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Myths About High Times in America

By Ryan Grim
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Americans have historical amnesia of a general variety, but the blackout is particularly acute when it comes to what our grandparents, and their grandparents, did to get high. Forty years after Woodstock, the nation is taking a fresh look at its twisted relationship with drugs and insobriety. But we're doing so without drawing lessons from the centuries of experience we have with inebriation and the effort to control it. Five widespread myths must be dispensed with if America ever plans on sobering up and making rational drug policy.

1. America's drug problem began in the late 1960s.

Drugs (other than booze) first went mainstream in the early to mid-19th century. The father of the opium boom -- or, more accurately, the mother -- was the temperance movement. Pressured by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, religious leaders and other advocates, Americans put down the bottle, and drinking plummeted by a half to three-quarters.

With drinking taboo, our ancestors got high instead. An 1872 look at the opium boom by the Massachusetts State Board of Health noted that "between 1840 and 1850, soon after teetotalism had become a fixed fact . . . our own importations of opium swelled." When opium started causing problems, in came morphine, marketed as a nonaddictive alternative. When that proved patently false, Bayer's heroin was sold as a nonaddictive substitute for morphine. Sears, Roebuck and Co. was slinging cocaine kits, complete with powder and syringe. In 1885, Parke-Davis promised, quite rightly, that its cocaine could "supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent."

2. Nixon is to blame for the war on drugs.

Nixon's declaration was nothing new. Americans have been waging war against their love of inebriation since before they were Americans. In 1619, Virginia got it going by banning "playing dice, cards, drunkenness, idleness, and excess in apparel." Founding Father Benjamin Rush typified the contradictions of the American war against getting high; the physician's famous anti-liquor treatise in 1785 contained kind words for beer and wine: "generally innocent, and often have a friendly influence upon health and life." The nation's first uprising revolved around sobriety, when George Washington put down the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion.

When the next wave of the temperance movement crested, Rush was lifted again as a hero, but his kudos to beer and wine were left on the shore. Temperance movements, led by women, left men unsure that they wanted to share the franchise. "I am not sure how I will vote, but think I will vote against suffrage," Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio said in 1916, according to a contemporaneous article in the Nation magazine. "I don't see how I can vote for suffrage and against prohibition." He voted for prohibition anyway and, as president during the dry spell, held regular whiskey and poker nights.

3. Legalization will increase teen drug use.

But the children! Californians fretted loudly in 1996 that the state's new medical marijuana law would lead to an increase in teen pot-smoking, so the state studied it closely. The attorney general's first look a year later found no effect. The office looked again a decade later. Teen use had collapsed. Among seventh- and 11th-graders, the number of kids saying they'd smoked in the last month fell by a quarter; among ninth-graders, it fell by 47 percent. Bigger declines were found in weekly and annual use. In almost every other state that passed a medical marijuana law, pot-smoking among children declined faster than in states that didn't.

4. In foreign countries, legalization has been disastrous.

First, no country has ever completely legalized drugs, not since global treaties were signed a century ago ushering in prohibition. In Holland, drug laws are still on the books, but a social pact between the government and the people keeps shops from getting busted.

Portugal became the first European country to abolish drug laws when it repealed criminal penalties for pot, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine in 2001. The world freaked: The United Nations suggested that the new law could be a treaty violation and would lead to crime, a spike in addiction and a rise in "drug tourism." But the country didn't fully legalize. People caught with drugs still had to go to a magistrate and face a small penalty. But they wouldn't go to jail.

Now the United Nations is lauding Portugal. In its most recent World Drug Report, it says, "These conditions keep drugs out of the hands of those who would avoid them under a system of full prohibition, while encouraging treatment, rather than incarceration, for users." The report also noted that the policy had not led to an increase in drug tourism and that "a number of drug-related problems have decreased."

5. Americans aren't ready for legalization.

While pot-smoking peaked in the late '70s, legalization never came close to being a majority position. This country has fewer pot smokers today -- a University of Michigan study found that marijuana use among 18- to 20-year-olds dropped by nearly half from the late '70s to today -- but polls show support at about 50 percent for taxing and regulating marijuana as we do alcohol.

But Americans have a dim view of their neighbors' enlightenment, an appraisal that shines through in research by Zogby in Rhode Island and Vermont. The survey, paid for by the Marijuana Policy Project (my onetime employer), interviewed 501 likely voters in Rhode Island and 502 in Vermont. It found 69 and 71 percent support for medical marijuana, respectively. No surprise. But Zogby asked one last question: Regardless of your own opinion, do you think a majority in your state support or oppose medical marijuana? In Vermont, 38 percent of people thought a majority backed it; a quarter of Rhode Islanders guessed their fellow citizens supported medical pot.

Americans are ready. They just don't know it yet.

ryan@huffingtonpost.com

Ryan Grim, a congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post, is the author of "This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America."

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