Banning the Weed to Criminalize the People

Revolutionary Worker #924, September 21, 1997

The RW article "Rx Blunt" (see #920) exposed how opposition of the federal government to medical marijuana has resulted in the persecution of doctors, patients, growers, and medical marijuana clubs. The Clinton administration's fight against medical marijuana reveals that the U.S. government is more concerned with perpetuating the so-called war on drugs--where busts for marijuana possession account for the vast majority of arrests--than they are with the health and lives of the people.

Many people with AIDS, cancer and other painful and debilitating diseases could be helped by being treated with marijuana. People are starving from the AIDS wasting syndrome, people whose lives could be saved if they could get medical marijuana. Cancer patients who cannot eat because of side effects of chemotherapy can in many cases lead productive lives if they have access to medical marijuana. People suffering from glaucoma, sickle-cell anemia, asthma, epilepsy and other diseases are treating themselves with marijuana. But the government has banned attempts by doctors and patients to study and promote medical uses of marijuana. Even in the wake of the passage of California's Proposition 215 that supposedly legalized the use of medical marijuana, a massive war continues to be waged against the people, with thousands in jail today for simply possessing marijuana.

After Prop 215, Clinton's Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey rolled out a massive assault on medical marijuana, ranging from having federal agents threatening to pull doctors' licenses to evicting families from public housing if a teenage child is caught with any amount of marijuana. The criminalization of this useful and relatively harmless drug is a big part of the government's "war on drugs."

Making Criminals out of Millions

Each year, the government spends $16 billion in the "war on drugs" to kick in doors, fill jails and build new ones, and evict families from public housing. A wide range of repressive laws and court rulings justify ubiquitous police searches, wiretapping and spying on people. The common perception is that all this is aimed mainly at users of cocaine and heroin, if not big-time dealers. But the fact is, most drug busts are for marijuana, and the overwhelming majority of those are for possession.

Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times Magazine (July 20, 1997), "Remove the millions of marijuana users from the ranks of illicit drug users and we would be left with a `drug abuse epidemic' involving roughly two million regular heroin and cocaine users--a public health problem to be sure, but hardly one big enough to justify spending $16 billion a year." Without the criminalization of marijuana, the whole justification for the "war on drugs" goes up in smoke.

The commanders of the "war on drugs" straight up lie about the target of their attacks. In a recent debate on the Internet service America Online, former Drug Czar Lee Brown stated, "It's not true that people are going to prison for consuming marijuana."

No? Tell that to the 30 people doing life in prison for marijuana, and the tens of thousands more who are serving time in state, local and federal jails. The National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the group that has done the most research into marijuana sentencing, estimates that over nine million people have been busted for marijuana laws in the U.S. since 1965, and that someone is arrested every two minutes. The FBI's Uniform Crime Report says that over 80 percent of these are for possession. Many others are serving long jail sentences for "distribution" because many state laws automatically classify people who grow their own plants as "distributors."

The government doesn't keep count, but activists estimate that between 40,000 and 70,000 people in the United States are currently locked up for marijuana offenses. Penalties for marijuana possession vary from state to state. In some states, getting caught with a small amount of marijuana is punishable by a fine. But in many states penalties are truly draconian. In Alabama, cultivating marijuana can carry a sentence of life in prison, and a second conviction for selling marijuana carries a fixed sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. In Indiana "knowingly visiting a place where drugs are used" carries a sentence of up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine-- effectively criminalizing all kinds of public and social gatherings. A possession conviction can carry a sentence of 20 years hard labor in a Louisiana prison. Cultivating a single plant in your home can carry a prison sentence of 15 years in Missouri. You can get life in prison in Montana if you share marijuana from your plant with someone else. Other states where simply growing your own marijuana plants can get you life in prison include Oklahoma and Rhode Island. Federal penalties as well can get you life in prison for cultivating over 100 plants.

In Oklahoma, Will Foster, a 38-year-old father of three, is serving a 93-year sentence for growing medical marijuana for his own use--he got 70 years for growing the plants, 20 years for possessing marijuana in the presence of a child and extra time for not paying drug taxes! Another man, Larry Jackson, was convicted of having less than a hundredth of an ounce of marijuana and is serving a life sentence in Oklahoma.

In prison, searches for marijuana are used to increase the brutality suffered by prisoners. A videotape of the beating of Missouri prisoners at a privately run Texas jail became public last month. It showed guards beating inmates, forcing them to crawl, and allowing a dog to bite an inmate. Inmates were shot with a stun gun. Jail officials justified these brutal attacks by saying that they suspected the inmates were smoking marijuana.

A Missouri attorney and NORML leader, Dan Viets, said "Missouri jails are operating well over 100 percent capacity and forcing state inmates to be housed in other states like Texas--this overcrowding is because 80 percent of inmates entering the Missouri Department of Corrections are non-violent offenders, many of them convicted on marijuana charges." Viets, who said he has clients doing time in Texas jails for marijuana convictions, said, "Have suspected marijuana users been demonized to the point where we allow them to be beaten, stunned and bitten?"

In Hawaii, the government sprays dangerous herbicides to kill marijuana plants. Throughout California paramilitary CAMP units swoop down on farms with helicopters and send swat-squads into the fields to destroy marijuana plants. Donnie Clark, a lifetime farmer, was busted by federal agents along with 28 other farmers. Clark was the only defendant who refused to plea bargain in the case, and after he was convicted he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to grow over a million marijuana plants. His son, who reportedly developed a technique for growing marijuana in swamps, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. The federal judge who sentenced Donnie said, "These (sentencing) guidelines are harsh, but harsher ones are coming. Soon someone is going to seek the death penalty for what you've done. This country is perhaps going overboard out of frustration with this drug problem."

In fact, a 1995 article in the New York Times Magazine (2/19/95) reported that "under the crime bill passed last summer, the cultivation of 60,000 marijuana plants is an offense punishable by death"! Hundreds of thousands of people have been arrested, jailed, fined, served probation or community service sentences, or in other ways had their lives messed up by marijuana busts. And according to NORML, Blacks and Latinos are over-represented both in numbers of arrests and in the number of marijuana offenders incarcerated. In some states, the police can take your car if you are found with any marijuana in it.

Drug Tests, Spying and Raids

The war on marijuana has kicked open the door for big brother to intensify spying on the people, setting precedents that can be used beyond rounding up marijuana users and growers. The Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that a school in Washington state could force every student athlete to take a urine test, reversing previous rulings that mass, forced drug tests were unconstitutional. Earlier rulings had approved mass drug tests for federal employees and school locker searches. And in many companies drug tests are a standard requirement for employees--and even for people just applying for jobs! A NORML report put it, "In just a few short years, American's national concern to combat illicit drug use has wreaked havoc upon the United States Constitution. Unfortunately, as the national zeal toward eliminating drugs in society began to grow exponentially, so did the courts' willingness to find more and more exceptions to the Fourth Amendment."

In 1989, DEA agents raided dozens of retail garden supply stores in 46 states and seized customer lists. The Feds got warrants for these raids based only on the fact that these garden supply stores advertised in High Times or Sinsemilla Tips magazines (which write about marijuana). The raids on garden suppliers scared away advertisers and effectively put Sinsemilla Tips magazine out of business. Using customer records seized from these garden supply stores, as well as 21,000 leads the DEA says it got from UPS, thousands of indoor growers were placed under surveillance. According to the 1995 New York Times Magazine article, "merely ordering garden supplies from the wrong company could bring drug agents to your door, as scores of African violet and orchid fanciers have been astonished to discover."

As part of rounding up people growing marijuana indoors, judges also began to issue search warrants based on unusual amounts of electricity or heat being used at a house. And during this same time, in the late '80s, asset forfeiture rules were expanded to let the police keep the cars, houses, and plots of land connected to drug offenses.

Under the Clinton administration, the clampdown on marijuana use has gotten worse. Running against George Bush, Clinton (the man who "didn't inhale") told the Democratic National Convention that "(Bush) hasn't fought a real war on crime and drugs, I will." And NORML reports that "marijuana arrests are up 60 percent since Clinton took office."

Among the cruel escalations in the war on drugs is the enforcement of the "one strike" policy in public housing projects. Since January 1996, when Clinton announced his "One Strike, You're Out" policy, more than 100 eviction actions have been initiated on the basis of police reports. One of those evictions involves the family of a San Francisco youth busted for marijuana possession. The Housing Authority tried to ban this youth's entire family from public housing in San Francisco because he was arrested for a minor marijuana charge. The ACLU reported that "Without any court authorization, the police department released (the youth's) arrest report to the Housing Authority which then publicly disseminated the confidential information and issued a unilateral and unequivocal notice of termination to the teenager's entire family." Based on the arrest (not conviction) of their teenage kid for marijuana, this whole family now faces being thrown out of public housing.

The "war on drugs" has also recently targeted people trying to survive on public assistance. According to an article by Nina Seigal in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, people convicted of drug felonies after September 1 will be barred for life from receiving public assistance, including food stamps. Seigal points out that, "Felony drug offenses include such minor offenses as possession of marijuana, possession of a non-narcotic controlled substance, and cultivation of psychedelic mushrooms." The director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children was quoted as saying, "The people who are going to suffer the most are the children who will be punished because of their parents' circumstances."

Locking People Up
and Telling Lies

The government war on drugs doesn't stem from a concern for people's health. Their arguments for maintaining the clampdown include 1) Marijuana use is skyrocketing among teenagers, 2) Marijuana today is way more powerful than it was back in the '60s, and 3) Marijuana is a "gateway drug" that leads to heroin and cocaine addiction. The chair of the House of Representatives Crime Subcommittee opened hearings on marijuana last year by saying, "These statistics (on teen marijuana use), on just a moment's reflection, shock the conscience. They are so overwhelming."

Former Drug Czar Lee Brown said last year that "If we look back in the days of Woodstock, THC (the active chemical in marijuana) was less than 1 percent, today that has increased significantly." And Joseph Califano, the former head of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), is frequently quoted with statistics showing that marijuana users are 85 times more likely than non-marijuana users to try cocaine.

The supposed "shocking" increase in teen marijuana use is based on figures in a University of Michigan study that indicated that in 1995, 42 percent of all high school seniors had tried marijuana at least once, an increase over the 32.6 percent who said they had tried it in 1992. Based on this survey USA Today (2/16/96) ran a story claiming that marijuana use had doubled. However, the results of this poll jump up and down from year to year, and in 1990 almost 41 percent of high school seniors said they had tried marijuana, so the increase from 1990 to 1995 was only about 1 percent. A perceptive analysis of the ups and downs in this survey by NORML linked the number of kids who admitted trying marijuana to the current level of public acceptance, and showed that when the war on marijuana was getting over the most, the number of youth who admitted trying it went down.

Government spokesmen claim that marijuana being smoked today is three times more potent than the marijuana people smoked in the '60s. Those claims are bogus. They are based on comparing today's marijuana with the least potent marijuana sold in the '60s. In fact, the marijuana being sold today has the same potency and the same THC content (the active ingredient) as the Panama Red and Columbian Gold that was being sold in the '60s.

As for the claim that marijuana is a "gateway" drug to cocaine use, a federally contracted study conducted by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences in 1982 concluded that "There is no evidence to support the belief that the use of one drug will inevitably lead to the use of any other drug." Califano's claim that marijuana users are 85 percent more likely to try cocaine is based on juggling numbers, also known as lying with statistics. A majority of cocaine users have smoked marijuana. But as one sociologist noted, "It is hardly a revelation that people who use one of the least popular drugs are likely to use more popular ones." More cocaine users smoked cigarettes and drank before using cocaine than used marijuana, so the so-called "gateway" argument applies more to beer and whiskey than it does to marijuana.

In fact, as marijuana use increased in the '60s and '70s, heroin use declined. When cocaine use (fostered by the contra/CIA-cocaine distribution networks) increased in the 1980s, marijuana use declined.


The government's war on marijuana is used to hound millions of people, arrest hundreds of thousands each year, and lock up tens of thousands. The "zero tolerance" policy of the government towards any drugs, including marijuana, is a war on the people. As a statement by NORML revealed, "Drug dogs, helicopter surveillance, urine tests, phone taps, roadside garbage searches, use of the military, and the use of informants are a few examples of the intrusive methods commonly used in the War Against Marijuana Consumers. Federal, state and local governments spend an estimated total of $7 billion each year to hunt down, arrest and lock up marijuana consumers."

How do you explain why the government would wage war on marijuana? You have to ask yourself: what kind of a society demonizes and criminalizes this plant in order to implement a program of repression, spying and incarceration of the masses? The war on drugs is a war on the people.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)