Government is meant to serve the people, which means the burden lies with our lawmakers to determine what is illegal and provide the rationale behind that decision.
Marijuana, however, never had its fair trial.
Marijuana became illegal on false pretenses because of financial interests, and it started with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. William Randolph Hearst used his newspapers to demonize marijuana and help pass the legislation, mainly because the production of hemp threatened his tree-pulp paper mills. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, pushed the act through Congress.
Two years in the making, the act was written in secret and easily passed because it used the term “marijuana.” Until then, marijuana was always known as hemp or cannabis, and the word marijuana was just a slang word from the Mexican Revolution version of the drinking song “La Cucaracha.” So when the Marijuana Tax Act passed, most people didn’t know what it was they had decided to tax.
According to the act, anyone who sold marijuana had to pay a tax. To prove that the tax had been paid, people would receive a tax stamp. However, tax stamps were almost impossible to get, effectively rendering marijuana illegal, and violation of the tax act resulted in fines of up to $2,000 or five years in jail.
But Lammot du Pont II, head of the DuPont chemical company, wasn’t satisfied. DuPont recently had developed nylon and didn’t want hemp to compete with his business, so he started pushing to outlaw his competition. Anslinger helped by using Red Scare tactics to sway the public.
“Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing,” Anslinger said.
It worked in 1951, when the Boggs Act officially made weed illegal. It lumped marijuana in with hard narcotics, such as opium and cocaine, and quadrupled penalties.
Now here we are, at a crossroads, able to lift the ban on marijuana and clear its name from a social stigma that was created solely to financially benefit a select few, already wealthy men.
Current arguments about whether marijuana should be made legal are irrelevant. Right now, there is a back and forth debate about the plausibility of taxing marijuana, and if legalizing pot would ease or complicate matters for law enforcement.
If we are going to decide whether to legalize something solely on the basis of financial reasons, then we haven’t progressed at all since the 1930s. And if cost truly is the most important factor in determining legality, then there are a lot more things that need to be made illegal, such as alcohol, tobacco, sunbathing and burnt meat, to name a few. All of these things can cause health problems, and health-care costs the country money.
Sure, we can debate about how much California would actually make from taxing marijuana. Some may say that people will grow their own pot and not bother to purchase it in stores and pay taxes. But then we would have to look at all the people who brew their own beer or make their own wine, and the taxes the country loses because they don’t buy their alcohol in stores. The Fermenters International Trade Association has cited 500,000 to 1 million home-brewers and more than 4 million winemakers in the United States.
We can also talk about whether legalizing marijuana would complicate police duties. If marijuana were to be legalized, the same rules would apply to it that apply to alcohol. So, it would be reasonable to suggest that law officers’ jobs would not become more complicated, since they would use the same procedures when it comes to alcohol consumption as they would use to enforce the new marijuana law. Also, an Aug. 25 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about Proposition 19 cited that in 4 percent to 14 percent of traffic fatalities the drivers tested positive for THC. However, in 2008, 37 percent of traffic fatalities were alcohol-related, according to Alcohol Alert.
Maybe we should just focus on reasons to make something illegal. It shouldn’t be for financial motives, and it shouldn’t be to make things easier on corporations. It should be decided based on protecting the innocent without unnecessarily infringing upon their freedoms. This is why Prohibition ended, and why Plessy v. Ferguson was repealed, and why abortion became legal.
Government doesn’t exist to make laws that the people will fight to repeal. Government exists to serve the people and protect their rights, which should include their right to choose whether to ingest marijuana.
— Sabrina Ricci, a 2009 graduate of UCSB and a former Noozhawk intern, is enrolled in the graduate publishing program at New York University. She’s also a freelance writer and intern for Life magazine.