The Need for Weed

It's a unique source of fiber, a natural painkiller, a valuable fuel source. So when Jack Herer talks about legalization, there's a method to his reefer madness.

"Wait," Herer says, "and I'll show off for you." He breaks out a plastic bottle and twists the cap. Before it comes off, the room fills with a piny smell. Probably 29.86.

The problem isn't pot, Herer insists, it's politics. One of the few books to undertake the nearly impossible mission of delivering a wholly objective look at so-called recreational drugs, Chocolate to Morphine by Dr. Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen, declares that marijuana "is no more of a health problem than the occasional use of coffee or tea, and certainly it is less toxic than alcohol or tobacco."

That might not jibe with "research" that "proves" marijuana kills brain cells. Sadly for prohibitionists such research is questionable at best. Long before he became a two-term president Ronald Reagan denounced reefer by citing the Heath/Tulane University Study, which claimed that dope killed monkey brains. Playboy magazine broke the real story: The rhesus monkeys used in the study wore gas masks into which heavy-duty concentrations of marijuana smoke were pumped for several minutes. When researchers killed the monkeys and cut open their brains, they found dead brain cells. Ergo, pot smoke kills brain cells. The study deletes two important factors that Jack Herer gleefully points out in The Emperor: 1) the monkeys were simply suffocating from oxygen deprivation (he footnotes the Red Cross Lifesaving and Water Safety manual), and 2) the report never mentions carbon monoxide, which is found in all smoke.

Studies and politics, politics and studies. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew reefer, and Ben Franklin processed it. Jimmy Carter, as president, sought to eliminate federal controls over small amounts of cannabis. Former secretary of state George P. Shultz proselytized for "controlled legalization" of drugs. Current Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders let slip the wild notion that America should at least give this idea some thought. And in 1988 the DEA's chief administrative judge urged the federal government to make pot available for medical uses. Even people who wear suits sometimes see the light.

President Bill Clinton, an admitted dope smoker, stands firm against an end to prohibition. He says his brother Roger would be dead by now if drugs had been legal all these years. The president is either stupid or a liar. Or both. Roger Clinton's drug of turpitude was cocaine, a substance generally despised among the modern-day hempsters. And if pot were legal, people like Gary Shepherd might be alive. Shepherd was the subject of an in-depth investigative story published in the current issue of High Times, the pro-cannabis mag's twentieth-anniversary edition. He was a farmer in Kentucky with a family and some land and a broken-down pickup truck and a hunting rifle. He grew some vegetables on his land, and some killer bud for his own use, according to the magazine. When the helicopters buzzed in and the SWAT teams surrounded him, Shepherd refused to surrender, refused to hand over his rifle, just plain refused. Before the eyes of his wife and young son, Shepherd was shredded by 9mm bullets.

The origins of the hemp plant have been traced to Asia, and it has long been a staple in parts of India. It is thought that pot was brought to the New World via the slave trade, particularly in Brazil, or by sailors visiting the West Indies. By the beginning of this century, cannabis was well known in Mexico and soon crossed the border. Historians note that in the U.S. it was especially popular as a psychoactive substance among Mexican immigrants and poor Southern blacks. The first documented recreational toking reportedly took place in Texas in 1903. A few years later it became popular in the New Orleans port and red-light district of Storeyville. Jack Herer bellows over and over that the plant's popularity among blacks gave the government another reason to ban it A simple racism. But he's also happy to outline the famous marijuana conspiracy theory.

When companies such as Kimberly-Clark and the Hearst newspaper corporation found out their vast interests in paper could be undercut by this alternative (according to a 1938 article in Popular Mechanics -- not to mention dozens of subsequent newspaper stories, books, and private communiques -- marijuana can produce four times as much raw material per acre as trees for paper and similar uses, without contributing to soil depletion and the greenhouse effect), they teamed with bigot and director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger to combat pot. DuPont and other companies that had invested heavily in the very things marijuana would replace joined the battle. The movie Reefer Madness was released in 1936.

But with new generations comes new hope, and Herer's hemp tour is celebrating it. The tour has turned out to be in many ways like a rock and roll road show. All the events start on time A the rally at the courthouse, the debate at UM, the book signings, the blowout party A but it's only luck or fate or karmic bud that makes it so. These reefer-legalization people improvise like a well-oiled jazz band; it may seem that no one knows what he's doing, but everything comes together nicely.

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