Spy planes, aerial drones, night raids, heavy armory: usually the stuff of military operations, deployed, as one might think, in far away locales such as Afghanistan or Iraq, seem to become increasingly popular as weapons of choice in a long-waged war on US homeland territory, against a very special angiosperm belonging to the order of rosales: cannabis and its three most prominent subspecies sativa, indica, and ruderalis.
The manufacture, importation, possession, use and distribution of (psychoactive) cannabis varieties are possibly as old as much of human history, but also illegal under the international Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 and, in the United States, explicitly under to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 where the cannabinoid THC, the plants' main psychoactive compound, is listed as a Schedule I drug, along other substances as varied as LSD and heroin. But whereas harsh prosecution methods and high penalties in case of infringement suggest that the production and use of cannabis and its derivatives pose a serious threat to public and individual health, moral, and safety, the plant in fact does look back on a rich and long history of medicinal and recreational application and is also tightly connected with various spiritual and religious traditions around the world.
Bhang, Bhanga, Ganja, Charas, Al-haschisch, Chrütli, Gai ando, Pot, Kif, Donna Juanita, Marijuana, Mariquita, Green Godess, La Santa Rosa, Parvati, Siddhi, Shivamuli, Vijaya, Mustang gold: the names are many, and the ways by which the villain declared has been put to use throughout the centuries are just as variefied.
In old Mesopotamia, the plant was burned as holy incense. The Assyrians recordedly used cannabis root preparations to help women through difficult births; they applied cannabis oil against stomach swelling and smoked leaves and buds to alleviate depression.
In India, where the medicinal use of cannabis is documented since at least 1400 BC, Shiva, the god of destruction and transformation, part of the Great Trinity in Hinduism, is thought to have found and subsequently sowed out the first seeds of the divine plant himself in the fertile earth of the Himalayan foothills, for humanity's benefit. As the yogi supreme and father of all shamans his adherents also affectionately call him Bhangeri Baba, Lord of the Bhang (Another of his countless names is Vijaya, the Victorious One, and not by chance "vijaya" is also a synonym for cannabis indica in Vedic Literature) Ancient Vedic scripts point to the many beneficial applications of the plant: The leaves will help soothe ear aches and cramps and are recommended to counter pelvic complaints and dysentery; the resin is referred to as a potent aphrodisiac. The ritualistic or celebrational use of cannabis indica is indeed still very alive and widely spread today in North India, where bhang is regularly consumed by Shaivites (either smoked directly, baked into sweets, enjoyed as hari gulfi, or mixed into lassies). In Nepal, cannabis use is prominent in the form of the chilum cult: Sadhus and shamans alike use the small, conical clay or wooden pipe to smoke hashish and enter drug-induced states of trance or mild ecstasy that are to facilitate meditation; before inhaling, the chillum is held to the forehead and endowed with a blessing to Lord Shiva.
Also the Western civilisations have enjoyed cannabis in various forms and preparations since ancient times. Seeds of cannabis sativa were found in remains of neolithic Bandkeramik pottery dating back to 5500 BC. The Greeks may have adopted their intoxication rites from the Skyths, and in Renaissance Italy, according to Galen, it became at some point common practice to serve hash cookies or little hash pastries for dessert. In19th century Europe, cannabis preparations were a widely used medicine against all sorts of ailments, especially asthma, lung diseases and sleep disorders. Around that time, the plant also entered US markets as a well-proven painkiller. And throughout the centuries, cannabis-induced intoxications inspired artists and literates alike, including Kubin, Picasso, Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, and Leo Peruz.
Contrasting the rich and successful history of cannabis as a cultural plant however are most countries' legislations regarding production and consumption of its psychoactive varieties in the world today: though voices demanding the decriminalization or full legality of cannabis use are on the rise worldwide, harsh penalties for possession, consumption, and, specifically, trafficking prevail. In some countries, notably East Asian and Islamic ones, the possession of marijuana can even result in capital punishment: China, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are notorious for their extreme drug policies.
The USA in particular present an interesting case of inconsistency: On one hand, marijuana is, as mentioned, listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic and therefore strictly illegal under federal law, on the other, quite a few states have at least partly decriminalized the use and consumption of cannabis and 16 states have explicitly legalized marijuana consumption for medical purposes. California, and here especially the city of Los Angeles where marijuana shops and dispensaries offering a great variety of related products proliferate, stands probably most prominent among the states that have reestablished the controversial plant's legality by passing Proposition 215, the so-called Compassionate Use Act, that permits the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal medical use in 1996.
Nonetheless, advocates of legal marijuana report to have experienced growing hostility against their agenda over the last months. On April 2 this year a special unit of federal agents (DEA, IRS and U.S. Marshal Services) raided the country's first marijuana college "Oaksterdam" and left founder and long-standing pro-legislation activist Richard Lee stumped. Federal executive forces shut down the campus, confiscated tuition material, arrested Lee and fellow tutors and subjected them to exhausting interrogation sessions. Also Steve DeAngelo, another key figure in the movement, operator of the country's largest medical marijuana facility "Harborside" in Oakland, has expressed concern about federal forces again increasingly compromising state laws. The new antagonist on the stage, interestingly, is the IRS, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. DeAngelo feels the Feds are trying to destroy his business through endless tax audits and new tax regulations that would render Harborside's economic survival impossible if they were employed. "No taxation without legalization!" thunders the angry cry of Richard Lee who plans to confront president Obama with a promise he allegedly made before his election in 2009, the promise to end the war on weed, if only in those states that have spoken out against it.
But will his voice be heard in an election year? Some say, yes, other doubt it. The more optimistic ones even claim Obama's stance on legalization could be crucial, at least in states like the generally pro-pot swing state Colorado, where liberal ideas and conservative non-interventionism have a solid tradition. After all, marijuana prohibition and federal police meddling with the states' policies only present yet another example of federal paternalism largely perceived as objectionable.
As of the end of 2010, there were 2,2 million people incarcerated in US prisons and jails (which makes the country number one jailer in the world), 507 000 alone for drug offenses; almost half of the latter were arrested for marijuana, 80% of them for possession only. In total, there are 750 000 to 800 000 people currently either under arrest or in correction for marijuana-related offenses. Prison and correction spendings are among the highest of public spending in the United States, second only to Medicaid (spendings on criminal correction were worth 47 billion dollars in 2008)
On the other side, tax revenues from medical marijuana sales could bring in a load of cash to bolster state budgets (according to an article posted in the New York Times on February 12th this year on medical marijuana revenues, Oakland collected $1.4 million, Denver $3.4 million and the state of Colorado $5 million in taxes and licensing fees in 2011); legalization could furthermore help reduce prison overcrowding and curb the influence of Mexican drug cartels which mainly gain on U.S. marijuana sales (60% of their estimated annual total revenue) cashing between 8 and 9 billion dollars a year.