Keep the lines straight
What to watch for in the Question 2 campaign
August 28, 1953: California Attorney General Edmund (Pat) Brown announced that the fight against marijuana was “showing marked results.”
Voters have become accustomed to seeing and hearing the truth shaved in political campaigns. Yet it often comes in a subjective form. Yes, Candidate A is misrepresenting Candidate B about Issue C, but it’s done in a way that it hangs from the edge of truth by the fingernails and no one can actually say it was a case of lying. That word is rarely used in political campaigns.
But this year, marijuana is on the Nevada ballot again, and lying has always been essential to drug prohibition. The war on drugs could not be sustained without lying. And on the narrower issue of marijuana prohibition, lying has been there from the birth of prohibition on June 10, 1937, when in the dead of night Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 which, though it only taxed marijuana, was used to arrest users for possession.
On that June 10, U.S. Rep. Carl Vinson of Georgia was the bill’s floor manager, and he was asked a direct question—“[D]oes the American Medical Association support this bill?” Vinson said, “They support this bill one hundred percent.” It was a lie. AMA lobbyist William Woodward had testified against the measure.
Well before the birth of marijuana prohibition, there had been plenty of lies that laid the groundwork for the ban. U.S. Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger, the J. Edgar Hoover of narcotics, was fond of using stories about black men and white women to mine the lode of racism in an effort to demonize marijuana. The Hearst press conducted a fact-challenged anti-marijuana campaign that—get ready for some Trump deja vu—demonized Latino immigrants.
Things haven’t improved much over the years, either. When the facts are inconvenient, lie—which was what Clinton drug “czar” Barry McCaffrey did when he spoke about Holland’s enlightened drug policies. “The murder rate in Holland is double that in the United States,” he said. “The overall crime rate in Holland is probably 40 percent higher than in the United States. That’s drugs.”
Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Chapman checked it out and found the murder rate in Holland was one-fifth that of the U.S. In addition, violent crime was “exceedingly scarce by American standards”—and marijuana use was lower than in the U.S.
The way lying was used—and still is—can be explored in our earlier article, “Lies our drug warriors told us” (RN&R, Aug. 26, 2006).
Thus, the initiative petition that seeks to make marijuana legal but regulated, much like booze, will offer special challenges. Voters can’t really count on reporters to keep the facts straight for them, if history is any indication. Not only were journalists in on the act in the early days, they are loath to be seen as soft on drugs now. Still, there are much better fact-checking features in journalism today than ever before. Had they existed in the 1930s, marijuana might never have been made illegal. So we’ll hope for the best but also plan for the worst.
Given this history of lies in the service of prohibition, and against the possibility that this campaign will be as shot through with bad information as it has been since Virginia City enacted the nation’s first anti-drug law, we want to help voters understand what lies ahead and offer this guide.Forms of misinformation
May 1, 1971: “In some schools, says NIMH [National Institute of Mental Health], there is evidence that marijuana use has crested.” —Associated Press
Not all cases for marijuana prohibition involve lying, and those that do can conceal the lying with other deceptive techniques. Some don’t lie at all. They use facts—but manipulate them, conceal some of them, color them with loaded terms, spin them, ignore them.
To demonstrate, we will use some actual arguments employed by prohibitionists—when possible, in Nevada. To make it as up-to-date as possible, we will frequently use essays and letters to the editor (“Economic boom ahead,” RN&R, June 30) written in the current campaign by Republican Douglas County lawyer Jim Hartman, president of a prohibitionist group called Nevadans for Responsible Drug Policy, as examples of what lies ahead.
Make it up. Some prohibitionists invent anti-marijuana information on the grounds that they are serving a higher cause. For instance, on April 2, 1970, Reno physician Wesley Hall—newly elected president of the American Medical Association—announced that the AMA would shortly release a study showing that marijuana deadened the sex drive and caused birth defects. The AMA knew nothing about this; his board did not authorize his statement, and it wasn’t true. No such study was ever released. Much later, Hall claimed he was misquoted and said he didn’t bother to correct the record because “it does some good.”
Screen out the good stuff. Some prohibitionists offer assertions which mislead by leaving out important information, cherry-picking the available information to offer the most damning interpretation.
Hartman: “The experience of legalization in Colorado has already shown that recreational marijuana use has compromised the state’s workforce and caused large companies to hire workers from other states, as would-be employees fail pre-employment drug tests. The ’New Nevada’ is expecting to see large growth in advanced manufacturing jobs; can we afford to have Nevada jobs imperiled?”
But the New York Times reported that Colorado’s workforce was “compromised” before legal marijuana: “In Colorado, ’to find a roofer or a painter that can pass a drug test is unheard-of,’ said Jesse Russow, owner of Avalanche Roofing & Exteriors, in Colorado Springs. That was true even before Colorado, like a few other states, legalized recreational use of marijuana.” (Emphasis added.)
Because I say so. Some people flatly state an assertion but provide no substantiation.
Hartman: “The result has been an alarming growth in underage marijuana use, increase in drug crimes, a continuing marijuana ’black market’ and sales dispensaries focused on inner-city neighborhoods, as well as issues related to health, banking, pesticides and neighborhood zoning. The tax revenues raised from pot sales have not covered the regulatory overhead.”
No citations accompany these assertions. But just for the fun of it, we checked out one of them—the “increase in drug crimes.”
According to the Denver Post, “It depends on what you consider an increase. Certainly there are more crimes being committed at marijuana stores compared to five years ago—if for no other reason than there are lots more stores. But police in Colorado have never demonstrated that marijuana businesses make their neighborhoods less safe. The slight increase in crime near medical marijuana dispensaries in Denver in the first half of 2013 was in line with overall crime trends in the city. A three-year-old Denver police analysis showed that marijuana stores were robbed at a lower rate than banks.”
If there was an increase in drug crimes, it would presumably show up in related costs such as prisons or public safety. But the Deseret News reports “no unusual budget increases or decreases” other than normal cost of living or inflation increases for public safety, public health, or corrections since legal marijuana came to the state. Colorado Department of Corrections official Adrienne Jacobson: “Any budget increases are in no way related to the legalization of marijuana.”
The Post also reports that marijuana-related crime accounts for less than a percent of total offenses, and that in at least one year since marijuana legalization, crime in the city has gone down.
(Denver figures are often used as an indicator of legal marijuana’s impact because marijuana remains illegal in at least 249 Colorado communities, including most of the rural areas.)
Ideological truth. Some people don’t really care if something is true or not—instead of going where the evidence takes them, they follow dogma, which requires them to reject any assertion that—however true—violates doctrine or ideology.
Richard Nixon knew nothing about marijuana. When it came into wide use during the late 1960s, he appointed a presidential commission headed by Republican Gov. Raymond Shafer of Pennsylvania. (Declaration of interest: Shafer was this reporter’s first cousin.) When the commission he appointed reached conclusions his cultural and political background rejected, Nixon in turn rejected the report out of hand. The content of the report was unimportant. On such a culturally loaded issue, Nixon could accept it only if he agreed with its findings.
Cross talk. Prohibitionists love emotionally loaded terms to make ordinary things sound menacing. It makes legal marijuana sound threatening without having to dip into actual facts, which could backfire. For instance, Nevada has been trying to lure big corporations and industries to the state for much of its history—but now, “Big Marijuana” is seen as a threat instead of economic development.
Other terms and phrases that are already being used to tilt the board by tainting perfectly legitimate political activity: “out of state,” “massive bureaucracy,” “promoters,” “radical,” “special-interest.”
Hartman: “Nevada voters should now brace against millions of dollars from out-of-state ’Big Marijuana’ interests supporting Question 2 on the November ballot, the legalization of recreational marijuana.”
Nevada held special sessions of the Nevada Legislature in 1984 to change banking law for the gargantuan, out-of-state Citicorp and in 2014 to amend state marketing law for Tesla, which isn’t exactly a local mom-and-pop operation. And state officials laid out the largest package of corporate welfare in human history to get the Tesla factory. But bigness has apparently gone out of style in the past two years. At any rate, Hartman did not complain about the out-of-state, massive Tesla when it was being wooed to the state.
Hartman: “Out-of-state pot industry promoters are pouring money into Nevada to legalize recreational marijuana in this state.”
Hartman was not always so finicky about out-of-state promoters. He didn’t complain in 2002, when Bush drug “czar” John Walters came to Nevada to campaign repeatedly around the state against a marijuana ballot measure, including using a series of television campaign commercials. In checking for letters to the editor or essays in the Reno Gazette-Journal, the News & Review, and Hartman’s hometown newspaper, the Gardnerville Record Courier, we drew a blank. We didn’t even find any complaints from Hartman about Walters’ refusal to file campaign disclosure reports with Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller, as required by state law and demanded by Heller.
Another example—Hartman: “The taxes generated from marijuana sales under this initiative would be totally consumed by the bureaucratic costs of legal pot administration run by state government.”
That’s not what happened in Colorado, which Hartman himself uses as an example. Gov. John Hickenlooper: “Our FY 2015-16 budget request includes a request for $33.6 million from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund for enforcement and oversight of Colorado’s new marijuana industry, including required reserves and addressing a shortfall in the current appropriation. The FY 2015-16 request includes a continuation of several initiatives that promote public health and public safety, robust regulatory oversight, law enforcement and the prevention and deterrence of youth marijuana use.” The previous year, according to Forbes, Colorado took in nearly $70 million in marijuana tax revenue from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015, not only covering the budget of the Marijuana Enforcement Division [MED] of the Department of Revenue, but nearly covering the $74,419,435 budget of the entire department and all its divisions. (There are also ancillary marijuana functions in other departments but those are lesser budgets.)
Even that overstates the cost of administering the program, according to MED spokesperson Robert Goulding, who told us, “The cost of administering DOR’s marijuana related functions is projected to total nearly $10M for fiscal year 2015-16. It is important to note that marijuana ’pays its own way’ in Colorado as marijuana related taxes, licenses and fees fund our regulatory costs as well as address some of the social considerations surrounding marijuana.”
Off the point. This one involves ad hominem attacks by prohibitionists that question the character or motives of advocates to get people to stop thinking about the issue.
Hartman: “It qualified for the ballot as a result of pot promoters paying $660,000 to mercenary signature gatherers.”
Paid signature gatherers were also used to collect signatures to remove the sales tax on equipment used by the sick and dying. Were they mercenaries, too? Is it possible to work a job disapproved of by bluenoses without evil intent?
Karl Rove tactic. This one involves attacking the strengths of the opposition, such as the involvement of locals.
Hartman: “This initiative isn’t a Nevada-based libertarian effort to ’decriminalize’ or ’legalize’ marijuana.”
Nearly 200,000 citizens with Nevada residences signed the petition—nearly twice the 101,666 required. What do they have to do to be considered real Nevadans?Coda
June 29 1970: “The Justice Department says it is highly pleased with initial results of ’Operation Cooperation,’ the joint U.S.-Mexican drive to destroy opium poppies and marijuana in Mexico and catch those who trade in the illegal drugs.” —Associated Press
One particularly interesting facet of the criticism of the Nevada ballot measure so far is that prohibitionists have been so busy using the most lurid language and most emotional claims that they have missed some of the truly difficult problems Colorado has faced. For instance, impaired driving is a still unresolved problem, in part because technology is not yet available for measuring impairment and because marijuana has different traits than other drugs such as alcohol. It has not been a large difficulty so far, because the number of driving under the influence of drugs cases has not changed radically, but it still needs attention from policymakers. It’s also an issue that could use some serious discussion instead of exploitation.
Nevada’s peculiar history comes into play in this campaign, and motives may be all over the map. Supporters may simply want marijuana available for their personal use. Others may genuinely believe the drug war mentality is injuring society, just as was true of the woman who led the campaign to repeal alcohol prohibition because it was damaging so many families. Nor are those two viewpoints always mutually exclusive.
On the other side, though business always gets its way in Nevada, many businesspeople suddenly have found their limits, now considering entrepreneurs synonymous with communists. Or they may truly feel the state’s image may be damaged. Former Assembly GOP floor leader Pat Hickey:
“It may be what certain Nevada denizens have done in the past. The question before voters this November is whether or not future Nevadans want to continue doing business modeled on the past? What I said earlier about ’one (stupid) step backwards,’ is this: Why should the ’New Nevada’ many of us envision have to resort to an ’old’ reliance on the tourist industry in and around the state’s casino corridors? Why create another industry predicated on people’s predilection to pleasure, in order to bankroll our schools?”
Nevada does business over the decades with every cancer cure, youth drug, mobster, mining con man, corporate shyster and brothel lord, while accepting nuclear contamination of its land and promoting gambling addictions by the boatload, but it’s going to reform over marijuana?
Nevertheless, Hickey is one person thinking the issue through and writing position papers on the issue rather than just reacting to mythology or appealing to emotion. He brings some intellectual honesty to the campaign.
Keep in mind regarding this year’s campaign dialogue that police and prosecutors are not health care experts. It’s also a useful reminder to journalists, who have a habit of pitting patients or physicians against law enforcement.
The flipside is also true—physicians are not enforcement experts. In a recent essay in the Reno Gazette Journal (“’Big Marijuana’ misleads us”), prohibitionist physician Greg Juhl writes that he will “let the Colorado police officers discuss how, in fact, they are not free to do other policing”—and then speaks for them: “Instead they spend more time dealing with the black market, illegal growing, drug trafficking and money laundering,” all reasonable police duties in a state where marijuana remains illegal in more than 200 communities.
It should also be kept in mind that police are able to keep or sell forfeited assets from busts, so they have a financial stake in prohibition.
Voters should avail themselves of the internet to do their own research, instead of succumbing to vile advertising or listening only to advocates or essayists. When techniques discussed here cause alarm, check the claims out. This requires some discernment—the internet comes with a lot of chaff among the few patches of wheat. But the effort to find the reliable information is worth it. Looking for confirmation of one’s preferences is the last thing voters should do.
In the end, what Nevada voters will have to decide is whether government prohibition, which creates both the lure of the forbidden (incentivizing use) and public demand (incentivizing a black market) is a remedy for anything—whether history shows prohibition to have been a success.
August 5 1985: “The campaign will continue until every available known plot of marijuana has been eradicated.” —U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese.