Marijuana has long been viewed as a bane in our society, fueling criminal or slothful behavior in spades. In recent years, this attitude has shifted, slowly at first but with growing momentum towards embracing the plant for its many medical benefits. Yet the controversy around marijuana continues to swell, despite growing evidence of its efficacy as a medicinal option as this new information tries to overturn nearly 80 years of conventional wisdom fueled, in part, by the movie Reefer Madness.
Typically regarded as a joke by today, the movie was taken quite seriously upon its release in 1936. It’s portrayal of youth who smoke marijuana and lose their minds, dancing hysterically as they maniacally played piano culminates in the ultimate corruption of a young person’s soul in the form of murder. Despite the fact that the video was completely inaccurate in its depiction of the effects of marijuana, it was seized upon as a tool by a couple of powerful men who sought to forward their own professional agendas.
William Randolph Hearst a “tyrannical” newspaper owner used his journalistic position to create a media storm of falsified and overtly racist propaganda aimed at scaring white parents into believing that Hispanic and Black minorities were slinging dope to their kids and that this drug would turn them into rapists, murders, and general addicts.
Harry Anslinger, U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics was essentially the sole politician behind the prohibition of marijuana. He used racist appeals to Congress, insisting that the smoking of weed was introduced into America a decade earlier by Mexicans, who were mentally inferior, despite their ability to corrupt the entirety of a country in a decade with their devil weed.
A lot of the hysteria was also generalized to African Americans due to the increased popularity of jazz music and the older white generations discomfort with the prominence of an expression of a different culture. Add to this the popular perception that jazz musicians enjoyed smoking weed, which many did, and the prejudices were transferred to the plant.
The combined efforts of these men prevailed and in 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, deceptively worded so as to appear to restrict marijuana while actually prohibiting it. One specific criticism of the act was that in order for a physician to prescribe marijuana as a medical treatment, they would be required to report the name, address and diagnosis of the patient directly to the government. Thus, the Reefer Madness mentality informed the conventional wisdom of American society and medical applications of marijuana were discredited.
The legislation was founded on bigoted fear mongering with the added fuel of a grossly inaccurate portrayal of the effects of marijuana. Despite the fact that Reefer Madness is no longer taken seriously as a cautionary tale, the constructs created by it have largely gone unquestioned. For instance, the commonly accepted view of its inherent criminality.
But now medical marijuana is gaining in popularity and social acceptance as evidence piles up in demonstrating levels of effectiveness that cannot be denied. It is being used to treat debilitating, chronic and often life-threatening diseases, including cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis, etc.
It is not a miracle drug and it is not being sold as a cure-all for every illness. There are risks involved with the use of medical marijuana. Smoking it causes a chemical reaction that creates toxins that are harmful to the body. There are negative cognitive effects associated with getting high such as impaired short term memory, increased anxiety and hindered social development in youths. There is a risk of dependency that can develop.
An increased understanding of these risks also leads to increased awareness regarding dosage and delivery methods. Side effects of many prescription medications for the serious illnesses in question are often far more debilitating than those of cannabis. The effects that remain can be offset by changing the delivery system, eliminating the need to add further medications to the often lengthy lists these patients have. Pill forms of cannabis allow a person the medical benefits without the physical harm that comes from smoking or the cognitive impairment that comes from getting high.
So when recent news stories talk about young children treating their severe epilepsy with medical marijuana, these pills are what they are taking. Their parents and medical professionals are not encouraging grade school aged children to sit around smoking joints all day. Any controversy that arises from these types of decisions are fueled by the Reefer Madness mentality and not the science based, informed views on medical marijuana.
Also worth addressing is the potential for dependency to develop with marijuana usage. Currently marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy. The DEA defines Schedule 1 drugs as “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Schedule II drugs include a vast number of opiate painkillers and meth, meaning that the DEA classifies marijuana as more dangerous than meth. The science just does not support this classification.
Some studies have shown that withdrawal from marijuana is significantly less severe than that from many other drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, heroin and methamphetamines. Dependency rates are also much lower. One study, “indicated that 9 per cent of lifetime cannabis users met DSM-R-III criteria for dependence at some time in their life, compared to 32 per cent of tobacco users, 23 per cent of opiate users and 15 per cent of alcohol users.” So while the potential for dependence does exist, is is far less problematic than other substances.
Could the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug be a byproduct of Reefer Madness and subsequent legislation or is science misleading the countless patients they claim could benefit from cannabis as a viable form of treatment?
For fun, here is the movie.
Written by: Vanessa Blanchard