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.

Of all the people gadding about in the fire-hot sun baking the steps of the Dade County Courthouse, this guy is the most easily pegged as a narc. The others gathering around the display tables are a mix of Pearl Jam concert refugees, hippie-heyday leftovers, old ladies. Aside from those who are entering the courts, nobody looks like a cop except the short guy in the crisp suit and sharp tie, the guy sporting the neat, short-back-and-sides haircut and precisely trimmed reddish mustache glistening with perspiration.

On this bright Monday after Easter, as the stock market plummets, the overdressed dude on the courthouse steps stands right there in front of God and the Man smoking a joint.

It's not surprising that someone has fired it up on this occasion. But it's not Jack Herer. An author and outspoken advocate for the relegalization of hemp -- "cannabis" and "marijuana" being his other preferred synonyms -- Herer has been arrested 34 times at similar rallies around the nation. Because he's the main speaker and, as usual, the center of attention, Herer makes for a likely suspect, but during the next several hours at least, he goes smokeless. Members of the Cannabis Action Network, in town from Louisiana on the heels of the Grateful Dead tour, look like they could use a bowlful right now. And those Pearl Jammy kids, too. This event was organized and is mostly attended by people devoted to making the various uses of the hemp-family plants available to Americans. You'd think somebody would spark one up. But you would not think it would be this guy in the suit and tie.

His name is Irvin Rosenfeld and he isn't a cop; he's a stockbroker. And even as the bears march down Wall Street, he has taken time off and driven more than 100 miles to sweat and puff his herb on the steps of the courthouse. By luck and coincidence and the fact people are communicating, he is invited to take the microphone from Jack Herer and tell his tale, an impromptu guest no fiction writer could invent.

Before handing over the mike, Herer delivers a few quick blasts about marijuana's historical status in pharmacopoeias. "For 5000 years this was the number-one drug, and no one has ever died from using it. You overdose on marijuana and the worst thing that can happen is you get the munchies." Applause crackles from the couple of dozen listeners. Herer's voice becomes gruffer and his cadence quickens, as if he's running out of breath and time at once. "If you're dying of cancer, AIDS, you have anorexia or you're in an old folks' home, the munchies are exactly what you want" -- a uniformed cop walks past, into the courthouse -- "but the cops'll say, 'Don't listen to that old hippie. He just wants to get stoned.'"

Herer is so dead certain of the truth he speaks that he has a standing offer: $10,000 to the first person who proves otherwise. But if Herer is the truth, Irvin Rosenfeld is the light. Since the age of ten, Rosenfeld tells the crowd, he has been forced to take medication for problems with his bones, problems so severe his native Virginia refused to allow him to attend public high school for fear he'd injure himself while on government property and then sue. His body was riddled with some 200 bone tumors, 40 of which have successfully been removed, the rest of which could turn malignant at any time. His doctors offered him what they could, including an open prescription -- morphine, cocaine, Quaaludes, Demerol, anything he wanted whenever he wanted it. But even with the aid of powerful painkillers, he could not sit for more than ten minutes without pain.

He is a "very law-abiding" person, he adds, and then delivers his punch line: He was the second person in the nation to be legally prescribed marijuana. For the past eleven years he has smoked ten to fifteen joints per day. Somehow the stock market survives.

Back when he came to Miami for college Rosenfeld did not smoke pot, considered it "garbage." But some fellow students at Miami-Dade South turned him on. He says he got high about ten times. Then one day he realized he'd been playing chess for more than an hour. Sitting down. Without pain. He gathered together his brain cells and figured out which drugs he'd taken that day, what mix of prescriptions had brought him such profound relief. "The only thing I'd done that day," he says, "was smoke marijuana."

One man's garbage is another's gold. "Laws are made to be followed," Rosenfeld continues, encouraged by Herer to hold the mike closer so everyone can hear. "Jack here, he'll get arrested if he lights a joint. That's his problem. My problem is that I want my health decisions made by doctors, not the police."

Rosenfeld claims no expertise in any of the complex areas of hemp decriminalization or why it was made illegal by the U.S. in 1937, though he does venture that "if the drug companies could make money on it, if the fuel corporations could make money, it'd be legal tomorrow." But Rosenfeld asserts this: "I am an expert on the medicinal uses. Without marijuana I wouldn't be here today. It's very beneficial; it relaxes the muscles that go over the bone tumors and also has some analgesic effect. I hope you all get the right to use it socially, but I hope you never, ever have to use it medicinally. I hope that your parents or grandparents don't ever need it medicinally. But if they do, I hope they don't have to become criminals."

Over near the display table, the one topped with copies of Herer's book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the proverbial bible of the legalization movement now in its ninth printing, and reefer-leaf bumper stickers, patches, buttons, T-shirts, and a donation can, stands Elvy Musikka, watching and listening to Rosenfeld's plainly spoken plea for sanity. She's wearing a floppy sun hat, cream-colored summer dress, blue jacket A every stitch of her outfit made from the fibers of hemp plants. "Right down to her bloomers," Herer screams into the mike. "It's four times longer-lasting and softer than cotton." Musikka looks like a young, healthy grandmother, but she is nearly blind because of glaucoma. The sight in one eye has already been lost to traditional medicine, her glasses are so thick you wonder how her nose holds them up. Even if she were completely blind, Musikka could see the truth for what it is, and she travels to spread the word. She was the first woman for whom the government approved the use of marijuana as a medicine. Uncle Sam sends prerolled joints to her doctor. She is certain that marijuana has saved her from complete blindness, not to mention suffering, during the past decade.

Wayne J. Roques, coordinator of demand reduction for the Miami office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, stares at his notes, seemingly oblivious to the words blaring from the TV set on the second floor of UM's student center. A few hours after the rally at the courthouse, Jack Herer is set to debate Roques before a couple of hundred onlookers. The subject: Should the U.S. legalize hemp marijuana? Members of the school's Hemp Awareness Council have organized this event, and they've decided to introduce it by screening a short film, a fervent bit of propaganda that makes the case for hemp. The producer: our very own U.S. government.

In 1942, five years after marijuana was banned, the world was at war. With the pressure on, the government was forced to fight the hype of the mid-Thirties that led to pot's prohibition and admit that the weed was our last, best hope. The film is called Hemp for Victory, and you've probably never heard of it. No one in the U.S. government wants you to. It is probably the strongest pro-marijuana propaganda ever created.

The DEA's Roques will not attempt to explain away the movie's fervent message, brandished often by Herer and his compadres: America was built on hemp, from historic documents (including the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, written on hemp paper) to the sails of the USS Constitution, which used 60 tons of hemp. And that hemp can save America in its hour of need.

Instead Roques spends most of his allotted time talking about his brutal New Orleans childhood and the dangers of tobacco and alcohol. It's a brilliant tack. Because marijuana is usually smoked like cigarettes and because it is psychoactive like booze, then marijuana, obviously, is as bad as tobacco and alcohol. "No lungs are designed to accept smoke of any kind," says Roques, who smokes nothing and gave up all alcohol seven years ago. "We need to keep illegal drugs illegal and fight tobacco and alcohol. This is not a ploy by the government and the media."

When it's his turn to talk, Herer argues that no automobile accident has ever been documented as being caused by reefer inebriation and that not a single case of lung cancer caused by marijuana has ever been diagnosed. Regarding violent crime, Herer sees cannabis as an antidote. As for self-harm, Herer loves to note that pot has been used forever -- since prehistoric times, according to many sources -- and no one has ever died from an overdose. "Back in 1973 I was told that hemp could provide almost all the paper we need," he says. "I couldn't believe it. The government wouldn't keep that from me."

Roques is treated with polite silence, drawing snickers only once. He explains that most marijuana contains a 2.3 to 3.6 THC level, THC being the psychoactive ingredient. "But now we're seeing this 'kryptonite' or 'chronic,'" he says. "We had a seizure in Alaska with a 29.86 THC content." The audience's chuckles are purely desirous.

The reason most of today's pot is ten times stronger than a decade or two ago -- and everyone agrees that's true -- is that the Americans took over, and Americans do everything better. In the Sixties and Seventies almost all of the bud smoked in this nation came from places such as Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Jamaica, and Belize. Asian varieties, like Thai sticks, were savored rarities. Today almost all the pot consumed here is grown here, by large-scale outdoor farmers from Kentucky to California and by indoor harvesters who use hydroponic techniques. And it is often spectacularly potent, carefully hybridized and cultivated to achieve maximum buzz effect.

Herer tends to smoke the best. After a radio interview, the pot star is driven to a nearby apartment with several other user-friendly activists. He has flown in from the annual "Hash Bash" in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which took place April 1. At the apartment he tosses a glowing, primordial, High Times-centerfold bud the size of a banana on the table. Everyone's eyes bulge. Whoa! What the heck is that? "I don't know," Herer says. "Somebody gave that to me yesterday in Michigan." Speaking as if Herer isn't in the room one activist says, "You believe this guy? He just throws it in his carry-on flight bag." It's a nice bag, too, a big, soft, convenient carrying case for clothes and whatever. It is made completely of marijuana.

"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.

The campaign ends on Tuesday. Herer and other organizers spend the afternoon at John Coleman's Hemp & Hammocks store in Key Largo, where Herer signs and sells copies of his book. Coleman and Herer are both advocates of wearing hemp clothing and using other hemp products. One local activist along for the ride to Largo has bought a new backpack made completely of hemp. It has a tag noting that the backpack should not be smoked.

There will be no need for that. On this Tuesday night, at a house in Southwest Dade, a couple of dozen people gather for a grand finale. The important work has been done and now it's time to kick back and relax. Plenty of primo buddage. Food and drink. The host, Doc, has cranked up the stereo.

But Herer isn't having it. He uses this opportunity, like all opportunities, to reiterate his message, to urge the mostly young people to pick up the struggle, to join him in the effort to decriminalize hemp. "Marijuana makes you a better driver," he cries, repeating statements he's made over and over in the past few days. "If you miss your exit, you don't get excited about it. If you're drinking or not stoned, you might cut someone off trying to make your exit. If you're stoned, you just go on to the next one, figuring there'll probably be a McDonald's there."

During the debate with the DEA's Wayne Roques, Herer noted that medicinal users wouldn't have to smoke ten to fifteen joints per day if they could get the killer stuff. "If they had the good seedless," he had noted, "they'd only need to smoke three joints a day." His logic may be sound, but the arguments continue, and will continue. At the party one guest, not a member of UM's Hemp Awareness Council or any of the other pro-pot organizations, sips a Budweiser. A loud-mouthed, always-right tough guy, he instigates an argument with glaucoma victim Elvy Musikka. She resolves the discussion by asking, "Can't my bud and your Bud just be friends?" He stares at the woman and remains silent for the next hour, listening and learning. Another potential convert. Jack Herer smiles broadly and passes the joint.

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