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The cannabis conundrum -- we against us

For decades a vast, uncontrolled experiment has been conducted across America.

Cannabis -- or "marijuana" -- has been used for thousands of years as a medicine and sacrament. Colonial American landholders were required to grow it, mainly for its fiber, used in cordage for sailing ships.

George Washington took it to ease his gout, and Queen Victoria relieved her menstrual cramps with it.

Listed in the official U.S. Pharmacopeia, cannabis was available over-the-counter in neighborhood pharmacies. No epidemic madness resulted.

But by 1933, when the disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition ended, erstwhile federal alcohol warriors faced obsolescence -- until the first Drug Czar, Harry Anslinger, crusaded to keep his job by substituting cannabis prohibition for the alcohol ban.

He didn't indict cannabis on medical grounds -- there wasn't evidence to support that, had he been interested in evidence. Rather, he unapologetically invoked racism. Cannabis was the drug used by black musicians and Mexican laborers to seduce white women, and assault white men. It makes "a peon think he's Emperor of Mexico," he sneered.

In 1937, a federal law placed usurious taxes on cannabis without making it illegal. Pharmacies could still sell off their cannabis stocks, but thereafter could not afford to pay the taxes to replenish their stores.

Subsequently, cannabis was outlawed outright, then designated a "Schedule I drug," in the same totally illegal category as heroin or LSD. Schedule I status asserts a drug has no accepted medical usage, a prohibitive risk of addiction and exceptionally adverse side-effects.

This determination was not based on scientific data; no safety and efficacy studies were conducted. It was the age of "Reefer Madness," as portrayed in the hilariously contrived movie intended to discourage teen use.

By the 1950s, though, cannabis' stigma had been replaced by the glamour of the forbidden. Since the '60s, it has become first a countercultural staple, and then a mainstream source of amusement, gleefully celebrated in the popular media and widely tolerated among the general population.

Today, more than 100 million Americans have used cannabis, and they're all criminals. Your doctor, your lawyer, your banker might never have been able to pursue their constructive careers, had they been caught back in college. Looks bad on one's post-grad application.

Since Nixon declared his "War on Drugs," the war has claimed far more victims than the drugs.

This disastrous and destructive campaign, far more moralistic than informed, continues today. We've spent more than a trillion dollars pursuing it, destroying lives while totally failing to achieve any reasonable reduction in the adverse consequences of drug use.

Legal penalties now constitute the most dangerous side-effect of cannabis use for the great majority of its users.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal use of cannabis. Polls consistently show a majority of 70 percent to 80 percent favoring medical legalization, and now recreational legalization is polling well over 50 percent.

However, despite the Obama administration's disingenuous proclamations the feds will no longer hassle state-legal medicinal cannabis operations, the reality is very different.

Obama has spent $300 million on federal enforcements in states with medicinal cannabis laws, averaging $180,000 a day. In six years he's outspent Bush II by millions.

Despite AG Eric Holder's claim the feds won't target state-legal patients, the real decisions are still left up to any local U.S. Attorneys with a vigilante mindset. Are they mopping up cartels trying to muscle in on medicinal cannabis production? Hardly. Flak-jacketed SWAT teams crash through doors to awaken terrified patients and providers who are fully compliant with state law. The president and AG just ignore routine violations of their ballyhooed directives.

In 2010, police made 853,838 arrests for cannabis-related offenses. Fifty-two percent of all drug arrests are for cannabis, but of these 88 percent were for possession only. (And no, these aren't just big-time traffickers who plea-bargained to a lesser charge.)

The Midwest has the highest rate of cannabis arrests, 63.5 percent of all drug busts.

Since 2000, law enforcement reports an estimated 7.9 million arrests for cannabis violations. Each arrest carries the potential to ruin the victim's life far more than the drug itself would. Beyond the police and court costs to taxpayers, cannabis is a godsend to the prison-industrial complex, which feeds especially on "juvies," the kids who need special confinement away from adults who are actually criminals.

When cannabis is decriminalized, so that those in possession of small amounts might just get a ticket instead of jail, and when medicinal use is legalized, the effect on crime is apparent -- and positive.

After California decriminalized pot in January 2011, possession arrests of juveniles fell by 61 percent -- that's a lot of kids whose future won't be compromised by police records. Most of them won't be compromised by pot itself as their future unfolds -- but some will.

Likewise, a RAND report showed crime dropped by nearly 60 percent in areas with medicinal dispensaries compared to areas in which existing dispensaries had been banned.

The prestigious British Journal of Psychiatry noted, "The available evidence suggests that removal of the prohibition against possession does not increase cannabis use. This prohibition inflicts harms directly and is costly. ... It is difficult to see what society gains."

Cannabis prohibition is even more destructive than alcohol prohibition proved to be. Our current Drug-War mentality is failing our kids and our society.

* Coming up: What are the social, biological and psychological effects of cannabis?

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired

amily physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net