Used As Directed

Posted by: – Apr 16, 2009


Because it’s not that they don’t get it; it’s that they are taking advantage of you.

And there I was in 2003, crouched on a toilet seat with a book on my knees. Inside the prescription stimulant Concerta were green and beige halves. Carefully holding an X-Acto knife between my fingers, I stripped away the sides of the capsule before splitting it in two. It was the only way I felt like I could complete the next day’s assignment, an article about a flight of an authentic Wright brothers rebuild that was to be tried at Kitty Hawk that December on the 100th Anniversary of the event.

The feeling of being absolutely awake gives that sensation that surely comforted Robert Louis Stephenson on the fatiguing six-day run of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I reached for a five-dollar bill, put it to my nose and raked the contents into a line before sniffing them into my sinuses. Cakelike, acrid in the back of my throat, I even began slightly dozing off before becoming aloof and monofocused on even the most particular of things. I stayed up to the earliest hours of the morning when the assignment was due, only commencing work in the final hours of the morning. It was a sense that I probably could have gotten just taking the stuff orally. It was then, at that early age that I learned that the line between the marketing of psychoactive substances defined whether they were worth a venture for law enforcement.      

Just as cementing collective identity demands the exploitation of an Orwellian enemy figure head like Osama Bin Laden, in the twentieth century, drug codes began to flourish for the first time in western civilization with the great cementing of modern national identities. Although dramatically more dangerous in potential and practice than most illegal drugs, the masses permit tobacco because someone under its influence is not likely to take on a perspective different than their own due to substance alteration. Throwing people in jail for drug use was never accurately intended to save lives; it was intended to maintain societal cohesion. The heaving masses yearn for the security and illusion of a common frame of reference.       

On the date of this writing, the stun has worn off from the president’s March 26 “Open For Questions” session, which was particularly saddening because the whole thing was made to look as if a product of the president’s own spontaneity, Obama’s supposed thoughtfulness notably absent. During the previous month, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that the raids on medical marijuana facilities in California would not continue. Just as the sodomy-endorsing Lawrence v. Texas invited the first big recent flare-up of the gay marriage issue in 2004, Mr. Obama’s seemingly fulfilled campaign promise to hold off the raids excited and inspired the public, suddenly curious about whether their new president would help end the pointless criminalization of marijuana. During the morning before Obama held the press conference, Jose Antonio Vargas, author of the blog Clickocracy, was really missing the boat about the prevalence of cannabis-legalization related questions in the forefront of the web-submitted inquiries. In reference to all of the top questions that came in, many of them submitted under the category “green jobs,” he wrote, “The top vote-getters aren’t strictly about the ongoing economic crisis.” How arbitrarily jailing otherwise productive people and continuing to criminalize the largest cash crop might be compromising the gross domestic product was beyond him!      

To be precise, the top vote-getter for the conference was “"With over 1 out of 30 Americans controlled by the penal system, why not legalize, control and tax marijuana to change the failed war on drugs into a money making, money saving boost to the economy?” Seven thousand nine hundred twenty-four people, roughly 8.5 percent of the total participants – all of them willing to divulge at least a plausible claim to an IP address – were willing to agree this was a question worth asking. Now, famously, Obama joked, “I don’t know what this says about the online audience” before ignorantly saying, “No, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”       

Shifting the blame awkwardly to an insinuation about the sloth of Internet users, he immediately cast aspersions on the desires of 40 percent of Americans for legalization, according to the recent results of a Rasmussen poll. Obama was willing to conclude that those tens of thousands of incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders could not do something more useful on the outside while smoking or even distributing marijuana.       

Marijuana criminalization has inspired a whole array of posturing, from the well-meaning suckers to the St. Augustines of the drug war, desiring with respect to their youths “continence, but not yet!” As Mitt Romney would say to the press and George W. Bush admit only in a covertly taped phone call, being dishonest with curious youth can be a strategy for inspiring good behavior all from a fabrication of the role model. The philosophy espoused by anti-drug ad after anti-drug ad is that parents should attempt to raise the level of discourse about public health through dishonesty. It strikes me that this is why HIV has done so well. To those cheering that your president will now admit to having inhaled weed smoke, I congratulate you on having fully embraced your Stockholm syndrome!      

And thus the somewhat religious overtones that overcome the whole debate about cannabis legalization come into play, particularly Sam Harris’ disturbing allegation in The End of Faith that the drug war is largely a product of a suspicion that somewhere an anthropomorphized divine figure was placing judgment on one’s state of mind. It’s easy to imagine that marijuana, in the sense that it distorts perception of the passage of time, would seem to have violated the security of one dominion. All over the globe, fundamentalists’ opposition to imbibing is perhaps analogous to the dominating, surefire role of a supreme being over their consciousness and, unfortunately by extension, everybody else’s.      

A feeling of ironic, depressing serendipity swarmed over me on Friday, March 20th when I heard anchor Bill Hemmer’s voice ready to read of the headlines for the day on the Fox News Channel. At that moment, Mr. Hemmer said something very apropos about Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man to whom he referred as an “American original . . . like Levi Jeans.”       

And it struck me that Bill had never said something so true, especially without realizing it. Suddenly, I realized a vast gulf in perspective between me and the spunky morning anchor addressing his Middle American Wal-Mart-shopping, gold-collecting audience. Levi Strauss’s original jeans were made from hemp, at a long time before the industrial production was extinguished in the States out of fear by a bunch of poorly-crafted propaganda of such vast inaccuracy that today even the straight-edger fires root beer out of its noses laughing at it. (Intriguingly, it also turns out that Strauss was an immigrant, but that’s ironic for a whole other set of reasons.)      

Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, runs a crowded tent city/jail in the Arizona desert where the top bunks can reach a temperature of 150 degrees. The institute is full of some who do seem to have an awful hankering for some of that crystal meth. At one point in an interview from the Showtime documentary American Drug War: The Last White Hope, Mr. Arpaio can be seen holding a humiliating postcard to be used by an inmate. The photo on its surface was a disturbing, proud testimony that the police dogs, unlike the inmates, got to sleep indoors and in air conditioning. Well, like it would make sense civil rights groups like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union have put the sheriff on their crazy lists.       

Mr. Arpaio likes drugs illegal and actively implements battle language in his opinions about stopping others from using and selling them. He very much buys into the process of fixing a mass health problem using guns and prisons; he’s someone with a narrow view of the solution: violent altercation, not advocacy, operating detox centers or even the public provision of clean needles. It’s not that imprisoning people who grow pot for the same lengths of time as people who make child pornography is not a form of “regulation”; it’s just that it’s the caveman’s club-and-drag approach. It’s cruel, stupid and only invites cops to act on their own basest predilections, such as greed and racism for example.      

However, in the face of some of the – if you would believe it – even crazier, Mr. Arpaio does relegate the acceptable use of marijuana to the deathly ill in order to relieve the suffering of a terminal patient burning out. Undoubtedly, the Mexican nationals in his prison (he’s a staunch opponent of the “send them back” rhetoric) are often there for transporting large amounts of cannabis. As high-powered weapons flow out of the country in exchange for a mainline of tons and tons of cannabis and heroin, and a multitude are kidnapped or arrested every day in this war, the sad reality of the effect, if not intent, of this entire conflict is that it is one of controlling who profits, not the inevitability of humanity’s chase for altered consciousness. The day that authorities can finally face up to harm reduction strategies will be the days that all of the cartels go broke and kill each other for good. Dr. Miron says, “If you look at the kinds of violent acts that are occurring in, say, Mexico or in inner cities or elsewhere, it’s just obvious in the circumstances that in many cases it’s one trafficker shooting another or one trafficker shooting the police who are trying to interfere with their traffickers’ activities. So as a matter of empirics again, the data would suggest that it’s drug prohibition-related violence, not drug use-caused violence.” He maintains that “prohibition drives markets underground so disagreements cannot be solved with courts and lawyers.”      

In American Drug War, it is with no small piece of triumph in his voice that Sheriff Arpaio sees a bragging point is claiming that no one is in his tent city for something as small as two joints. Joe Arpaio speaks just like Ronald Reagan did about not waving the “surrender flag” (as Ron would say). He, in his own words, called legalization “defeatist”. However, he says that the terminally ill should be allowed to smoke pot, apparently an adherent to the notion that kept Terri Schiavo’s pulmonary system going through the motions for so long: that a life lived best is necessarily “lived” as long as possible.       

What would waving the surrender flag mean when it comes to legalizing drugs? Dr. Miron says that, with regard to a realistic expectation of increased use, “responsible evidence suggests that we’re talking about 10 or 20 or 30 percent increase and maybe smaller than that.       

“It also depends what kind of increase occurs. If it’s more people who use marijuana or other drugs in moderation and use them responsibly, then it’s really hard to see why anyone should care about that. If it were more people who were misusing or driving under the influence, who were suffering extreme, you know, negative health effects from addiction, from the side effects of addiction, then, you know, there would be more of a reason for concern. But my hunch is that more of the people who are likely to be using responsibly are the ones who are already using.”      

By the time George Mason University Associate Dean of Students, Pam Patterson banned me from the university’s dorms for a semester, I had already made it onto the Dean’s List with a 4.0. “No amount of marijuana is trivial,” she said, directly citing the policies of former Virginia Republican Governor Jim Gilmore as having mandated that she remove me from the dorm for marijuana; unironically, even though I was absurdly intoxicated on Milwaukee’s Best at the northern Virginia commuter school, possession of a substance that would less compromise my likelihood of inadvertently harming other people was the reason for my banning. Had it just been The Beast, I would have been back the next semester killing brain cells with the rest of them. In another victory for stupidity, Ms. Patterson has of course recently been promoted to dean of students. I have experienced the danger that Jimmy Carter warned us lest the “[p]enalties against drug use . . . be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”       

The president’s reply to the pot question was the moment when all of language of the antagonists to the drug war jumped shark. While no Marion Berry, Obama had of course admitted to having used cocaine, the entire teenage period apparently excusable in rhetoric due to an intervening conversion period. It was the same dynamic that allowed President Bush to cast off the shackles of being one of the few drug users who happened to accomplish little to nothing.       

In The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman narrates a brutal description of some poor sod’s first night in prison: the agony laying its icy hands upon the incarcerated, the memory instantly resetting into sorrow upon the moment of reawakening. Having doubled over the past 25 years, the number of Americans in jail or on probation has risen to the depressing level of one out of 31 American adults.       

As if from my the back roads of my mind, I see my hands ahead of me as if in a freeze frame of the Macarena, a piece of paper on top of them, the accredited establishment psychiatrist attempting to gauge the effects of prescribed amphetamines on my body, examining the subtle tremors of my hands. Before I had ever entered the room, before a serious conversation with me had ever taken place, the decision was made; the older people had decided that I needed speed, except it was the kind that gets marketed on pens and stationary with colorful cartoons. The funny line between “drugs” and “medicine”: pontificated upon in medical school lecture halls and pharmaceutical company boardrooms.       

From time to time, I reminisce about being back in grade school again, managing (gee whiz, somehow) to listen to our D.A.R.E. instructor express to us in the most duplicitous terms how she did not dare let ethyl alcohol touch her lips until she reached the age of 21 – that fascinating, arbitrary age at which deluded suckers imagine a fulcrum. It is a temporal Valhalla where in the most perfect of unions we might ostensibly unleash our oat-sowing youth like an urban canine desperate for the chance to stretch his legs upon seeing an open prairie.       

The implication here is that Europe is decadent, willing too early in life to sacrifice the understanding of freshness. Note here that the proposition was never in reality sheltering youth from the toxic, the saturated fats, the processed and refined sugars that sent childhood obesity and diabetes spiraling skyward. No, the interest was in understanding that mind of youth from later in the decay rate. 



Kellogg’s, a company that shovels who knows how much trash into the collective, quivering pancreas of the fattest nation on earth, found its reputation crashing downward in mid-winter. World-record shattering American Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps had been more than able to accrue their lucrative endorsement deal following a drunk-driving charge years prior, but once that photo of him toking surfaced in the mass media, Kellogg’s took away his sponsorships.      

And indeed the habits of the policemen I encountered in college were rational only insofar that they benefitted the cops. Drunk on cheap beer, it is difficult to know whether I had given myself away in retrospect, but I remember the policeman attempting to give it to me straight: allow him to search my government subsidized flat at George Mason University or he would take me to jail. It was a bluff, of course. I was too young and dumb to know to play dumb, but I guess that was the purpose D.A.R.E. served. In the moment in which the pig grilled me, the work booklet’s scenario training for if someone tries to sell you E on a playground was not paying dividends. A friend recently told me the story of a cop stopping him for a traffic violation, grabbing a bag of grass from his car and saying “Thank you” as he ran off. 

Years after George Mason, though, at the age of 22, I would be at a house party where VCU Police officers had pried an apartment door open with a nightstick on one of the slum blocks just north of the university’s Monroe Park Campus. The measure was a passive-aggressive stroll along a fine legal line where they could pretend that the door had been opened for them. When that 20-something cop is “selling tickets” to some 19-year-old with a case of Yuengling, it begs the question of him if he remembers that day long before he felt it was either the force or the Guard, when he was himself that young, and truly loved modulating his mind’s functions to amuse himself? Eventually, the VCU Police’s war on youth came to an unironic turn late last winter when the police chief who had overseen the raid was busted by Chesterfield County police for posing as a man twenty years younger and attempting to get genitalia pictures from an undercover posing as a 14 year-old. Ted Haggard-sized hypocrites like Chief Fuller are the bread and butter of the drug warrior breakfast table.      

Mason Tvert, a SAFER activist, is a man who successfully headed a 2005 referendum in Phoenix to make the penalties for marijuana no greater than the penalties for the use and possession of alcohol. When I told him I was writing this article, he had this to say to me: “Once enough of the public learns and accepts the fact that marijuana is far safer than alcohol – not only to those who use it, but to society in general – its support for marijuana prohibition will crumble.” As admirable as the man is, all these arguments, even Tvert’s silver bullet of the alcohol-tobacco inconsistency, are a distraction. They are a distraction much in the same way that the waterboarding argument was a distraction from the larger problem that the intelligence community was rendering people into the hands of Moroccans ready to go to town on a penis with a scalpel.       

Dr. Miron’s argues that while most of the forces for legalization have come from the liberal block, many forces on the left and in the Democratic Party have compromised legalization efforts overall. “The liberals are like ‘Marijuana should be legal, but, oh, tobacco’s evil. Maybe we should prohibit that,’” says the professor. “And I don’t think that’s a consistent, thoughtful case.” Why marijuana is legal and tobacco and alcohol are not treated similarly Dr. Miron chalks up to a matter of “historical accident and prejudice.”       

In addition, Dr. Miron says that some altogether liberal types pushing for recreational availability mess up their case when they consciously use the medical need as a cover. “And that,” he says, “is why I think they haven’t been as convincing as they could be. I think if they said very clearly and up front, ‘It’s nobody’s business whether we smoke marijuana,’ then people would regard them as at least being honest and that would be more persuasive.”       

The DEA’s public relations viciously obfuscates the public will toward compassion and reason. “The campaign to legitimize what is called ‘medical’ marijuana,” they write, “is based on two propositions: that science views marijuana as medicine, and that DEA targets sick and dying people using the drug. Neither proposition is true. Smoked marijuana has not withstood the rigors of science – it is not medicine and it is not safe.” Their utilization of this scarecrow is a smoke screen from the many studies of cannabinoids taken orally through lipids or vaporized. But the real dynamic here is that the DEA has only gone head-to-head with state medical marijuana patients because, as Penn and Teller have pointed out, there are indeed seven federal medical marijuana patients even these hardliners dare not touch. (The comedian-magicians have a great shot of one of them blazing in front of the Capitol.)      

What the DEA would not prefer to show off in its legislative evidence is that, back in 1986, their sleazier elements were in cahoots with the big pharma-pushing, synthetic cannabinoid advocates during an internal hearing two direct court orders forced them to hold. The rancor and greed of the medical establishment was most obvious here as they struggled and schemed for a monopoly on distribution and, à la Monsanto, processing. Clearly, the ability to replicate ingredients, not peoples’ use of them, is highlighted in all of the organization’s bold thirst for the hustle. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America is, on its face, a lie. Sponsored by Americans who make drugs medicine, they want Americans to readily use any number of prescriptions, but certainly not the kinds of substances that poor people can produce in the privacy of their own home. DEA Judge Francis L. Young cut right through the bullshit, though, writing, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man” before recommending its rescheduling from the same category as heroin. (True to form, the DEA disregarded Mr. Young’s verdict.) Whatever legislative triumphs they can trumpet today the agency’s internal findings contradict.       

Twenty-three years later, just after the president’s oblique answer regarding marijuana legalization, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs struggled in his attempts to marginalize the reasonable, by all accounts independent, parties scratching their heads online at the cannabis lockdown. He said, “This is not the first time that an interest group gets on a website and votes many times for their question to be answered.”       

Although Mr. Gibbs flippantly jested he had not seen a Council of Economic Advisers’ estimate on the potential economic benefits of legalized weed, Jeffrey Miron, Senior Economics Lecturer at Harvard, estimated that the state and federal governments could benefit by $77 billion in total revenue from the responsible regulation of the derived recreational drug alone, the lucrative non-drug trade of its source plant’s derivatives, daresay excising the bloated, far more harmful racket of pretending to help the masses by putting nonviolent people in cages. Dr. Miron believes that President Obama’s simply bringing up the question, regardless of his contrariness, was a positive step. In our phone interview, he said, “I think by at least bringing the question up, he gave it some legitimacy. He indicated that it was a subject of interest to a significant number of people.      

“There have been times in the past that, you know, that I’ve had direct experience with – where people who – from the government who were in charge of enforcing the current laws simply refused to debate the issue at all. They would not appear on a platform, say, or a conference where people were in favor of legalization.”      

Before the “Open For Questions” event, Johanna Neuman at the LA Times would go so far as to use fear-mongering 9/11 code language in reference to the question’s popularity, describing how pro-pot groups had “hijacked” the just-closed poll. Cryptically, she gave a URL to the National Organization For the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ front page, but no backup of her insinuation that the organization had spearheaded any sort of campaign. Both Mr. Gibbs and Ms. Neuman appeared genuinely either insulted or frightened by the reality that this was the question people wanted Barack Obama to answer most. For all of the drug war, insofar as Americans tolerate it from jackbooted thugs, does shame to the people, the questioners did manage to point directly at the absurdist heart of the monster they had created.       

In response, their president, who never hesitates to spout out an “uummhhh” at the slightest of inquiries did not stutter; the implication was obvious: people who use marijuana like he did belong on probation and jail. Just like that 20-something police officer scraping for a buck by breaking in teenagers’ doors, the pathetic nature of the whole spectacle cycles into form: Mr. Obama acknowledging that he’s “here only because of the education [he’s] received" and because he “was lucky enough through scholarships . . . to get the best education that America has to offer” yet insisting on continuing the very regressive policies that could have so easily cost him those scholarships.       

Two years ago, I was covering the now DNC Chair Tim Kaine’s “State of the Commonwealth” address at Jamestown, where it was held to cater to the legislators’ paralyzing myopic anglocentrism. Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell was running for governor at the time, as he is now. I approached him at the event with a photographer from RVA Magazine and asked, “Why is marijuana illegal?” His handler and press secretary, Tucker Martin, stepped between me and the attorney wearing a certain consternation about his brow. Having reassured him I was a “journalist and not a lobbyist,” I convinced Mr. Martin that I meant no affront to Mr. McDonnell who stepped forward to deliver a cut-and-dry answer that he simply sought to emphasize his deference to the law, whatever it may be, a slight smirk on his face the whole time.       

Asking these sorts of questions of the powerful demands this sort of incredulity and defensiveness. They do because the laws banning organic drugs are known by anyone with a functioning brain stem to be a conduit by which to perpetuate the most arbitrary aspects of the status quo. The very existence of such policies rewards superstition, pointless conformity, dishonesty and hypocrisy, not public health or sanity.


By Tyler Bass