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The War on Drugs: Unhealthy For All Living Things, Part 2

(War on Drugs. . . .)

Demonizing Pot
The real target for the New Prohibition was, of course, the rapidly growing hemp industry. Hemp (or “cannabis” or “marijuana”) is an amazingly versatile plant. Although hemp products (cloth, rope, medicines, oil, etc.) had been used for centuries, commercial processing for paper and plastic was economically un-feasable until the mid ’30s when machinery was invented to process hemp fiber and cellulose. This invention promised to be a revolutionary boon to international agriculture and industry. For example, it was now possible to produce paper of much higher quality and much more cheaply than paper made from wood pulp. If our nation’s inexhaustible appetite for paper was satisfied by a hemp-based industry, the wholesale logging of America’s (and for that matter, the world’s) forests could end.

That was bad news for William Randolf Hearst, the media giant of his day. He owned newspapers across the country and vast tracts of timberland. He didn’t want anything disrupting his vast machinery for personal wealth.

Hearst is best known as the father of “yellow journalism” for his sensationalist and profoundly unscrupulous news repor-ting to enflame public opinion against a host of his favorite evils over the decades. Hearst despised Mexicans, generally characterizing them as lazy stoners. Hearst newspapers smeared Chinese as the “yellow peril.” Jazz music was socially corrosive, and Hearst printed disparaging articles linking it with blacks, marijuana and the cultural low-life.

Hearst couldn’t smear the hemp industry directly, so he targeted “marijuana” for its psychoactive constituents (found in a few of the many varieties of cannabis). In the 1930s, pot was mainly smoked in the South by a handful of Black and Hispanic musicians, mostly to keep them energized during long gigs at low pay. But from Hearst’s newspapers and his connections in Hollywood came a huge nationwide media blitz unleashed to end the “epidemic” of Reefer Madness, (the name of Hearst’s infamous docudrama—now an underground classic, this movie showcases Hearst’s transparent deceit, hypocrisy, and racism). A favorite Hearst-inspired media fable, presented in his tabloid newspapers throughout the country, described Black or Hispanic men under the influence of demon pot seducing or raping white women.

Friends in high office went along for the ride. Cultivation of hemp was outlawed under the cover of purifying the national character through prohibition of marijuana. The result of the 1937 law regulating hemp production? Newsprint produced from wood fiber is still used by an overwhelming majority of newspapers. As many as a hundred acres of trees are used just to produce the Sunday edition of a major daily newspaper. Each weekend.

I was born in 1937, the same year hemp was outlawed. Eight years later, my family was broken-up by the alcohol abuse of my father. From 1968 to 1972, I smoked pot. I know, from very personal experience, about the effects of alcohol abuse and pot use. And now, when I consider that alcohol is not only legal but subsidized in this country, while pot smokers are severely punished and subjected to tortur in U.S. prisons, I cannot put into mere words my feeling of.... disappointment .... in the government.

Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors
1968 is cited by many as the true beginning of the War on Drugs. This was the year The WOD got its name. By that time, the War in Vietnam had so upset American voters that the front-running presidential challenger wanted to steer clear of the issue (apart from announcing he had a “secret plan” to end the war). In a master stroke of Machiavellian machination, this political candidate invented another issue, one so powerful, clever and mean-spirited, it’s still being used today by venal and hypocritical politicians. It was included as a plank of the Republican Party’s platform that year.

To “bring the people together,” this particular plank blurred the distinction between “hard” drugs (cocaine, heroin, etc.) and the less easily abused marijuana.

The political rhetoric that followed linked race riots with anti-war protests and the growing counter-culture. Angry, street-active young Blacks and Hispanics from America’s blighted and intolerable ghettos were linked with the predomi-nantly white, politically-active college students and hippies who opposed the war and the status quo. Thus, America’s problem children were disingenuously lumped together in the hubris of right wing rhetoric. The political effect was to collectively identify a new Public Enemy Number One.

And what national action was called for to deal with this new domestic threat and to heal the nation? Did America need to make equal opportunity for all a reality? How about equal access to justice? Perhaps our nation needed to end its racist, murderous war in Vietnam?

No, proclaimed this candidate, these were not America’s problem! What these dis-respecters of law & order shared in common was drugs! Therefore drugs was America’s problem! The solution was elegantly suited to the agenda of the political right: a “War On Drugs.”

It was, of all places, in front of the Matterhorn (Disneyland, not Switzerland) two months before the 1968 election, that Richard M. Nixon, of all people, began the longest war in United States history.

In the summer of 1968, I was a 31-year-old anti-war activist and editor of the underground newspaper Inferno, in San Antonio, Texas. One hot day, I met with an FBI agent and confessed to smoking pot in order to take potential heat off my housemate and co-editor, Raul Rodriguez. Raul was a sick, elderly “political gadfly,” as local media called him.

“We’re not concerned with marijuana, Tom. We know you’re no threat to national security” said the agent with a chuckle and an expansive wave of his hand, signifying it was a petty issue, as if I was a Little Leaguer admitting to chawing tobacco.

That happened just weeks before I was incarcerated and gang-raped.

Ten years later, in 1978, I obtained my FBI files (with difficulty) under the Freedom of Information Act. I found two 1968 memos that indicate the Bureau’s COINTELPRO may have set me up to be raped in prison because of my activities.