There is a pattern in American history of fear-based, reactionary policy to new drugs entering the culture.
It goes like this: A fraction of the population starts to use the drug. The media hears about it. As comedian Gilbert Gottfried said of the media, “their job is to make a mouse fart sound like it’s a nuclear explosion.” A media frenzy ensues. The new drug makes you dizzy. It makes you see pink elephants. It makes you jump out of windows. It kills you… yeah we forgot to mention that one before, that it kills you– that’s the worst one after all, isn’t it?
The public becomes frightened of the drug, and the government steps in to protect the frightened citizens from themselves.
Such a reaction is a normal part of our lunatic politics that we Americans have come to expect since the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited alcohol in 1919. We could conceivably trace the history of American cultural lunacy all the way back to the Puritans, but I can only go so far down the rabbit hole of those who have gone down rabbit holes.
A scientific approach — a study of the effect a drug has on the mind and body — seems more reasonable than passing laws with great urgency that make it perfectly acceptable for police to drag people from their homes and lock in them in a cage for acquiring and ingesting plant material. Unfortunately, there are various interests who benefit from a nationwide panic about new drugs.
- Media companies. They like to generate fear in the public. When people become afraid, they keep watching and clicking on news stories. I don’t know how you reacted to 9/11, but I watched and read the news non-stop for weeks and weeks. With a bigger audience, advertisements go up in price. It doesn’t matter whether the audience is frightened or informed.
- Law enforcement. It’s in the interest of the DEA (a $2 billion a year agency) to keep drugs illegal. They’ll do whatever they can and release libraries full of propaganda to justify their $2 billion portion of the federal budget.
- Industry. Lobbyists buy politicians and the policy they are paid to vote for. The pharmaceutical, alcohol, and tobacco industries have all lobbied in favor of laws prohibiting substances that they feel would compete for their profits.
A fear based approach is powerful. It can halt drug research for decades, in effect harming millions of people who could have benefited from substances labelled evil by those who stand to gain from their prohibition. In this article, I’ll attempt to demonstrate how using fear in response to drugs harmed the public, and helped the very few who stand to gain from prohibition.
Anyone who has been curious at all about the history of marijuana knows that the plant has been used by people for thousands of years, and its ingestion has caused not one person to ever keel over and take a dirt nap. All the information about marijuana’s relative safety as compared to legal recreational drugs is widely available at this point, and most Americans think its status as a Schedule I drug is absolutely ridiculous, including the people paid to enforce the law.
Yet we have just last year passed the 80th anniversary of marijuana prohibition, conceived by Harry Anslinger, a racist lunatic cop hell-bent on justifying his post-Alcohol Prohibition position as Head Buzzkill. He concocted nutty, cartoonish stories about the harmful effects of “marihuana”, culminating in one of most unintentionally funny propaganda films of all time, 1936’s Reefer Madness.
This was despite the fact that (1) “cannabis was widely utilized as a patent medicine during the 19th and early 20th centuries, described in the United States Pharmacopoeia for the first time in 1850” and (2) Anslinger knew damn well he was lying to the public. “Anslinger had claimed that cannabis was not a problem, did not harm people, and ‘there is no more absurd fallacy’ than the idea it makes people violent.”
So if we go with our 3 point model from above:
- The media in the mid 30s ran with Reefer Madness stories of teenagers’ feet falling off after a pot party, just before they all had a murder orgy. Sensationalism to keep the newspapers flying off the stands.
- Anslinger got to justify his job as commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, as well as all the people who worked below him, and those who came after him who would have federal careers locking people up for wicked substances.
- Jack Herer, who wrote the marijuana activists’ bible The Emperor Wears No Clothes argued that the Duponts and William Randolph Hearst conspired to make hemp illegal. This analysis is considered far fetched and dubious, despite the fact that Herer was respected as a major influence in marijuana legalization activism. However we can just look to the modern day to see industries lobbying against marijuana legalization include the pharmaceutical industry, the booze industry, and police unions.
Thus all cannabis research was halted, and we had to wait a human lifetime of middle America believing propaganda before it would be accepted as a beneficial substance. Now it’s only a matter of time before the federal government admits how silly it has been and decriminalizes the drug nationwide.
Discovery of Psychedelics to the Declaration of the War on Drugs
LSD was kept in labs for a while after Albert Hoffman found out the 25th inception of the stuff could get you blitzed when he accidentally ingested some in 1943. Then in 1953 the CIA got hold of LSD to see if it could be used as a truth serum on enemy POWs. This creepy top secret study was called MK-ULTRA.
Meanwhile an ethnomycologist named R. Gordon Wasson was traveling in the mountains of Oaxaca Mexico where he met Maria Sabina, a shaman who combined her ancient Mazatec tradition with Catholicism. She used magic mushrooms, poetic chanting, and ritual to heal those who came to her with ailments.
Throughout the 1950s, LSD, mushrooms, and other psychedelics such as mescaline were used in legitimate psychological research. For a moment it seemed as though these drugs, if used properly, could help to treat or heal depression and anxiety.
Psychedelics were introduced by academia to popular culture in the early 1960s, when two Harvard nutcases named Timothy Leary and Richard Albert started dosing their students with LSD. This was frowned upon by their colleagues, who eventually booted them off the ivory tower. But not before media attention transformed these two profs into celebrities, who significantly influenced the formation of a counter-culture.
After psychedelics began to be used recreationally, applying Anslinger’s reactionary, fear-based model was quite easy, since the stuff can be quite harmful if misused, overused, or used by people who have a history of mental illness.
Once again anti-drug lunacy was employed as a powerful propaganda tool. Nixon came up with the War on Drugs as a bigger budget sequel to Reefer Madness and went about using drugs as an excuse to throw black folks who had been struggling for civil rights, and even some white folks who exhibited commie anti-war tendencies into prison. More wild, exaggerated stories about stoned-out hippies ran in a loop on the nightly news. Art Linkletter’s daughter committed suicide by leaping from a window, and this was subsequently blamed, even by poor old Art himself, on LSD, even though there was no indication she was on acid at the time of her death.
Thus all hope for the beneficial or spiritual application of psychedelics was dashed for decades.
Who benefits this time?
- The media. The media continues to this day to get mileage off of the hippie thing. Those nutty boomers sure had fun with their acid didn’t they?
- Any time there’s a new law prohibiting something that people want, it’s a win for law enforcement.
- At the time LSD and other psychedelics were made illegal, Nixon was hatching his War on Drugs in order to shut down popular opposition to real wars in Southeast Asia. This not only protected centers of power and industries within government that suck billions from the tax system, but created new ones – like the DEA in particular- and inflated the power of law enforcement agencies by giving them yet another reason (on top of marijuana) to arrest politically active Americans.
In Maria Sabina Her Life and Chants, by Alvaro Estrada, Sabina is quoted explaining that the misuse of mushrooms diminished their effectiveness. Perhaps this can serve as a metaphor for the way drugs are misused by not only abusers, but those who prohibit careful scientific research of any drug:
For a time there came young people of one and the other sex, long-haired, with strange clothes. They wore shirts of many colors and used necklaces. A lot came. Some of these young people sought me out for me to stay up with the ‘Little One Who Springs Forth.’ ‘We come in search of God,’ they said. It was difficult for me to explain to them that the vigils weren’t done from the simple desire to find God, but were done with the sole purpose of curing the sicknesses that our people suffer from. Later I found out that the young people with long hair didn’t need me to eat the ‘little things.’ Fellow Mazatecs weren’t lacking who, to get a few centavos for food, sold the saint children to the young people. In their turn, the young people ate them wherever they liked: it was the same to them if they chewed them up seated in the shade of a coffee tree or on a cliff along some trail in the woods.”
Before Wasson, I felt that the saint children elevated me. I don’t feel like that anymore. The force has diminished. If the foreigners had not come, the ‘saint children’ would have kept their power.
With changing attitudes toward drugs, psychedelics are once again being studied for their beneficial effects. “Microdosing” has become popular to increase overall well-being and as an aid for enduring the drudgery of the workday. Because of fear of the unknown, we have no idea how many millions of people could have benefited by a rational scientific approach to psychedelics.
With kratom, questions need to be explored. How safe is it and at what level should one combine it with other drugs? Is it habit forming? A rational approach to this relatively new drug being introduced into American society would be to have scientists and other qualified professionals explore these questions. Instead, we are having various financial and governmental interests decide the future of kratom.
In the past few months we have been subjected to goofy, unsubstantiated propaganda by the FDA and state-level agencies releasing reports on kratom as bizarre as Reefer Madness. FDA statements on kratom were totally deconstructed by Jane Babin in her report “FDA Fails to Follow the Science on Kratom.” She exposes the FDA’s handling of kratom to be deliberately unscientific and political.
FDA abrogates its responsibilities when selectively choosing which evidence it will or will not accept. As such, the burden is on FDA to demonstrate through credible evidence that uncontaminated and unadulterated whole leaf kratom is a dangerous substance—a claim currently made without scientific integrity.The FDA has relied on a strategy of manipulating, obscuring, and ignoring science in its inexplicable zeal to impede public access to the natural botanical kratom.
The Ohio Board of Pharmacy’s recent report on kratom was also a knee-slapper, insisting that shooting kratom from a syringe into a vein not only happened more than once, but was the MOST common way to ingest the drug in the Buckeye State. Any rational observer can conclude a claim like this comes from just two possible authors 1) an idiot, or 2) a liar.
So now we have present-day examples that fit neatly into our historical American drug-frenzy model:
- Once a media company gets the authoritative claim of the FDA that this is a killer drug, they’ll go about trying to scare as many parents as possible.
2. Narcotics law enforcement agencies such as the DEA get another a justification to exist, especially since marijuana prohibition is dissolving
3. We can easily observe the revolving doors FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has been through between pharmaceutical companies and his current position without getting into conspiracy. We can observe that the same industry that profited from the opiate epidemic is now profiting from addiction treatment medication, like Suboxone. One doesn’t need to delve into dark conspiracy theory when what is happening in broad daylight is much more criminal.
However, there’s hope this time. We have a public that is much more aware than in the past of how nonsensical, insane, and expensive the War on Drugs has been since its inception. A majority of Americans understand that we live in a rigged system where policy is bought and established for the interests of the few. Americans understand that healthcare as a for-profit system has no interest in allowing inexpensive treatment for numerous common ailments.
Americans are very politically agitated. So much so that the DEA reversed its policy on kratom in 2016. The people are determined not to repeat a failed history of fear and prohibition, and to welcome a more enlightened future of research and policy that heals rather than harms society.