Read an Excerpt
IN THE STATE OF INDIANA, a person convicted of armed robbery will serve about six years in prison; someone convicted of rape will serve about eight; and a convicted murderer can expect to spend twenty-five years behind bars. These figures are actually higher than the national average: eleven years and four months in prison is the typical punishment for an American found guilty of murder. The prison terms given by Indiana judges tend to be long, but with good behavior, an inmate will serve no more than half the nominal sentence. Those facts are worth keeping in mind when considering the case of Mark Young. At the age of thirty-eight, Young was arrested at his Indianapolis home for brokering the sale of seven hundred pounds of marijuana grown on a farm in nearby Morgan County. Young was tried and convicted under federal law. He had never before been charged with drug trafficking. He had no history of violent crime. Young's role in the illegal transaction had been that of a middleman — he never distributed the drugs; he simply introduced two people hoping to sell a large amount of marijuana to three people wishing to buy it. The offense occurred a year and a half before his arrest. No confiscated marijuana, money, or physical evidence of any kind linked Young to the crime. He was convicted solely on the testimony of co-conspirators who were now cooperating with the government. On February 8, 1992, Mark Young was sentenced by Judge Sarah Evans Barker to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
Marijuana is such a familiar part of youth culture in the United States, and the smell of pot smoke is now so commonplace at high school and college parties, that many Americans assume a marijuana offense rarely leads to a prison term. In fact, there are more people in prison today for violating marijuana laws than at any other time in American history. About 20,000 inmates in the federal prison system have been incarcerated primarily for a marijuana offense. The number currently being held in state prisons and local jails is more difficult to estimate; a reasonable guess would be an additional 25,000 to 30,000. And Mark Young's sentence, though unusual, is by no means unique. Dozens of marijuana offenders may now be serving life sentences in federal penitentiaries, without hope of parole. If one includes middle-aged inmates with sentences of twenty or thirty or forty years, the number condemned to die in prison may reach into the hundreds. Other inmates — no one knows how many — are serving life sentences in state correctional facilities across the country for growing, selling, possessing, or even buying marijuana.
The phrase "war on drugs" evokes images of Colombian cartels and inner-city crack addicts. In many ways that is a misperception. Marijuana is and has long been the most widely used illegal drug in the United States. It is used more frequently than all other illegal drugs combined. Approximately one-third of the American population over the age of twelve have smoked marijuana at least once. About twenty million Americans smoke it every year. More than two million smoke it every day. Unlike heroin or cocaine, which must be imported, anywhere from a quarter to half of the marijuana used in the United States is grown here as well. Although popular stereotypes depict marijuana growers as aging hippies in Northern California or Hawaii, the majority of the marijuana now cultivated domestically is being grown in the nation's midsection — a swath running from the Appalachians west to the Great Plains. Throughout this Marijuana Belt drug fortunes are being made by farmers who often seem to have stepped from a page of the old Saturday Evening Post. The value of America's annual marijuana crop is staggering: plausible estimates start at $4 billion and range up to $25 billion. In 2001 the value of the nation's largest legal cash crop, corn, was roughly $19 billion.
Marijuana has well-organized supporters who campaign for its legalization and promote its use through books, magazines, Web sites, and popular music. They believe marijuana is important not only as a benign recreational drug but also as an herbal medicine and as a commodity with industrial applications. Marijuana's opponents are equally passionate and far better organized. They consider marijuana a dangerous drug — one that harms the user's mental, physical, and spiritual well-being, that promotes irresponsible sexual behavior, that encourages disrespect for traditional values and threatens the nation's youth. At the heart of the ongoing, bitter debate is a hardy weed that can grow wild in all fifty states. The two sides agree that countless lives have been destroyed by marijuana, but disagree about what should be blamed: the plant itself, or the laws forbidding its use.
The war on drugs launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 began largely as a campaign against marijuana, organized by conservative parents' groups. After more than a decade in which penalties for marijuana offenses had been reduced at both the state and federal levels, the laws prohibiting marijuana were made much tougher in the 1980s. More resources were devoted to their enforcement, and punishments more severe than those administered during the "reefer madness" of the 1930s became routine. All the legal tools commonly associated with the fight against heroin and cocaine trafficking — civil forfeitures, enhanced police search powers, the broad application of conspiracy laws, a growing reliance on the testimony of informers, and mechanistic sentencing formulas, such as mandatory minimums and "three strikes, you're out"— have been employed against marijuana offenders. The story of how Mark Young got a life sentence reveals a great deal about the emergence of the American heartland as the region where most of the nation's marijuana is now grown; about the changing composition of the federal prison population; and about the effects of the war on drugs, more than twenty years after its declaration, throughout America's criminal justice system. Underlying Young's tale is a simple question: How does a society come to punish a man more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing someone with a gun?
the plant in question
"MARIJUANA" IS THE MEXICAN colloquial name for a plant known to botanists as Cannabis sativa. In various forms, it has long been familiar throughout the world: in Africa as "dagga," in China as "ma," in northern Europe as "hemp," in India as "bhang," "ganja," and "charas." Although cannabis most likely originated in the steppes of central Asia, it now thrives in almost any climate, spreading like milkweed or thistle, crowding out neighboring grasses and reaching heights of three to twenty feet at maturity. Marijuana has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years; it is one of the oldest agricultural commodities not grown for food. The stalks of the plant contain fibers that have been woven for millennia to make rope, canvas, and paper. Cannabis is dioecious, spawning male and female plants in equal proportion. The flowering buds of the female — and to a lesser extent those of the male — secrete a sticky yellow resin rich with cannabinoids, the more than sixty compounds unique to marijuana. Several of them are psychoactive, most prominently delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Marijuana's effects on the mind and body were first recorded by the Chinese emperor Shen-Nung in the twenty-eighth century B.C. The ancient Chinese used cannabis, mixed with wine, as an anesthetic during surgery and prescribed it to cure a variety of ailments. The ancient Egyptians also praised the medicinal properties of cannabis, and Roman women inhaled its smoke to relieve labor pains.
Dr. Lester Grinspoon, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, thinks marijuana will someday be hailed as a "miracle drug," one that is safe, inexpensive, and versatile. In his book, Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine, Grinspoon provides evidence that smoking cannabis can relieve the nausea associated with chemotherapy, prevent blindness induced by glaucoma, serve as an appetite stimulant for AIDS patients, act as an anti-epileptic, ward off asthma attacks and migraine headaches, alleviate chronic pain, and reduce the muscle spasticity that accompanies multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and paraplegia. Other doctors think that Grinspoon is wildly optimistic, and that no "crude drug" like marijuana — composed of more than 400 chemicals — should be allowed in the modern pharmacopoeia. They argue that effective synthetic drugs, of precise dosage and purity, have been developed for every one of marijuana's potential uses. Dronabinol, a synthetic form of delta-9-THC, has been available for years, though some clinical oncologists find it inferior to marijuana as an anti-emetic. Recent inquiries by the National Academy of Science and Great Britain's House of Lords suggest that cannabis may indeed have legitimate medicinal uses. There have been remarkably few large-scale studies that might verify or disprove Grinspoon's theories about marijuana's efficacy. He says that the federal government has always been far more interested in establishing the harmful effects of cannabis than in discovering any of its benefits, while major drug companies have little incentive to fund the necessary research. As Grinspoon explains, "You cannot patent this plant."
The long-term health effects of chronic cannabis use, and marijuana's role as a "gateway" to the use of other illegal drugs, are issues surrounded by controversy. Marijuana does not create a physical dependence in its users, although it does create a psychological dependence in some. It appears to be less addictive, however, than heroin, cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, or caffeine. People who smoke marijuana are more likely to experiment later with other psychoactive drugs, but a direct cause-and-effect relationship has never been established. Marijuana's potential role as a "stepping-stone" to other drugs is most likely determined by cultural, not pharmacological, factors. Delta-9-THC is highly lipid soluble and has a half-life of five days, which means it diffuses widely throughout the human body and remains there for quite some time. An occasional marijuana user can fail a urine test three days after smoking a single joint, while a heavy user may test positive after abstaining from marijuana for more than a month. Delta-9-THC's persistence within various cells and vital organs (also a characteristic of Valium, Thorazine, and quinine) raises the possibility that it could exert subtly harmful effects; none has been proven. Studies of lifelong, heavy marijuana users in Jamaica, Greece, and Costa Rica have revealed little psychological or physiological damage. More research, however, needs to be done in the areas of cognition, reproduction, and immunology.
Some studies have suggested that short-term memory deficiencies among heavy smokers may endure long after the cessation of marijuana use. Other studies have demonstrated, in vitro and in laboratory animals, that marijuana may have a mild immunosuppressive effect, but no study has conclusively linked delta-9-THC to immune system changes in human beings. Well-publicized horror stories from the 1970s — that marijuana kills brain cells, damages chromosomes, and prompts men to grow large breasts — proved to be unfounded.
Smoking marijuana may damage the pulmonary system, in some of the ways that inhaling tobacco smoke does. In an ongoing study of people who have smoked three or four joints a day for more than ten years, Dr. Donald P. Tashkin, of the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, has found substantial evidence that habitual marijuana smoking may cause chronic bronchitis, changes in cells of the central airway which are potentially precancerous, and an impairment in scavenger cell function which could increase the risk of respiratory infection. A joint seems to deliver four to five times as much carcinogenic tar as a tobacco cigarette of the same size. Tashkin expects that some heavy marijuana users will eventually suffer cancers of the mouth, throat, and lungs. Oddly enough, the more potent strains of marijuana may prove less dangerous, since less of them need to be smoked.
There is much less controversy about the short-term effects and toxicity of marijuana. According to Dr. Leo Hollister, a former president of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, occasional use of marijuana by a healthy adult poses no greater risks than moderate alcohol consumption. For a variety of reasons, however, schizophrenics, pregnant women, and people with heart conditions shouldn't smoke pot. Although the misuse of over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and antihistamines kills thousands of people every year, not a single death has ever been credibly attributed directly to smoking or consuming marijuana in the 5,000 years of the plant's recorded use. Marijuana is one of the few thera-peutically active substances for which there is no well-defined fatal dose. It has been estimated that a person would have to smoke a hundred pounds of marijuana a minute for fifteen minutes in order to induce a lethal response.
criminalized, decriminalized, recriminalized
THE FIRST AMERICAN LAW concerning marijuana, passed by the Virginia assembly in 1619, required every household to grow it. Hemp was deemed not only a valuable commodity, but also a strategic necessity. Its fibers were used to make sails and riggings, and its byproducts were turned into oakum for the caulking of wooden ships. Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other colonies eventually allowed hemp to be used as legal tender to boost its production and relieve colonial shortages of currency. Although a number of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, later grew hemp on their estates, there is no evidence that they were aware of its psychoactive properties. The domestic production of hemp flourished, especially in Kentucky, until after the Civil War, when it was replaced by imports from Russia and by other domestic materials. In the latter half of the nineteenth century marijuana became a popular ingredient in patent medicines and was sold openly at pharmacies in one-ounce herbal packages and alcohol-based tinctures, as a cure for migraines, rheumatism, and insomnia. Dr. Brown's Sedative Tablets contained marijuana, as did Eli Lilly's One Day Cough Cure.
The political upheaval in Mexico that culminated in the Revolution of 1910 prompted a wave of Mexican immigration to the American Southwest. The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a "lust for blood," and gave its users "superhuman strength." Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this "killer weed" to unsuspecting American schoolchildren. Sailors and West Indian immigrants introduced marijuana to port cities along the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans newspaper articles associated the drug with African Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes, and underworld whites. "The dominant race and most enlightened countries are alcoholic," one prominent critic of marijuana argued, expressing a widely held belief, "whilst the races and nations addicted to hemp ... have deteriorated both mentally and physically." Marijuana was depicted as an alien intrusion into American life, capable of transforming healthy teenagers into sex-crazed maniacs. In 1914, El Paso, Texas, enacted probably the first local ordinance banning the sale or possession of marijuana; by 1931, twenty-nine states had outlawed marijuana, usually with little fanfare or debate.
Amid the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by the Great Depression, public officials from the Southwest and from Louisiana petitioned the U.S. Treasury Department to ban marijuana. Their efforts were aided by the Hearst newspaper chain's lurid reporting about the drug. "Murder Weed Found Up and Down Coast," one headline warned; "Deadly Marijuana Dope Plant Ready for Harvest That Means Enslavement of California Children." Harry J. Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), at first doubted the severity of the problem and the need for federal legislation. But he soon responded to political pressure and assumed leadership of the drive for a nationwide marijuana prohibition. In public appearances and radio broadcasts Anslinger asserted that the use of this "evil weed" led to cold-blooded murders, sex crimes, and insanity. He wrote sensational magazine articles with titles like "Marijuana: Assassin of Youth" In 1937 Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, effectively criminalizing the possession of marijuana throughout the United States. A week after it went into effect, a fifty-eight-year-old marijuana dealer named Samuel R. Caldwell became the first person convicted under the new statute. Although marijuana offenders had been treated leniently under state and local laws for years, Judge J. Foster Symes, of Denver, lectured Caldwell on the viciousness of marijuana and sentenced him to four hard years at Leavenworth Penitentiary.
Excerpted from "Reefer Madness"
Copyright © 2003 Eric Schlosser.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.