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History is Happening Now: The long story of the ASA case

A black and white vertical image of Henry Anslinger in his military uniform.

In History

History is Happening Now: The long story of the ASA case

Four days from now, oral arguments will begin for an appeal case which could very well result in the end of the federal war on marijuana.  The case was brought by Americans for Safe Access last year, after Obama denied an administrative petition to reschedule marijuana in the summer of 2011.  Yet one could say that the story of the present case goes back much further, to 1993, when a coalition of medical marijuana advocates first attempted to bring that administrative request to the attention of the Clinton administration.  In a way, though, the story is even older than that: going back to the early seventies, when the Drug Enforcement Agency first broke federal law by refusing to reschedule cannabis after a government commission recommended its rescheduling.

If you ask me, however, the only way to truly understand the significance of the historical moment is to go all the way back to 1930.

That was the year that a handful of powerful lobbyists staged a quiet coup in federal drug policy, simultaneously creating an excuse to impose unprecedented levels of federal power on a compliant citizenry and neutralizing a mutual threat to their bottom line.  The coup began, as most tragedies of liberty do, with the best of intentions.

Congressman Stephen G. Porter had devoted his political career to the cause of ending drug addiction in America.  As a medical doctor, Porter saw all too clearly the tragic effects of dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin, which had swept through every part of the United States in the twenties and left behind a swath of human misery.  But Porter’s medical training also helped him understand the need to take drug policy in a different direction; rather than treating all addicts like criminals – which clearly didn’t solve the problem – Rep. Porter pioneered an innovative approach: to treat addiction like a medical issue instead.  The conscientious Republican introduced legislation to use federal tax dollars to fund addiction treatment centers in rural areas, where the afflicted could have access to medical care and could be removed from the social circles which originally encouraged the habit.  Near the end of his career, he advocated strongly for the formation of a new Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an independent agency which could coordinate efforts to halt international smuggling and provide addicted Americans with the medical care they needed.

Unfortunately for Porter, his time was limited.  Some time around the dawn of 1930, Porter contracted cancer and became confined to a hospital – and powerful interests with a very different political agenda swooped like jackals on his weakness.

At the crux of these powerful lobbies stood Andrew Mellon.  The founder of the titanic Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh enjoyed cozy relationships with the leaders of many American industries: Standard Oil, General Motors, and the DuPont Chemical Company – all gigantic domestic companies which had sprung out of the U.S. oil industry.  Mellon’s bank became the financier of choice for this powerful corporate bloc and kept the engines of industry well lubricated.

Yet there were still outliers, most notably Henry Ford.  Ford’s company had made its name by eschewing the Social Darwinist philosophies of his petrochemical competitors, choosing instead to pursue policies which benefited his employees, the environment, and his surrounding communities.  Although Ford also reaped the bonanza of cheap oil which flooded U.S. markets in the twenties, he realized far ahead of his time that the era of cheap oil could not last indefinitely, and the Ford Motor Company began drawing plans to wean the States off petroleum forever

But the petroleum industry had friends in high places.  The loyal Andrew Mellon became appointed by President Hoover to head the powerful Treasury, the federal department in charge of the nation’s entire drug policy – and he went to work dashing the dreams of Porter and Ford.  While Congressman Porter lay dying in Washington, D.C., Mellon quickly began to impose his punitive, paternal vision on America.  Instead of Porter’s medical approach, Mellon pursued draconian measures to lock up anyone who landed on the wrong side of federal drug law.

Mellon’s nephew-in-law, Henry J. Anslinger, proved instrumental as Mellon’s right-hand man.  Lobbying constantly for punitive measures, Anslinger slipped marijuana prohibition through Congress almost unnoticed, ensuring passage of a 1937 law which criminalized all forms of cannabis and dashed Ford’s hopes of cars grown right out of the soil.

Yet with the passage of time the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937, as Anslinger’s legislation was known, would show its constitutional treason.  And when the Supreme Court finally reviewed it, more than thirty years later, America would be left with no federal pot prohibition at all.

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