Not That Conspiracy, the Other One

One common meme in the Cannabis community is that Cannabis was made illegal and is kept illegal because the plant is so damn useful that it would challenge the entire modern power structure if it were not. Nonsense. It is important to take a hard look at the real reasons that Cannabis is illegal – fighting windmills will only waste resources and keep the prohibition alive longer.

Cannabis IS a mighty useful plant. But so is corn. And George Washington Carver demonstrated thousands different uses for the humble peanut. Neither of these plants ended capitalism; the power structures adapt and use whatever is available.

Corn starch is a good feedstock for food grade chemical synthesis – sugar syrups, citric acid, vitamin C, and a few hundred other edible ingredients are made by transforming maize. But it has become just another industrial process, it is not seen as a threat by multinational corporations. The peanut is an excellent source of oil, and that oil could be transformed into plastics or used to make biodiesel to power autos. Simple economics push manufacturers to petroleum; petroleum historically cost 1/8th or 1/10th of the price of peanut oil.

When humans learned to synthesize nylon, it was destined to become popular. Although hemp is very good for sails and rope and a hundred other fiber products, nylon is also excellent for some of these applications. Nylon can be produced in a factory that works day and night, with higher output and lower cost than hemp rope and sail. Industrialization meant tapping into concentrated/accumulated resources like oil and coal.

Aspirin started out as willow bark extract, but the German Bayer company found a way to tweak the molecule and synthesize it from petrochemicals, and the price dropped to the point where not one person in a thousand uses willow bark today. There was no sinister conspiracy against the willow tree – producers and consumers both favored inexpensive aspirin.

William Randolph Hearst, once the largest publisher in the world, had printing presses, paper plants, and woodlots to get pulp from. According to popular notions, Hearst campaigned to outlaw hemp because he owned timber resources. But economically, that makes no sense. He could have grown hemp himself, he could have produced better paper at a lower price, and he could have made even more profits when the cost of producing a newspaper dropped.

Cannabis could cut into market share for some pharmaceuticals. One recent study suggested that the widespread availability of cannabis might crimp patent medicines to the tune of $4 billion per year. That sounds like a big number, but the size of the 2015 pharmaceutical market was over $424 billion in the United States. Four billion is less than one percent of that. Cannabis is a versatile medicine, it should be widely available. But Cannabis cannot replace antibiotics when a person has pneumonia, it cannot replace insulin for type 1 diabetics, we do not have evidence that it eliminates the need for antiviral drugs for HIV or hepatitis, even though it might help those expensive drugs work better, or with fewer side effects. Cannabis has the biggest potential to cut into opiate prescriptions for chronic pain (saving many lives in the process) and for epilepsy and related conditions. People should be free to choose. But the threat to big pharma is not as big as some portray it.

Some of the US states started outlawing cannabis as early as 1911, and this was driven by the Temperance movement. The real conspiracy is one against people changing their consciousness. The temperance movement was focused first and foremost on alcohol, as this was the most widespread and damaging inebriant in most communities. When it was clear that alcohol prohibition would fail, Cannabis became their consolation prize. And the fact that marijuana was used mostly by Mexicans and African Americans made it easier to prohibit, and to use as a tool to repress those communities.

Harry Anslinger led the federal government’s enforcement of prohibition. When his turf was secure early on in prohibition, he was not concerned with Cannabis. But as support for alcohol prohibition collapsed, he became increasingly alarmist about the devil’s lettuce.

Even today, one major argument for banning industrial hemp cultivation is that some farmers might use a field of it to conceal the cultivation of mind-altering varieties of Cannabis. If no form of Cannabis produced euphoria or a high, then Cannabis would be yet another field crop, it would be no more regulated than soybeans or cotton or millet. The fact that some varieties of Cannabis sativa alter perception has led society to treat it quite differently than soybeans.

Evidence of the conspiracy against altering consciousness reliably crops up when we look at any potential medicine that started out as a ‘recreational’ drug – research on LSD and psilocybin has been stigmatized and limited because these were made popular by the hippies. MDMA and related drugs might help with PTSD, depression, and other conditions, but they were popularized as a rave/party drug that makes people naively loving and empathic. Ayahuasaca and ibogaine are discounted or discriminated against; they are not seen as real medicines that could help people because they were discovered by natives in third world countries, where they were used as tools to change the way that people think in religious contexts.

Understanding the real reasons that Cannabis has been prohibited will make it easier to reform pig-headed laws. It will speed the work, and it will mean that fewer suffer the injustices of prohibition.

Although the industrial conspiracy against hemp is a widespread and popular notion among advocates, there are some people who see the real reasons. After writing this, I did some digging and found this debunking: https://www.alternet.org/story/77339/debunking_the_hemp_conspiracy_theory. It has some good additional info that I did not include in this write-up.