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Smokin' In the U.S.A How one little green leaf went from being a declared national crisis to being transformed into a billion-dollar industry

SLOWLY smouldering away alongside the storied backdrop of American history, cannabis has been with the United States in some way, shape, or form since its inception. Used to make paper, rope, and a large variety of other non-hallucinogenic products, hemp in the U.S. until the early 20th century was widely seen as nothing more than a common agricultural cash crop, similar to tobacco or lavender. When large numbers of Mexican workers started to enter the country in the midst of the great depression, however, things changed.

Starting in the mid-30’s, large numbers of migrant workers from Mexico entered the U.S. looking for work, and brought along with them the regional custom of smoking marijuana. High unemployment for most Americans only elevated racial tensions towards their new job market rivals, with many associating Mexican use of marijuana with violent crimes, rape, and a “lust for blood”. Nicknamed “the marijuana menace” the growing, sale, and use of marijuana was to be largely tampered down in the following years due to this sentiment.

Resurrecting itself inside the counterculture movement of the 60’s and 70’s, weed and the battle against it were not dormant for long. Becoming widely associated with the liberated sexual and societal values of the movement, more conservative generations feared the drug was possibly corrupting the minds of their youth. Spotting an opportunity for political gain against their main enemies, the Nixon administration of the time moved in to dramatically increase penalties. Largely ignoring his own National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse’s 1972 report recommending lesser penalties for possession and incremental legalization, the administration had grander goals in mind than public welfare.

“THE Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people”

explains former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman in a 1994 interview.

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.

“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Promoting casual drug users from procrastinating college students into “accomplices of murder” in the words of Nancy Reagan, the “war on drugs” hit marijuana and its users hard. Newly classified as a schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) marijuana was recognized as a substance with no accepted medical usage and high potential for abuse, in the same league as heroin, ecstasy, or meth.

With the introduction of “three strikes laws” across the country, many users of marijuana ultimately faced decades or even life in prison from nonviolent drug offenses after repeated violations. Government initiatives such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) encouraged school aged children to simply refuse drugs, yet are often tied by more modern studies as the cause that inspired teenagers to try weed in the first place. Ultimately, the war on drugs inspired by the mass movement against marijuana and other drugs has objectively failed, with large volumes of drugs sized and millions arrested only to have insignificant change in drug usage amongst the populace to show for it.

Starting in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, however, public perception as to the uses of marijuana began to change. People began to tire of a war against an inanimate object, and the disappointing results of the conflict left most people searching for alternatives. Brought on by new studies showing medical promise in cannabis, California became in 1996 the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana, and was followed just two years later by Alaska, Oregon, and Washington. A slow but steady adoption, medicinal marijuana is currently legal in 30 states, and is used to treat ailments ranging from Parkinson’s disease, PTSD, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.

YOUR GUIDE TO GRASS IN THE U.S.

Laws on recreational and medical marijuana use in the US*Laws on recreational and medical marijuana use in the US*

Legalized Recreational Marijuana

Bringing weed into the mainstream, medicinal marijuana brightened public perception of the drug, leading to a steady clamour for full-blown legalization for recreational purposes. Beginning in 2012 with successful ballot initiatives watched carefully nationwide within Colorado and Washington, recreational marijuana was once again legal in the United States. While the jury is still out as to whether the most earliest adopters of recreational weed have incurred the benefits promised by legalization activists, current results are promising. Colorado sales of pot alone hit over a record $1.5 billion in 2017, resulting in $247 million dollars in taxes and fees in Colorado coffers, according to official state government finance data.

With the large numbers of Colorado’s experiment only too enticing to states looking for new streams of tax revenue, it was only a matter of time until states such as Michigan joined the growing fold of legal recreational marijuana areas. With voters deciding to legalize recreational pot on a comfortable 56-44 percent margin, Michigan is the first state in the midwest to make such a move, with the possibility of “pot tourism” from bordering population in states such as Ohio or Indiana likely to become a reality in the near future. With a 10% tax written into the proposal with the planned revenue earmarked for the schools, roads, and municipalities closest to the point of sale, the state is certainly planning on marijuana being a lucrative enterprise.

High school administration in states that have already passed referendums legalizing marijuana are, however, asking for clearer guidelines on how to best address issues regarding marijuana on campus. Executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents commented that he thinks “there is still a lot to learn” in terms of what rights schools have towards students and personnel who use marijuana before or during the school day. School faculty are confused on the legal options and whether or not marijuana usage should be treated similarly to alcohol.

Colorado sales of pot alone hit over a record $1.5 billion in 2017.
Bag o' Kush

Additionally, school administrators are continually voicing their concerns about how increased access to marijuana may affect students brain development and behaviors. Although Colorado has acted as a guinea pig in this political experiment since 2012, administrators say it’s still too soon to know how recreational weed impacts testing or graduation rates. Despite concerns that the legalization of marijuana would lead to an increase in underage cannabis use, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado survey, marijuana usage among teens have remained constant since its legalization in the state.

Ken Koenig, DHS assistant principal, believes that the passage of Proposal 1 legalizing recreational marijuana will in Michigan have a “huge negative impact” on our school systems. Although he agrees with the legal age in which people are allowed to use recreational marijuana being 21, he does not think this will decrease marijuana usage among high school students.

“you’re gonna see a period of about 10 years where people go sideways with it and just like alcohol coming out of prohibition you’ll see the same kind of bounce back” said coach Koenig “and I wouldn’t be surprised if it does become legal you’ll see advertisements in sports arenas it’ll just become a part of society but you’ll have a whole different set of problems coming out of it we can even foresee right now there’s predictable ones and unpredictable ones”

It is clear that high school students recognize both the positive and negative impacts that the legalization of marijuana will have on them personally, or with their peers. Although 78.6% of the 281 Dexter High School students have never used marijuana in any form, over half (58.2%) responded that they are for the legalization of recreational marijuana. The survey asked students whether marijuana’s legalization would have a positive or negative effect on the Dexter community--most responded that the legalization would make the use of marijuana safer. Because marijuana would be regulated by the government, the quality, quantity, and potency could also be controlled. This regulation would greatly limit the amount of tainted weed circulating among youth.

Many students commented on how the taxation of marijuana can benefit their community. Denver, Colorado has used their additional $1.2 million of marijuana tax revenue to repave at least 50 blocks of streets this year. Mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock, says that the $14 million the city receives from pot sales has gone towards funding education, building community centers, as well as reparation of infrastructure.

While the Majuana itself likely won’t be for sale until 2020 given the complicated bureaucratic red tape maneuvering needed to create such an industry, the drug itself is likely to be legal come early December when election results are certified. But with weed still illegal as a schedule one drug at the federal level and with anti-proposal one activists planning legal retaliation in the courts, the fight for legalization may still not be over in Michigan. Only time will tell just what effects the initiative will have on the state, but for good or for bad, it now appears the fate of Michigan and of recreational weed are—at least for the meantime—entwined in hemp.

This is the first of a two-part series

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Bruna Meister Tate Evans
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Bruna Meister

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