Changing the Face of Cannabis

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This is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America
by Ryan Grim, Huffington Post’s senior congressional correspondent, is a rollicking ride through the U.S’s relationship to drugs, right up to the present day. A graduate of the University of Maryland’s public policy school, Grim studied under drug policy researcher Peter Reuter and worked at MPP, and he brings fresh perspective as well as solid scholarship to the topic.

Grim by his own admission wrote This is Your Country on prescription Metadate (a Ritalin-type drug). He begins with his own sudden inability to score LSD in 2000. Tracing that event to the demise of the Grateful Dead and Phish, and to a big bust in Kansas, Grim interviewed defendant Leonard Pickard in prison and also traveled to Bolivia, California and Burning Man in Nevada to research the book, as well as participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony in New York.

Americans’ work hard/play hard mentality leads us to work nine weeks longer than the average German worker and use more drugs to decompress, Grim points out. “There may be no people on Earth with a more twisted and complex relationship to drugs… Much of our conventional wisdom about American drug use—that the Puritans and the members of our founding generation were teetotalers or mild drinkers, that the drug trade is dominated by huge criminal organizations such as the Mafia and the Bloods, that crack use has declined significantly since the eighties—turns out to be wrong, too.” Grim sets out to prove his premise and makes a strong case.

Tracing the U.S. temperance movement back to de Tocqueville and Dr. Benjamin Rush, Grim connects an upswing in the use of opiates with the decline of alcohol intake. Opium, cannabis and cocaine became popular in patent medicines and pharmaceuticals, setting up Big Pharma to gain a monopoly for doctor-prescribed versions. Warren Delano, FDR’s grandfather, was an opium trader and his grandson signed the amendment that ended alcohol prohibition. Domestically cultivated opium poppies in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut reached hundreds of pounds, Florida and Louisiana also grew it, and California and Arizona had even larger plantations, writes Grim. Only when it served the U.S.’s foreign policy did we ban opium.

Starting with the Benzedrine inhaler sold by Smith Kline & French in 1933, Grim similarly charts amphetamine use and trade, noting that in 2006 when methamphetamine precursor pseudoepinephrine was strictly regulated (over Big Pharma objections) domestic meth labs were effectively put out of business. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with the drug war, the unintended consequence was to strengthen further Mexico’s illicit and increasingly violent drug trade. 

Regarding cannabis, Grim interviews Keith Stroup of NORML, Steve DeAngelo and Dave Wedding Dress of Harborside Health, and Randi Webster of The San Francisco Patients Co-op. He worked with Betty Yee of the state board of equalization on estimating tax income from cooperatives. (He makes a few factual errors, and misses chunks of history like the writings of Bayard Taylor and Louisa May Alcott, but overall gets it right.)

Grim investigates the San Jose Mercury News “Dark Alliance” series, interviewing the Washington Post writers involved in rebutting the piece and others. The D.A.R.E. program, student drug testing, the sentencing spree of the 80s (lead by Joe Biden), the rise of salvia divinorum and “research” psychoactive chemicals are among the other topics covered. With such a broad and sweeping topic, this isn’t a comprehensive history, but it’s well worth a read, for both novices and experts alike.

Read an exclusive excerpt from This is Your Country on Drugs

--Ellen Komp,