Why Is Marijuana Illegal? A Historical View – Part Two

Why is marijuana illegal? Do a quick internet search and you’ll find a series of generally related answers: racism, fear, corporate profits, yellow journalism, ignorant and incompetent legislators, and bureaucratic preservation. Almost all of these are also tied to one man: Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930-1962. While these issues are critically important to consider, they help explain only portions of our nation’s marijuana prohibition story. Indeed, in part one of this series I examined the origins of cannabis regulations dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. These state level statutes demonstrate a clear, historical precedent for medicinal cannabis legislation in the United States, driven by the concerns of medical doctors and pharmacists seeking both their own professional authority and consumer protections in the marketplace. My objective is to suggest that these early developments demonstrate a far longer and more complex history of cannabis regulation than most existing versions of the story suggest, especially those readily available on the internet. It’s not that those internet versions of marijuana prohibition are entirely wrong; it’s that they often sustain a sensational narrative that misses critical components of this longer history and the original scholarship from which they are derived.

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A brief commentary on comments or, “we will figure this shit out”

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“we will figure this shit out” is from a commenter in the youtube debate I discuss in this article. Feel free to comment on this post if you, too, would like to join the figuring out.

youtube comment: “Addiction is such a vague term”
reply: “Disease is also a vague term…we can spend hours picking apart words and meanings”

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an author who wants to remain in possession of her sanity must avoid reading the comments section of anything she writes. If the internet is a neighborhood into which one might enter to tell a truth about something personal, if I may borrow again from Jane Austen, an author must accept that her words are taken as the rightful property of some one or other of the many trolls lurking in the deep recesses of the intertubes. Here at Points, we screen comments in order to keep nasty, provocative, or derailing comments out of the mix (this post being the exception), but elsewhere, they flourish like kudzu.

Perhaps it was morbid fascination that drew me to explore some of these cesspools pockmarking our information superhighway, so I donned my emotional hazmat suit and clicked my way in to the comments sections.

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Revising Drug History on the Web (or, what’s up with Vincent Dole’s Wikipedia page?)

When I taught high school a little less than a decade ago, we teachers generally regarded Wikipedia as a kind of academic quackery. The site supposedly lured our stressed, overscheduled prep students by allowing them to tap an up-to-date—but intellectually suspect— knowledge base with just a few keystrokes. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched the open-source encyclopedia project in 2001, and its rapidly evolving entries vexed research teachers. We were still teaching the Robert Caro Writing Process, notecards and all.

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Caro with his master outline for “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” (Martine Fougeron/Getty for The New York Times)

 

But Wikipedia, as it turned out, developed its own orthodoxy; its accuracy now rivals traditional online encyclopedias like Britannica. Even so, the site has faced objections regarding its hostility to academic specialists and primary sources, and the apparent bias arising from its masculine editorial culture. Yet the critical response from academia has softened from one of rejection—a tough stance to maintain when a site gets some 500 million visitors a month—to reform. Feminist edit-a-thons, class projects to improve wiki entries, and Harvard’s recent job advertisement for a Wikipedian-in-residence all indicate that scholars have decided to take responsibility for shaping content on the widely read site.

We could take the same initiative with drug and alcohol history resources. And we try: Points compiles a list of approved online resources, and a good amount of our daily traffic is driven by historically motivated Google queries.

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