29 March 2010

Jonah Raskin : Marijuana Made Simple

Poster for the movie Homegrown, based on a story by Jonah Raskin.

A primer:
Marijuana made simple

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / March 29, 2010
Author, activist, educator, former Yippie, and marijuana aficionado Jonah Raskin will be Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio, Tuesday, March 30, 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin. They will discuss -- among other things -- the California initiative to legalize and tax the use of cannabis. (See "Cannabis in California : The Growing Storm" by Raskin on The Rag Blog.) For those outside the listening area, go here to stream the show.
I was a latecomer to the world of marijuana. I remember in the mid-1960s a friend invited me to a party and told me that there would be pot there. You smoked it and you got high, he explained. I just laughed. I thought that the idea was ridiculous. “Where do you go when you get high?” I asked.

I didn’t find out until a few years later when I was living in New York. My friend, Aaron, who went on to law school and later became an honest, ethical judge was the first person I knew who smoked marijuana regularly. He smoked everyday. In fact, he has smoked everyday for the past 45 years.

When I first met Aaron most of the marijuana that was available came to the U.S.A. from Mexico; it was smuggled across the border. The word “marijuana” comes from Mexican Spanish and in the early racist campaigns against marijuana, it was associated with the image of lawless, dirty, violent Mexicans.

The plant is the cannabis plant; it has many active ingredients, but THC is probably the most important. I say “probably” because while cannabis has been smoked for thousands of years -- that is a fact -- there are not a heck of a lot of reliable studies of marijuana. That’s because the U.S. government, which made cannabis illegal some 70 years ago, is afraid that government financed studies will show that it has medical benefits.

It does have medical benefits, and since the 1990s it has been recommended by doctors for all kinds of health issues and problems. Indeed, it has greatly helped people suffering from HIV and AIDS. In California, medical doctors tell patients -- who have cancer and who are in pain or who have loss of appetite -- to smoke it. It stimulates appetite. It is a pain reliever. That is proven.

The domestic cultivation of marijuana really took off in the late 1970s and the early 1980s in the more remote mountain areas of Northern California. Many of the pot farmers were 1960s folk who left the cities and went back to the land to homestead.

Rural life in Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, and Santa Cruz proved to be more challenging than the hippies realized. Marijuana came to the rescue. It was the one cash crop that they could grow and take to market and sell. The money they made enabled them to buy land, build houses, and schools and send their kids to college.

The domestic cultivation of marijuana received a big boost when Mexican marijuana was sprayed -- because of U.S. government pressure -- with Paraquat, a poisonous herbicide. Understandably no one wanted weed with poison.

The assault on marijuana came from all different directions including the Reagan White House that initiated the “War on Drugs” -- a misnomer if ever there was one. Of course, you can’t make war on drugs. The Reagan White House made war on people.

Nancy Reagan, the president’s wife, helped to popularize the slogan, “Just say No.” Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese III insisted that marijuana was “The Gateway Drug” and that it led users to heroin, cocaine, and more. Of course, Meese, Reagan, and the Reaganites never acknowledge the truth about drugs in America: that tobacco and alcohol were the “gateway drugs,” that young people started by drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

In the War on Drugs, Meese and law enforcement officials across the nation violated the rights of citizens, and locked up thousands of marijuana smokers. The persecution has not stopped.

The anti-marijuana propaganda has been relentless ever since the 1937 movie Reefer Madness. Of course, the movies have also popularized marijuana, especially the comedies by Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong: Up in Smoke (1979) and Let’s Make a New Dope Deal (1980).

In 1979, I went to Hollywood to make a marijuana movie. My idea was for a remake of the black-and-white classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that’s about gringo prospectors for gold in Mexico. It’s a tale of greed. My movie was to be about “the greed weed” and it would be about hippies in California.

I sold the idea, and a treatment for the film, to producer and director, Stephen Gyllenhaal -- the father of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal -- but it took 16 years for it to be made. Homegrown was finally filmed in 1996, the year that a medical marijuana initiative was passed by citizens in California. By then there was also a whole new generation of marijuana smokers and the producers of the film realized that the subject was of interest to more people than aging hippies.

I was a consultant on the movie, and on the set. I have a tiny part. Everyone in the movie had to sign an agreement not to use any illegal drugs while the movie was made. The “marijuana” in the movie was not real. The plants that are shown on screen were made from silk and bamboo at a cost of $1,000 a plant.

Since 1996, marijuana cultivation and use has spread across the country. Outdoor growers moved indoors. The quality of the marijuana improved; often one puff is enough to get the smoker stoned. Recent studies show that smoking marijuana is still on the rise. It seems to be a part of the lives of millions of people -- though it is still illegal by federal law. It is still classified as a Schedule I drug which means that by U.S. government standards there are no medical benefits.

By last count, some 14 states now have recognized the medical benefits of marijuana. Doctors recommend it to patients. Dispensaries sell it at $45 for 1/8 of an ounce. The price varies, of course. As a rule of thumb, the further the marijuana has to travel from the place of cultivation the higher the price.

President Obama made a big difference in the world of marijuana when he announced that the U.S. Justice Department would not make it a priority to go after individuals who violated the marijuana laws. But in 2010, Americans are still arrested and jailed for possession and transportation of marijuana, and the prohibition of marijuana, which began just as the prohibition of alcohol ended in the 1930s, may yet go on and on.

Something, it seems, always has to be prohibited. Marijuana has long been the fall guy. The plant that was smoked in China and India thousands of years ago still does not receive the credit it deserves. Will it ever become a medical hero? It is today to thousands of people who suffered from cancer and other diseases, and it is beloved by heads who like to get stoned.

But something inside me tells me it will be regarded as a bad boy for some time to come. Alas, America is too Puritanical a place to allow marijuana to be smoked freely and without fear of punishment.

[Jonah Raskin was the Minister of Education of the Yippies and a member of SDS. These days he teaches media law at Sonoma State University in Northern California. He has written 12 books, including biographies of Allen Ginbserg, Abbie Hoffman, and Jack London. His most recent book which is about organic farming is called Field Days. He wrote the story for the marijuana movie Homegrown. He writes about drugs for High Times magazine and he is keeping close tabs on the campaigns to legalize marijuana in California. He is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog.]

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