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Public Enemy No. 1

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"Play faster!" he cried, wildly, over and over. "Play faster!"

The dame who was tickling the ivories complied, out of control herself. The music revved to a dangerous velocity -- oh, too fast for decent, sober, well-behaved Americans to bear -- and... well, you just knew, violence, madness, laughter were just around the corner. The year was 1936 and, oh my God, they were high on marijuana, public enemy number one.

The scene is from Reefer Madness, arguably the dumbest movie ever made -- but smugly at the emotional and ideological core of American drug policy for the last three-quarters of a century. The policy, which morphed in 1970 into an all-out "war" on drugs, has filled our prisons to bursting, created powerful criminal enterprises, launched a real war in Mexico and presided over the skyrocketing of recreational drug use in the United States. The war on drugs just may be a bigger disaster than the war on terror.

"The war on drugs, as it has been waged, has not only failed to curtail drug use; it has become a major public health liability in its own right," writes Christopher Glenn Fichtner in his comprehensive new book on our disastrous war on a plant, Cannabinomics: The Marijuana Policy Tipping Point (Well Mind Books).

Fichtner, a psychiatrist -- he served as Illinois Director of Mental Health for several years -- takes a long, hard look at the politics of irrationality and lays out a compelling diagnosis: "essentially, social or mass psychosis." You can also throw in racism. The war on drugs is simply a race war by another name, fueled by fear of Mexican and African American culture, with the weight of law brought down on African Americans with wildly disproportionate severity:

"... during a period when the number of prison sentences for drug-related convictions increased dramatically for all drug offenders," Fichtner writes, citing Illinois statistics between 1983 and 2002, "it increased for African Americans at roughly eight times the rate of increase seen for Caucasians."

But reading Cannabinomics kept leaving me with the sense that there was a deeper irrationality to our anti-marijuana crusade than even the racism. For instance, "Examples abound," he writes, "in which the application of mandatory minimum sentences has led to harsher penalties for marijuana offenses than for violent crimes ranging from battery through sexual assault and even to murder."

And the violent enforcement of zero tolerance hasn't been limited to the pursuit of recreational potheads. Those using cannabis medicinally have also been harassed, arrested and sometimes treated with such shocking violence you have to wonder whether the official paranoia about marijuana use -- that it leads to mental derangement and violent behavior -- is sheer projection.

For instance, early in the book Fichtner relates the story of Garry, a California man who used marijuana to relieve arthritic pain. Despite the fact that this was legal under state law, his house was raided by federal agents: "As he opened his front door, he was greeted by a battering ram and a physical takedown maneuver that left him with a dislocated left shoulder, right hand fractures, blunt head trauma, and a back injury that aggravated the arthritis for which he grew cannabis in his garage in the first place."

Much of Cannabinomics is devoted to the extraordinary medicinal uses of marijuana, which has been called one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to the human race. It has been used, usually with little if any side effect, to alleviate chronic pain and chemo-induced nausea and relieve the symptoms of a stunning array of illnesses and conditions, including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral palsy, diabetes, hepatitis C, AIDS, cancer, Tourette's syndrome, Alzheimer's. The list goes on.

The herb has been "part of humanity's medicine chest for almost as long as history has been recorded," according to Dr. Gregory T. Carter, writing on the NORML website.

In light of this, our war against it -- at extraordinary human and economic cost -- illuminates a crying need for us to change the way we govern and look after ourselves. Another story Fichtner tells is about an Illinois man named Seth, who had suffered from epileptic seizures most of his life. He reluctantly tried using marijuana -- one inhalation a day -- because his prescribed medications weren't helping much, and soon reduced the incidence of grand mal seizures from several per week to one or two per month.

The amazing part of this story, Fichtner notes, is that none of his doctors were willing even to discuss the therapeutic use of marijuana, though they were quick to recommend invasive procedures, including temporal lobe surgery. "... We Americans," he writes, "live in a society in which it is acceptable practice for surgeons to destroy a piece of someone's brain in order to prevent seizures but where use of marijuana for the same purpose... is a criminal offense."

To my mind, it all smacks of the military-industrial metaphor that rules the American roost. We're quick to seize on something as the enemy and organize ourselves blindly around its destruction, never stopping to notice that what we're destroying is ourselves. In the case of the war on drugs, our "enemy" is our greatest ally.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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