- Ten U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana; more are likely to join them soon. That’s up from zero just 25 years ago. Today one of America’s leading marijuana journalists joins The Masthead to recap the changes throughout the years.
- As part of our series The Present Past, The Masthead invited Alyson Martin of Cannabis Wire to read a seminal work from The Atlantic’s archives: Eric Schlosser’s “Reefer Madness,” from 1994.
- Listen to an interview with Martin that accompanies this article. The audio is available on SoundCloud and in your members-only podcast feed. Here’s how to access it via your podcast player of choice.
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Why the Marijuana Story Is as Urgent as Ever
By Matt Peterson
A quick visit to my local coffee shop in Brooklyn shows how rapidly the legal and social circumstances of marijuana in America are changing. For $4, a shot of cannabidiol can be added to any drink. The cannabis-derived substance, known as CBD, doesn’t cause a high and provides some health benefits. While the Drug Enforcement Agency still prohibits CBD, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved one drug containing it. Meanwhile, marijuana itself remains a Schedule I substance, meaning it is strictly banned. Federal law, in other words, is a tangled mess.
“In early 2019, both everything has changed and nothing has changed at the same time,” Alyson Martin, the editor and a co-founder of the news organization Cannabis Wire, told me. Martin recently sat down with The Masthead to revisit a classic of marijuana journalism: Eric Schlosser’s “Reefer Madness,” published by The Atlantic in 1994. Schlosser’s story was about the grave injustices that came from America’s overzealous drug war. “How does a society come to punish a person more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing someone with a gun?” he asked. That question remains urgent 25 years later, Martin said. But “the story has shifted in the last few years,” she said. It “has gotten a lot bigger, and frankly, I think it's [gotten] a lot more complicated.”
Here are three big turns in that story; for more, listen to my full conversation with Martin.
1. Moral panic casts a long shadow. In the 1960s and ’70s, some liberals equated marijuana usage with freedom. “Conservative parents’ groups took such words to heart and similarly invested marijuana with great meaning,” Schlosser wrote; for them, marijuana use implied licentiousness. Congress and many states enacted harsh punishments for involvement in marijuana-related crimes, and the anti-marijuana movement left many otherwise unremarkable people with long prison sentences. But marijuana remained America’s most popular illegal drug even in the 1990s, after laws were tightened, as Schlosser reported. Now two-thirds of Americans favor legalization.
The years since Schlosser’s piece show the difficulty of unraveling what Martin called the “synergistic effect” of marijuana crimes in the legal system. Leaders from both of America’s two major parties have attempted to revisit Ronald Reagan–era policies. Barack Obama used his constitutional powers to issue clemency to more than 1,700 federal inmates. But as Cannabis Wire reported, the reprieves program turned into a de facto lottery when left to the discretion of national policy makers; some “lucky” prisoners got executive relief while the vast majority didn’t. Meanwhile, the system of federal laws largely remains the way it has been for years. In December, the lame-duck Congress passed a modest criminal-justice-reform package with bipartisan support, but that bill “came together only amid a rare alignment of conditions, structural and political,” The Atlantic reported. Martin estimates that dozens of people remain in prison on life sentences—and vastly more on lesser charges—related to marijuana long after most Americans have moved on from the moral crusade against the drug.
2. Marijuana is now a big, bipartisan business. By the mid-1990s, marijuana was already America’s largest cash crop, although it remained illegal. For a sign of how much the industry has changed since then, Martin said to look to Washington, D.C. Among marijuana lobbyists, cannabis companies now spend twice as much as policy organizations, according to Cannabis Wire’s reporting. In 2018, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, joined former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, a Democrat, on the board of Acreage Holdings, a cannabis firm. Businesses are new constituencies to the political coalition pushing for legal change. “I think it'll be very difficult to turn back the clock at this point, because of how big the business has gotten,” Martin said.
The keen interest from business groups illustrates the risk that the policy pendulum could swing too far toward liberalization. In his 1994 story, Schlosser interviewed the drug-policy scholar Mark A. R. Kleiman, who pointed to the vast expenditure of government resources on prohibition of marijuana. Last year, Kleiman told The Atlantic that unregulated legalization posed a public-health risk: “It wasn’t obvious to me 25 years ago, when 9 percent of self-reported cannabis users over the last month reported daily or near-daily use. I always was prepared to say, ‘No, it’s not a very abusable drug. Nine percent of anybody will do something stupid.’ But that number is now [something like] 40 percent.” Like alcohol and tobacco, marijuana companies have financial incentives for exploiting people who abuse their products. States that moved quickly to legalize the drug have sometimes found themselves looking back and saying, “Damn, we should have done a little bit of a better job,” Martin said. Lax regulation in Oregon, for instance, led to ecological problems
3. The racial history of prohibition hasn’t been expunged. Both the term marijuana and the prohibition of the plant it describes have racist histories. In the early-20th century, Schlosser recounted, “rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American schoolchildren,” leading to bans. There’s reason to believe that particular weed might not have actually been what is known today as marijuana, but the nexus between immigration, race, and drugs still exists. “Cannabis itself has been demonized in part because of what it was attached to or who is attached to,” Martin said. “When we were going over what to name Cannabis Wire and what word we were going to primarily use, we wrestled a lot with whether we were going to use marijuana or cannabis.” Cannabis won out because it is the preferred term in the scientific and medical communities, even though marijuana is more commonly used.
The checkered history of the marijuana prohibition is a less popular talking point among political reformers than “pot for potholes.” But according to the ACLU, enforcement of existing marijuana laws still overwhelmingly penalizes black Americans more than whites. Donald Trump launched his campaign in 2015 with the lie that Mexicans were bringing drugs and crime to the United States, and it wouldn’t surprise Martin to see Trump tie legalization to immigration. But so far his policies haven’t consistently matched his anti-immigrant rhetoric. His first attorney general rolled back some Obama-era criminal-justice reforms. But Trump also signed a bill legalizing hemp. “I think that cannabis could be federally legalized on a whim,” Martin said. Or Trump could go on the attack. “We’re, I think, at an intersection where we could go one of two paths as a country,” she added.
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