What if what we’re addicted to is the War on Drugs’ usefulness as a tool of race- and class-oppression?

It’s just a plant. Photo credit: Alexander Aguero on Unsplash.

The headline of a recent online article from NPR reads, “Daily Marijuana Use and Highly Potent Weed Linked to Psychosis” (Chatterjee, NPR, 3/19/19). In addition to the scare-language evident in the title, the article itself is structured so as to withhold a key point until the final quarter of the piece: the single study upon which the article reports “cannot prove causality.” The “link” touted in the title is correlative at most. So why is NPR reporting on this study in such a way as to promote the danger of cannabis use?

As a “public” service, National Public Radio and its subsidiary electronic outlets ought to be as unbiased as is possible, one would think, so as to allow members of the public who are of varying political convictions to draw conclusions based on accurate data. Of course, public news services have so long been defunded by the federal government that most of their resources are now derived from non-government sources (donors, large and small), and it is no longer possible to believe that political agendas aren’t being more or less paid for by those donors. Public radio and television have long been accused of favoring liberal political views (although the evidence to support such charges can be difficult to come by). For the sake of argument, let’s say that the common perception is valid; let’s say NPR leans leftward. Why, then, when legalization of marijuana is largely regarded as a liberal cause, and when the states are falling like dominoes to legalize marijuana for both medicinal and recreational uses (which suggests wide and growing support for the decriminalization of marijuana use), is an NPR article using scare tactics that echo the all-too-familiar anti-drug propaganda we’ve been awash in since the film Reefer Madness (1936) ignited what would eventually become a half-century-long, expensive and futile War on Drugs? Why the persistent conservatism regarding the legal use of marijuana?

The message this article conveys is clearly a warning cloaked in reportage: don’t succumb to a daily cannabis habit, and stay away from the strong varieties altogether. Keep yourself under control, this whispers to us. It’s dangerous to let go too often or too extremely. There may be consequences. Dire ones.

The thing is, in the US, the history of cannabis is still very much with us, especially since the dominoes of legalization haven’t yet all fallen. Historically, pot is the drug of poor people, people of color, college “kids,” and social protestors. Of hippies, if you like, of dropouts, of Deadheads. And as a major front in the War on Drugs, its criminalization has provided opportunity for wildly disproportionate arrests and incarceration of African-Americans and Latinx people. The ACLU has amassed a wealth of information in its campaign for legalization of marijuana; read a current statement on the ACLU blog here. Maybe it is because marijuana’s status as a controlled substance has proven so handy in maintaining control over these targeted populations that, despite its proven medical benefits and unlikeliness to cause real harm to most users, cannabis has not lost the stigma of the ne’er-do-well?

Perhaps another reason that cannabis is so frightening is that it symbolizes something Americans fear as much as they desire it: the ability to chill out. Unlike caffeine, the not only legal but gleefully embraced daily addictive drug-of-choice of the productivity-driven elite, pot eases anxiety and dials down drive. While at low doses, it may not impair you enough to keep you from working, it may cause you to slow down sufficiently to reevaluate the importance and benefit of being all jacked up on productivity, efficiency, and 11 simple hacks to help you run your mornings like a boss. This makes it perhaps worse than its being the drug of poor people, from the perspective of those who require a willing stable of striving worker-bees to support their continued affluence. Using cannabis might even chill you out to the point that you start mulling things over, reconsidering your definition of “rich” and “poor” and of what you can live with. If you get that far, you might decide that your caffeine-fueled productivity could be contributing to the unhappiness all those “lifehacks” are supposed to be eliminating but failing to. You might start looking for an alternative path, eschewing the rattiest parts of the rat-race in favor of a less expensive side-road: lower octane, less consumption, lower speed-limit, better scenery. You might pull off at some scenic overlooks and marvel at your own transience against the backdrop of the world’s perpetual beauty. Imagine where that could lead. In a slower-paced, less competitive America, we might eventually feel less of a need to keep a lot of people out of the rat-race by inventing reasons to clap them in jail.

Many, many people in America are hooked on their daily dose of caffeine, whether it is delivered via coffee or by some other means (I unabashedly include myself in this company). “One Third of Americans Spend More on Coffee than on Investing”; $1100 is the reported yearly price of that coffee (Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool, 1/22/2018). And whether it comes in the form of coffee (expensively barista’d or generic and brewed at home), or in some other beverage or supplement, caffeine is inarguably a drug, a mild but measurable performance-enhancer.

On the closer-to-cannabis side of routine and legal drug-usage falls America’s alcohol habit. Unlike caffeine, which remains unregulated, alcohol’s restriction only to adults (and, depending on what state or county you live in, restriction by location and time of sale and consumption), and its association by formula and branding with socioeconomic class, allows all manner of people to consume it according to their means and belief about what befits their social status. If you want to take the edge off after a long day at work, you can find an alcohol-delivery-system to suit your budget and image, whether that’s big-label beer, wine-by-the-glass, or artisanal cocktails mixed at your local hipster bar by a dude with a serious moustache. As long as you aren’t hitting the sauce hard enough to affect your productivity, and the sauce isn’t provoking you to hit your kids or spouse, bottoms up! You can indulge without smearing your reputation. America loves those who work hard (fueled by caffeine) and play hard (fueled by alcohol).

But cannabis? Maybe we just can’t shake off more than half a century’s smear-campaign yet, not when the ultra-rich demand longer hours and more production from their minions — us, the 99%, the workers. In the imagination of the corporate overlords, the specter of the red-eyed, scooby-snacking pothead lives on, anathema. Questioning the system that funnels bushels of coin into the pockets of the 1% must not be allowed. What America has been offered and accepted (a scenario chillingly reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) is a drug-routine that delivers anxiety and forward drive on cue for our working hours, then dissolves the nervous energy in an after-work tonic that leaves us gregarious and drowsy, or, if we dare to overdo it, hungover, punished, and remorseful. If we can just get more productive, more efficient, squeeze more, more, more into each day, work eight days a week, fifty-one-point-five weeks a year, maybe we, too, can claw our way up the “meritocracy’s” ladder, get to be rich, revered, masters of the universe. We can’t let the feel-good molecules of that seducer, cannabis, derail our purpose-driven lives with their balm of peace and potential reduction in social injustices. Heavens, if we got to like it too much — a calmer and less fear-driven life, that is — we might be punished with psychosis! What could be crazier and more dangerous than feeling good?

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.