Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What About Hemp?

Hemp: A strain of Cannabis sativa that contains less than 0.3 % THC by weight. Its fibers and oil can be used in a wide variety of products.

Did you know that growing hemp is legal in the United States? Yes, it’s true, sort of. Kind of. In theory. Federal law and the laws of eight states currently permit the growing of industrial hemp. There’s only one little catch: You are required to get a license from the DEA in order to be allowed to grow hemp, and the DEA does not grant licenses (the last hemp license was issued in the 1950s). Until recently, the DEA justified their denial of license requests by saying that growing hemp was illegal in the state from which the request came. Since that’s no longer a valid justification, they now just ignore requests. See for example this recent case where two North Dakota farmers (the first state to legalize hemp) played by all the rules and were still ignored and eventually refused a license. They sued the DEA, but of course their case was dismissed.

So why is the United States the only industrialized nation in the world that does not allow industrial hemp, which is not a recreational drug, to be grown. I mean really, not the crazy, nonsensical reasons given by the DEA. Doesn’t anyone here realize that hemp is arguably the most valuable non-food crop known to mankind? I’m not exaggerating. From the beginning of time through the 1950s, hemp was grown pretty much everywhere by pretty much everybody. It still is, except of course in the U.S. And at one time it was even required to be grown by farmers here. Why? What makes it so valuable? What can it be used for? The following is nowhere near an exhaustive overview, but I think is more than enough to answer these questions.

How about using hemp seed oil as a substitute for petroleum products? That’s right, virtually anywhere petroleum is used, hemp oil can be substituted. Hemp provides a biodegradable, renewable source of clean fuel that could reduce our dependence on foreign oil. And let’s not forget another major use of petroleum products, plastics. Just imagine the positive effects on the environment that would result from the use of biodegradable plastics. Oh, did I mention paints and varnishes, which up until the 1930s were made with hemp oil?

What about textiles? Anything that can be made from cotton can be made from hemp fibers, and has been until recently. Not only are hemp fabrics more durable than those made from cotton, but hemp is easier to grow, requires fewer polluting fertilizers, and is much less labor-intensive to harvest and process. And let’s not forget the ever-popular rope.

And then there’s paper. Paper made from hemp costs about half of what it costs to make paper from trees. Part of the reason is because it grows so much faster than trees—a hemp plant’s growth in one season is equivalent to a tree’s growth in 20 years. It also requires the use of fewer fertilizers, and the paper produced is more durable and more flexible than paper made from trees.

Last but not least is hemp as a source of nutrition. Hemp seeds contain 25 percent protein, second only to soybeans. And they are high in essential fatty acids (whatever those are), such as omega-3. A variety of hemp-based food products—such as snack bars, milk, oil, and protein powder—are already legal and available in the U.S. However the hemp used to produce these products must be imported.

So, just let me make sure I understand this correctly: Hemp can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, help reduce our trade deficit, boost our agricultural economy, provide a renewable and clean alternative to fossil fuels, reduce the use of chemical fertilizers thus helping clean up the environment, save trees, save labor, and save money. And it’s good for you. So please explain to me one more time why it’s not permitted in the U.S.

This brief little overview just barely scratches the surface of all the uses and benefits of hemp. For more information, check out the North American Industrial Hemp Council’s web site.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Getting Two Birds Stoned At Once

The typical approach to decriminalization and/or legalization of marijuana is through legislation. That means either modifying existing laws or introducing new laws. By modifying a law I mean something like changing marijuana’s classification under the Controlled Substances Act, from a Schedule I substance to a Schedule II or III substance. Introducing a new law is exactly what it sounds like, a new bill that would change the legal status of marijuana. Two such bills were recently introduced. One, introduced by Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), would require federal authorities to respect state’s laws on medical marijuana. The other, introduced by Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), would eliminate all federal penalties for personal use and possession. It’s doubtful either of these bills will pass, but even if they do I don’t believe that this is the best approach and here’s why.

Laws change all the time. One day something is legal and the next day it’s not. Or vice versa. Just look at all the legislation passed during the 20th century relating to recreational drugs. All were at one time legal and at other times illegal. The status of recreational drugs is something that is totally dependent on the whims of the current administration.

What I’m suggesting is a more permanent and general solution: a Constitutional amendment. But I’m not talking about something like the 18th amendment (alcohol prohibition) in reverse; something that would specifically decriminalize marijuana. I’m talking about something much more general and more fundamental: an amendment guaranteeing the right to privacy; a right that is conspicuously missing from our Bill of Rights. Granted, the Bill of Rights does refer to certain aspects of privacy, but very indirectly (Amendments 1, 4 and 9).

To me, a constitutional amendment that specifically protects our privacy seems like an obvious solution. But no where have I seen such an approach mentioned with respect to current decriminalization efforts. And it’s certainly not my original idea, since Alaska’s Constitution includes such a right in its Declaration of Rights. It simply states:

The right of the people to privacy is recognized and shall not be infringed.
(Alaska State Constitution, Article 1, Section 22)

When this section was later implemented by the legislature, additional clarification and safeguards were added, but its meaning remains the same: The government cannot interfere with what people do in private. Simple and to the point. Such an amendment to the U.S. Constitution would not only affect the growing and/or consumption of medicinal herbs of any kind, but a number of other human behaviors that have at one time or another been the subject of legislation as well. Hence the title of this essay. For example, all laws relating to sexual behavior would also become void. People (and by that I mean consenting adults) would be free to do what they want in their own homes without fear of prosecution (or should I say persecution). It sounds to me a lot like that unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness that we were told we have.

So this idea seems right and just, and makes a lot of sense to me. And I think that’s why it will never happen. Regardless of what rights were promised to us by the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, there will always be people in power who will want to tell others how to live their lives. If there weren’t, then we’d have peace on Earth and everyone would be living together in harmony. And we all know that ain’t never going to happen.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A New Anti-Drug Commercial

I’m getting pretty tired of all this recent government anti-drug propaganda. You’d think they’d have learned by now that this stuff doesn’t work. Of course, the main reason for its failure is that it’s full of lies and gross exaggerations. Anybody that actually smokes marijuana knows this stuff isn’t true. Granted, what we are seeing today is a little more subtle than what was being produced in the Reefer Madness days, but still no more truthful. And, I don’t know about you, but if I catch somebody in a lie I’m going to be very skeptical about anything they tell me after that. In effect, this propaganda is essentially destroying the government’s credibility when it comes to informing people about drugs.

So I think the government needs to come clean and be honest about why they want to keep recreational drugs (other than alcohol, that is) and homegrown medicines illegal. Rather than talking about the devastating effects of drugs, they should be talking about the devastating effects of the war on drugs. So here’s my idea for an honest public service announcement:

The scene opens in front of a prison. A warden, who looks and sounds like a stereotypical small-town Southern sheriff (kind of like Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit), says:

“See this prison here? It’s chock full of what you call your ‘drug offenders.’ So what do you want to go and legalize dope for? If it ain’t a problem, then why are all those people locked up in there? Besides, what are we all supposed to do if they shut this place down. Become night watchmen?”

Cut to a corporate executive type in a very expensive-looking office:

“Where do you want to get your drugs? From a big company that spends billions on R and D and hardly ever hurts or kills anybody with their products, or from your own back yard. Who are you going to trust for your medicine? Yourself? We think it’s irresponsible and just plain crazy to get your medicine from anyone but us. Trust us, we pretty much know what we’re doing. It’s for your own good.”

Cut to a sleazy-looking minority gang member drug dealer standing on a corner in a seedy neighborhood. A couple of white teenagers are walking away:

“I’m all for the war on drugs. That’s how I make my living. If I can’t sell dope, how’m I suppose to pay for all my flashy jewelry and new cars? I got an image to maintain. And if you don’t care about me, think about the kids. Where they suppose to get they dope from if I’m out of business.”

Cut to a 15-year-old white suburban kid:

“Yeah, think about us. If I’m lucky, I can steal some liquor from my parents or get somebody to buy me some every once in a while. But I can always get weed. If it’s legal, what am I supposed to do? Think about us kids next time you want to go and legalize something.”

Fade to black.

Maybe this could even be turned into a whole series of PSAs, where each one features a different individual or group that benefits from the war on drugs. At least the government might gain some credibility for future propaganda. So NORML or anybody else, if you want to go ahead and produce these television spots you have my permission. I’d even be willing to serve as executive producer, or technical advisor, or even property master.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Catch 22, Or 23, Or Whatever It Takes

If you follow the news at all, you may have heard that Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) was recently diagnosed with brain cancer (specifically, glioma). So what, you may be asking yourself, does that have to do with anything, let alone the war on drugs? The answer is simple: It has long been known that cannabis may have anti-cancer properties. I say “may have,” because at this point there just hasn’t been enough serious research done to make any definitive claims about the medicinal properties of marijuana with respect to cancer treatment.

And when I say that marijuana’s potential as a cancer treatment has been known for a long time, I mean over 30 years. Maybe not so long relative to the age of the universe, but an eternity when it comes to cancer research. In fact, the first modern study that showed cannabis may have potential as an anti-cancer treatment was commissioned by none other than the U.S. government in 1974. One of the major findings of this reputable study was that THC, one of the psychoactive compounds in marijuana, “slowed the growth of lung cancers, breast cancers and a virus-induced leukemia in laboratory mice, and prolonged their lives by as much as 36 percent.” Unfortunately, just like they did with other government-funded studies of marijuana that reported results in conflict with the “official government position,” our government buried the study and would not fund additional research. In fact, they did such a good job that these results were not known until 1997, and it is virtually impossible to find a copy of the original report.

Just so you don’t get the wrong idea about the U.S. government, they later funded another major study in the mid-1990s (it only took them 20 years). The results were similar, showing THC provided protection from malignant tumors. And the response of the government was similar; virtually no one heard about these results either. Got the right idea about the government now?

And therein lies the Catch 22: Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, which by definition means that it has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” And since it has no medicinal value, the government is well within its “rights” to restrict medical research into its therapeutic uses. Because there are none. Because it’s a Schedule I substance.

Of course reclassifying marijuana requires scientific evidence of its medicinal value. Which becomes a tad difficult when research is not allowed. Apparently the fact that a major medical group, the American College of Physicians, endorses the medicinal use of marijuana is not relevant. Nor are the testimonies of thousands of legal medical marijuana users and their prescribing physicians. More research is clearly needed, but research is not allowed. This sort of circular reasoning just gives me a headache. Maybe I should move to California and get a prescription.

So once again we see that our government, in claiming to protect us from ourselves, will do anything it takes to keep marijuana out of our hands. But what about protecting us from cancer? Granted, that is not mandated in our Constitution any more than protecting us from ourselves is, but the government has to have its priorities. It can only do so many unconstitutional things at one time. Allowing people to be treated with a medicinal herb that anybody can grow only benefits those particular individuals who are treated. It doesn’t make anybody (e.g., pharmaceutical companies) tons of money. And I think it’s obvious where our government’s priorities lie.

Just to be clear, I’m not claiming that marijuana is some kind of miracle drug. I’m no physician, and I have no idea what role, if any, marijuana should play in the treatment of cancer. Or any other disease for that matter. But then neither does anybody else. And that’s my point. Marijuana very well could be a miracle drug with a wide variety of therapeutic uses. But with the situation as it is in the United States today, with a government that cares more about money and special interests than about the health and liberty of its citizens, we can never really know for sure.

Oh well, at least I can appreciate the irony of a proponent of the war on drugs dying from a disease for which a cure might already exist, if not for the war on drugs. (Maybe someone could put the senator in touch with Rick Simpson—I think there would also be some irony in the senator having to go to a foreign country for his treatment.)

So as not to end this piece on such a negative note, not all countries have followed our lead in banning medical marijuana research. Over the last ten years, researchers in Spain, Italy, and Germany have shown that cannabis can stop or slow the growth of a variety of cancers, including cancers of the prostate, breast, lung, pancreas, and brain. In fact a human clinical trial recently showed some very positive results with gliomas. Irony indeed.