Maybe Next Year: The Failure to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis in New York

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, our resident New Yorker who provides insights into the his state’s twisted path to potential cannabis legalization. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.

On August 28, 2019, New York State officially decriminalized marijuana. Most saw decriminalization as an important step toward the even more equitable legalization measure that failed to pass the Democrat-led state legislature this year, but which seems inevitable given recent trends in legalizing (with the recent addition of Illinois this year). Particularly in light of the inevitable comparisons to Illinois, others are making connections to the “eerily similar” debates over decriminalization in New York in 1977 at the height of the state-level decriminalization wave that was then spreading throughout the country. During that year the New York State legislature passed, and then-Governor Hugh Carey signed, what was at the time the ninth state-level decriminalization measure in the country.

(Current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and then-Governor Hugh Carey)

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Reefer Madness Behind the Iron Curtain

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest writer Dr. Ned Richardson-Little, and it begins a two-week special series on drug use in East Germany during the Communist period. Richardson-Little is a Freigeist Fellow at the University of Erfurt, Germany, where he is currently leading a major research project on the history of “deviant globalization” in modern Germany. Originally from Canada, he studied at McGill University and received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has previously worked at the University of Exeter (UK). If you’re interested in learning more about the sources in this post, contact Richardson-Little at ned.richardson-little@uni-erfurt.de.

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Dr. Ned Richardson-Little

In Junky, William S. Burrough’s 1953 memoir of his experiences as a heroin user, he captures the paranoia of the early Cold War in America in a conversation about drugs:

“Tell me,” I said, “exactly what is the tie-up between narcotics and Communism?”

“You know the answer to that one a lot better than I do […] The same people are in both narcotics and Communism. Right now, they control most of America.”

The idea that communists were behind narcotics was hardly a fringe notion and it was often advanced publicly by the US Drug Czar Harry Anslinger and other state officials. Anslinger claimed that there was a global communist conspiracy to use drugs as a weapon against capitalism on the path to global domination. He warned of “Red China’s long range dope-and-dialectic assault on America” and claimed that Cuba’s Fidel Castro had “joined the hammer and sickle – and the narcotic needle,” by assisting the People’s Republic of China in trafficking drugs into the US. In 1948, he testified to Congress that “Marijuana leads to pacifism and Communist brainwashing.” In the early Cold War, drug warriors in the West saw the fight against narcotics and communism as a singular conflict.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, however, Communists were equally concerned about the dangerous impact of narcotics and addiction, which they believed were the product of a diseased capitalist society. While many leftists in the West saw recreational drug consumption as part of an anti-capitalist counterculture, the state socialists of the Eastern Bloc were just as vehemently opposed to narcotics as capitalist anti-drug warriors.

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Points Bookshelf: “The African Roots of Marijuana” by Chris Duvall

Editor’s Note: Today’s book review comes from Nick Johnson. Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University and a master’s degree in American history from Colorado State University. A former freelance journalist in his home state of Illinois, Johnson now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and works as associate editor of the online Colorado Encyclopedia. He is the author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West.

Screenshot 2019-07-02 at 8.52.56 AMDespite a vast and ever-growing scholarly literature on cannabis, the African experience with the plant is too often glossed over or entirely neglected. One gets a sense of this reading some of Chris Duvall’s earlier work, including the global history Cannabis (2015). But in his most recent book, The African Roots of Marijuana (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), the geographer hammers this point home with an infallible rigor that should convince other cannabis scholars to more closely examine the biases reflected in their own work.

Duvall’s most pervasive and important argument in the book is that Europeans’ historic preference for hemp over drug cannabis was rooted in racist interpretations of cultural ecologies, and those interpretations became the foundation for much of what is known (or assumed) about the plant today. In Europe, where ecological conditions favored hemp, cannabis was known as the fiber-yielding plant of productive industrialists; in South Asia and Africa, where ecological conditions favored drug-producing cannabis, “the plant was valued principally to supply psychoactive drugs” (103). When nineteenth-century Europeans began traveling Africa under the oppressive shadow of colonialism, they saw the use of cannabis drugs as an unnatural corruption of the plant itself as well as an indicator of Africans’ supposed backwardness and inferiority (10-11). This perspective then became embedded in Western understandings of cannabis and remains lodged there today, despite a robust academic literature on the role of racism and colonialism in the development of scientific thought.

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From Taboo to Veneration: Marijuana, Canada, and the New Social Construct

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and the Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canandian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School. 

In January 1968 the Winnipeg Free Press reported that marijuana was “the biggest mass floating of the law since prohibition.”[1]  Back then the urban myth said Lebanese cannabis was the most potent, but Canada, like the U.S. market, was limited to Mexican cannabis; “Acapulco Gold” was the common preference among “local users.”[2]  This new generation of consumers was juxtaposed against the anti-marijuana initiatives on both sides of the border that had, by that point, constructed the idea among sectors of civil society and policy makers that the drug led to mental disorders, violence, degeneration, addiction, and that it served as a gateway to other more dangerous narcotics.  It was from the late 1960s onward that a pro-marijuana movement across both sides of the border was spearheaded by young rebellious Baby Boomers in order to clarify the facts and debunk the old myths. Fifty years later the construct of the “thin, sunken-eyed individual slowly starving himself to death” has been replaced by the image of the radiant millennial stoner.[3] Within that transformation of the constructs of marijuana, Canada’s Federal and Provincial governments were able to build a government-business partnership that positioned the nation and its private sector as the pioneers of a new global business that might even surpass the global market for coffee.  A half century ago possession in Canada could cost you seven years in prison; today it represents an entrepreneurial opportunity.

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Director, Louis J. Gosnier. “Tell Your Children,” 1936.

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Fiction Points: Red Dirt Marijuana by Terry Southern

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.

As the globetrotting mass of drug historians have been preparing to make their way to Shanghai for the bi-annual conference over the last few days, I (who am, unfortunately, not attending) had a chance to sit down and read some fiction. I don’t often get a chance to read much fiction. I have a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a shelf on my desk, and the bookmark has been on page 50 since the day I purchased the book for the trip to Dwight, IL, for the ADHS conference there in 2016.

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The original hardcover edition

But this latest literary indulgence was more directly research-related. Terry Southern’s collection of short stories entitled Red Dirt Marijuana and other Tastes has been on my list following a very productive archive trip to New York City two summers ago. I spent a few days (not nearly enough) in the Henry W and Albert A Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library, checking out the collected papers of a number of Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs and others.

My dissertation research is formulating an argument about a marijuana culture in the United States beyond the Beats, with which it is commonly associated in the period prior to the 1960s. My initial reasoning was simply because this cultural movement has received plenty of coverage by literary figures and historians of the period. But I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to look at the Beat archives during my time at the New York Public Library. Southern’s papers contained drafts of a couple of the stories (including the title work) as well as some correspondence between Southern and other literary and showbiz figures from the fifties through the nineties. (Southern died in 1995.)

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The Complicated Birth of the Gateway Theory

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. 

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Richard Daley and Richard Nixon in 1971

In 1972 , spelling  out marijuana’s gateway potential to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, President Richard Nixon explained, “Once you cross that line, from the straight society to the drug society – marijuana, then speed, then it’s LSD, then it’s heroin, etc. then you’re done.” This stepping-stone rationale existed long before Nixon’s presidency, of course. Still, in the 1930s, years before the War on Drugs began under “Tricky Dick,” Harry Anslinger, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics director from 1931 to 1962, initially shied away from this causal relationship, preferring to target marijuana on its own.

But by 1951, Anslinger had embraced the gateway theory as well, finally acceding to the growing chorus that connected marijuana to eventual heroin addiction. Rather than credit (or blame) Anslinger and Nixon for this approach, the history of the gateway theory proves that the basic assumptions and mythologies surrounding marijuana were much larger than the drug itself, regardless of which drug it eventually connected to. Instead, the gateway theory represented the widespread concerns and sense of racism that shaped Americans’ association with drug use and addiction in the post-WWII era.

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Points Interview: Bradley Borougerdi

Editor’s Note: Today we have an interview with Points and ADHS friend Dr. Bradley Borougerdi, an associate professor of history in the Department of Global Studies at Tarrant County College in Arlington, Texas. Dr. Borougerdi is the author of Commodifying Cannabis: A Cultural History of a Complex Plant in the Atlantic World (Lexington Books, 2018). 

Screenshot 2019-05-28 at 8.08.01 AMDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

My main concern when writing this book was to try and de-scramble the loaded meaning that has surrounded cannabis as a commodity throughout history ever since people from all over the world started making there way into, across, and around the Atlantic Ocean.  Cannabis has meant so many different things to different people, so I wanted to try and provide a better understanding of why this is the case, and to explain how and why the plant has transformed in meaning so many times.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I hope they find it interesting how Europeans and U.S. Americans went from seeing this plant as such an important strategic commodity, to a valuable medicine, then to a not-so-valuable medicine, then a sinister banned intoxicant, and now (for some, at least) to a commodity with value again.  Of course, not all of the changes in perception of the plant’s utility fit nicely into separate and distinct categories over the course of all this history, but rather these changes in meaning overlapped with each other through time and space.  This shiftiness that cannabis has endured is fascinating.  Not all drugs have went through so many complicated transformations, and very few commodities in general have fallen in and out of favor so many times as this plant.  Investigating the cultural roots behind these changes is interesting and deserves more focus.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

It was interesting to find that some of the source material I discuss in the chapters regarding cannabis use as a medicine in the United States during the 19th century have not really been investigated in detail by others who’ve mentioned them in their books.  For example, I found that an organization called the American Provers’ Union published a pamphlet in 1859 titled On Cannabis Indica.  Most authors who have cited this source ever since Ernest Abel’s popular book on marijuana came out in the 1980s have repeated the same mistake that he made regarding the date of this source, which he claimed came out over a decade before it was actually published.  Rather than go to the source themselves, authors simply regurgitated what he said without critical analysis.  I also think the short medical “dissertations” on cannabis from the mid-19th century that I used are interesting, and the material about the history of gardening and the intersection between hydroponics cultivation and cannabis prohibition was fun to work on.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Some of the material I encountered about the League of Nations has inspired me to look further into the concept of transnational drug control cultures as a neo-imperialist tool in the 20th century, and a lot more needs to be done regarding the history of hemp in Russia and the Soviet Union.  I also like the idea of looking more into the role of clandestine cannabis cultivation in the United States during the second half of the 20th century.  I think telling the story of these “Guerrilla Growers” and the cultivation cultures they established is a fascinating idea, but obviously a difficult one due to the nature of the source material.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

Jim Dale all the way.  Anyone who can narrate the entire Harry Potter book series as masterfully as he has done, would be great to listen to with any book, regardless of the subject.