal repercussions will be there to save us. Thank you, again, Mr. Bloomberg.

There is no doubt that decriminalization or legalization will save money. Estimates suggest that between the year 1976, when California moderately decriminalized marijuana through the Moscone Act, and the year 1988, the state saved about half a billion dollars in arrest costs alone.[8] The federal government's drug control budget is about eighteen billion dollars annually. Combined with the states' spending, the grand total is up to about thirty-five billion dollars.[9]

But the Drug War isn't just expensive. Statements made by drug czars such as John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, that "the law itself is our safeguard, and it works"[10] are simply not true. Libraries are stacked with volumes discussing why the laws don't work, written by proponents and opponents of legalization alike. For a quick analysis, we can turn to the two primary tests for gauging the success of drug law enforcement: prices and availability. Marijuana prices, for one, have steadily decreased over the past two decades. In terms of availability, surveys show that eighty to ninety percent of high school seniors have ready access to marijuana, a figure that has remained steady for almost three decades.[11]

It is hard to deny, regardless of one's moral stance, that the War on Drugs has failed. Even Mr. Walters, so set on denying the government's failure, cannot help but let the truth slip through sometimes: "In several states," he writes, "marijuana smoking exceeds tobacco smoking among young people." The law works, I see.

It's no wonder that a drug reform coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union and Change the Climate sought an advertising spot in the Washington, D.C. metro for an ad featuring a horde of ordinary people behind bars with the tagline, "Marijuana Laws Waste Billions of Taxpayer Dollars to Lock Up Non-Violent Americans." That in itself is a story worth telling.


ON FEBRUARY 18, 2004, the drug reform coalition consisting of the ACLU and three other organizations filed a law suit against the federal government and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority after the latter denied the coalition an advertising spot. Why? Not because WMATA is against drug reform, but because some eighty-five million dollars of federal funding were at stake if WMATA accepted the ad.

On the grounds of the Istook Amendment, a rider that was attached to a 2004 spending bill, Congress will deny federal funding to transit authorities that offer such advertising spots to posters that call for "the legalization or medical use of any substance listed in Schedule I…of the Controlled Substances Act." That includes marijuana. But the spending bill didn't stop there. It appropriated one hundred forty-five million dollars for the anti-marijuana campaign.[12] This seems like quite a perverse law, especially for a country whose Constitution ensures freedom of speech. So I suppose the First Amendment was more of a guideline. Looks like Congressman Istook was not as nice as Mayor Bloomberg. What was he thinking?

Well, for one, Mr. Istook was a tad bit peeved at the banners on the D.C. metro that read "Enjoy better sex! Legalize and tax marijuana."[13] One theory may suggest that Mr. Istook thought to himself, Why buy out the ad spot when I can just threaten the transit authority with reduced funding? Now the only place we can see that strangely hedonistic advertisement is at the top of our web browsers.

But in all fairness, maybe Mr. Istook had more noble reasons: to keep the nation in the dark, that is. What you don't know can't hurt you, right? Nobody was complaining before we knew where those billions of dollars were going. Director of the ACLU's Drug Litigation Project, Graham Boyd, suggests that "The government does not want the public to know how badly our drug policy has failed, so it is trying to silence Americans who oppose the War on Drugs."[14] At least opponents of legalization can rejoice in that the government has secured a monopoly in one sector for the dissemination of drug-war propaganda.

A short-lived victory it was. Solicitor General Paul Clement of the U.S. Department of Justice, with no "viable argument" to appeal the case initiated by the drug coalition, has effectively struck down the Istook Amendment.[15]

In fact, the government is finding it progressively harder to keep the public ignorant about marijuana and the absurdity of marijuana laws. Reason's own Michael Erard demonstrates that the internet has made it nearly impossible to legally and practically restrict information regarding drugs, how to acquire them, how to smuggle them, how to use them, etc, as evidenced by the DEA's declassification of the hitherto exclusive publication Microgram. What is it? A compilation of law enforcement's findings into something of a drug diary, containing rather creative and surreptitious methods of transporting and selling drugs that the government feared may have inspired more elusive techniques should it have been available to the public. Erard brings this to our "attention because it reflects the government's recognition that their strategy to control drug use by controlling drug information has failed."[16]

Though the war on drugs has not succeeded, it has nonetheless endured, and this has been possible only by the government-ensured ignorance of the populace. Judge James P. Gray observes that "our country's drug policy has three prongs: massive prisons, the demonization of drug users, and a refusal to discuss alternatives." He suggests that "once people understand what is really going on, the position of the drug warriors becomes transparently insupportable."[17]


THE FIRST AMENDMENT violations effected by Istook's rider are not unique. With all said and done, there remains a critical characteristic of marijuana prohibition to which all the other ills seem subordinate: these laws are unconstitutional and completely adverse to our civil liberties. As Nadelmann keenly observes, "Congress keeps forgetting that there is no 'drug exception' to the Constitution."[18] That is to say, it is entirely outside of the federal government's jurisdiction to prohibit the use of drugs. For the prohibition of alcohol, Congress and the state legislatures had to trudge through the intentionally tedious process of amending the Constitution. But when it comes to marijuana, forget the Constitution: a mere statute suffices.

Fear of such abuse was precisely James Madison's purpose in drafting the Ninth Amendment, to protect all those other freedoms not explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights: the right to wear a hat, for example; and, since it is not denied anywhere else in the document, the right to smoke hashish from a bong. Indeed, Madison brought to the Constitution Jefferson's libertarian model of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." How about a poll to see how many people are opposed to that? I'm sure even Walters, the DEA, and our conservative administration could hardly spurn these ideals. So where does Congress derive this authoritarian presumption to punish a harmless user of marijuana? Mr. Walters, care to respond?

Judge Gray would even say that "nothing in the history of the United States of America has eroded the protections of our Bill of Rights nearly as much as our government's War on Drugs."[19] Funny he should say that: our government is eroding our Bill of Rights. What protection do we have? In some states, minimum life prison sentences are mandated for repeated felonies, among which, quizzically, is the simple, harmless possession of marijuana. Mr. Madison is turning over in his grave.

* * *

THE FACT REMAINS THAT the federal government is too inert, too indoctrinated, and has too much invested in its anti-drug policy that it simply does not want to bear the burden of legalizing marijuana. As demonstrated in the Supreme Court case of Ashcroft v. Raich, the central government has not even grown to respect individual states' decisions over intrastate matters (as protected by the Tenth Amendment) over things like legalizing cannabis for medical purposes.

Medical marijuana, an entirely separate issue per se, is one nonetheless worth noting. Research continues to show that marijuana is a versatile drug in its therapeutic applications. In fact, it has shown to be less harmful and less expensive than many legal drugs that marijuana would replace. Some of its known uses, a list that is constantly growing, are for treatment of asthma, glaucoma, depression; use as a painkiller for patients of chemotherapy and those recovering from surgery; and a way to prevent weight loss and nausea in patients suffering from AIDS.[20],[21]

Because of its classification as a Schedule I drug, however, marijuana is especially hard to acquire for research. "Outdated regulations and attitudes," says Scientific American, "thwart legitimate research with marijuana…[resulting in] unintended, almost comic, consequences."[22]

Whether it's medicine, economics, or the desire to retain our civil liberties, reasons for legalization are stronger now than ever, and as information regarding the truth about drugs like marijuana is becoming readily available, opponents will soon have to give in.

It is certainly true that legalization or decriminalization will entail massive reorganization. But it's not as if it hasn't been done. The Netherlands's decision to turn its back to drug use has resulted in significant economic success and social freedom, and still drug abuse is widely ill-regarded there.[23] The United States must follow suit, for in the end, the social and economic benefits of legalization will be immeasurable, and, more importantly, we will have restored that most essential and unalienable freedom that is our right to choose.


[1] Garfield, Bob. "NORML's Bloomberg Ad Drops a Big Smoke Bomb on the Facts." Advertising Age. 15 April 2002. Vol. 73, Issue 15, p45.

[2] Nadelmann, Ethan A. "Common Sense Drug Policy." Foreign Affairs. Vol. 77, No. 1, 1998.

[3] Orecklin, Michele. "And He Inhaled, Too." Time. 22 April 2002. Vol. 159, Issue 16.

[4] "At the Grassroots." Economist. Vol. 336, Issue 7934, p29.

[5] Nadelmann, Ethan A. "An End to Marijuana Prohibition: The Drive to Legalize Picks Up." National Review. 12 July 2004.

[6] "Presidential Candidates Fess Up To Prior Pot Use." NORML. 5 Nov. 2003. hyperlink.

[7] "First, Inhale Deeply." Economist. 2 Sept. 2000. Vol. 356, Issue 8186.

[8] Nadelmann.

[9] MacCoun, Robert J, and Peter Rueter. Drug War Heresies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[10] Walters, John P. "No Surrender: The Drug War Saves Lives." National Review. 27 September 2004.

[11] MacCoun.

[12] Beiser, Vince. "House Kills Pro-Pot Ads." Rolling Stone. 22 Jan. 2004. Issue 940.

[13] Ibid.

[14] "ACLU and Drug Policy Groups Sue Over Censorship of Advertisements Criticizing 'War on Drugs.'" Press release available at hyperlink.

[15] Fields, Gary. "Marijuana Ads Loses Justice Department Support." Cannabis News. 26 Jan. 2005. hyperlink.

[16] Erard, Michael. "Open Secrets." Reason. October 2004. Vol. 36, Issue 5.

[17] Gray, James P. "Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It: A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs." Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

[18] "ACLU and Drug Policy Groups Sue."

[19] Gray.

[20] Grinspoon, Lester. "Cannabis, The Wonder Drug." The Drug Legalization Debate. Ed James A. Inciardi. 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1999.

[21] Earleywine, Mitch. Understanding Marijuana. Oxford: Oxford, 2002.

[22] "Marijuana Research." Scientific American. Dec. 2004. Vol. 291, Issue 6, p8.

[23] Gray.

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