Colorado State University-Pueblo professor Tim McGettigan recently published The Politics of Marijuana, a book about the past, present and future of cannabis in the political and social sphere. Specifically, he focused on the anti-cannabis crusade of the 1930s and how it influenced the way cannabis is still taboo for many today, despite more nationwide support for the plant than ever before.
We caught up with McGettigan to learn more about his book and where he thinks cannabis legalization will take the country in the future.
Westword: What kind of research went into The Politics of Marijuana?
Tim McGettigan: I had conducted several years of research, since the launch of the Institute of Cannabis Research at CSU Pueblo, into the social impact that legal cannabis has on the Pueblo community. I was the organizer of the first two ICR conferences, so my community impact and study and research, combined with my interactions and work with the conference and working with the scholars who are presenting papers at the conference, gave me the background knowledge and the contacts with researchers that I needed to pull the book together. In addition to that, I teach two classes at CSU Pueblo that are cannabis-related classes. One is "Cannabis in Society" and the other is "Cannabis Policy." And so the lengthy preparation that was required to put those two courses together gave me additional research and insights into the phenomenon of cannabis, and society and the politics of cannabis and marijuana.
Why be a part of the Cannabis Institute? How did your whole study of marijuana in the sociopolitical sphere start?
It started primarily because in the spring of 2016, the Colorado Legislature designated CSU Pueblo as the location [for] an institute of cannabis research that the state wished to fund. I had never done any research on cannabis or its impacts prior to the spring of 2016, primarily because had I done so, I would have run into a great deal of opposition from colleagues, department chairs and administrators — because in so many ways, cannabis even now remains a taboo subject for a lot of people.
Considering Colorado's legalization efforts, why is cannabis still considered a taboo subject?
Well, the reason is something that I and the authors who contributed to The Politics of Marijuana explore at length, and the portions that I contribute to that discussion have to do with something that I describe as a "truth regime" that was instituted back in the '30s by a guy named Harry Anslinger. He was the first drug czar in the United States, and the first director of what's now become the Drug Enforcement Administration. Anslinger essentially created a racialized mythology around marijuana to essentially create a job for himself. He was afraid that after alcohol prohibition ended — he was a federal cop for the prohibition of alcohol — and alcohol became legalized once again, he feared he'd be out of work. And so to drum up work for the institution that he was director of, he had to villainize a drug, and cannabis became his drug of choice.
Why did cannabis become his drug of choice? There were probably others to choose from back then.
It is a very strange choice, because in the early days of the U.S., the Founding Fathers grew hemp on their properties. There were communities that grew so much hemp, today they're named Hempstead and Hemphill, and "hemp" this and "hemp" that. Americans did not view cannabis as a threat in the ’30s. The reason that Anslinger chose it as one is because he thought much of the THC consumption in the ’30s was among jazz artists, but also Mexican migrants to the U.S.
Americans used hemp for lots of other things, but just in terms of using cannabis to get "cool buzz," it was largely restricted to minority communities. So that enabled Anslinger to villainize a drug that white Americans didn't really have a taste for at the time. When he racialized it, he did it in the most ugly ways imaginable, [like] what he began referring to as "marijuana," so that it would sound more Mexican to make it easier to racially villainize. Anslinger made public statements about the fact that when people of color smoke cannabis, they begin to feel as though they were as good as white men, and became what Americans with significant racial biases referred to as "super predators." So Anslinger created this whole series of highly racialized lies about how cannabis was being used by minority populations to threaten white society, and also to get white women to succumb to the sexual advances of African-American men and Mexican-American men. As soon as Anslinger racialized marijuana, racist white Americans embraced his legal prohibition to their cause.
So both race and politics kind of mixed into that decision for targeting cannabis?
Well, Anslinger targeted cannabis because he knew it was a weed. It literally is a weed. It grows like a weed all across the United States. He also made up the fiction that Mexican migrants brought it to the U.S. As I said, early settlers grew hemp, and it's even in George Washington's personal journal that he was growing hemp on his property. What Anslinger saw in cannabis was a type of drug that could get people to buy into his lies and the bogus war that he wanted to launch against it. Cannabis had the advantage of being something that was ineradicable. It's like trying to outlaw dandelions in the U.S. Anslinger would never run out of a problem that his anti-narcotics agency would have to fight against. He didn't want to have another situation where a drug like alcohol was illegal for a short time and then became legalized, and thus would bring the end of his agency.
He wanted a drug that would be possible to get rid of, and that he could also villainize through white-supremacist racism to get the power brokers in the U.S. behind him and his agency in a battle against people of color and communities of color. What we've seen with the anti-drug policies by Anslinger's agency — but also his offspring's agency, the DEA — is that all drug policies that have been launched in the U.S. have been primarily designed to inflict racist abuse on communities of color. Anslinger started that process.
So how did America go from supporting Anslinger’s anti-cannabis policy to today, when we see more states legalizing cannabis? Did lighter racial tensions play into that?
No such luck. What we see today, especially with Donald Trump in the White House, is a resurgence of the ugliest forms of racism that we have, time and time again, tried to confront in the United States. But every time we think we've gotten a step or two ahead of white-supremacist racism, we have another cycle like we're going through right now, where white-supremacist racism becomes very central to the political narrative, as we see Donald Trump doing all the time. He's constantly heaping abuse on Mexican-Americans. It's just like returning to the ugly old days of Anslinger. All people of color have come under Donald Trump's scrutiny and negative commentary. The legalization of cannabis in places like Colorado is not due to racial enlightenment, unfortunately.
What it's largely due to is a dawning realization that cannabis is not a drug; cannabis is a nutrient. We've learned that scientific and political information have been suppressed in the U.S. because it would undermine ongoing attempts to maintain cannabis prohibitions. But on a human level, what people have learned is that cannabis does have wonderfully medicating effects for a wide range of illnesses that don't respond to any other form of medical treatment. And that knowledge has been around; it's folk knowledge that has existed for thousands of years. It's been suppressed in U.S. since Anslinger's prohibition was instituted, but it wasn't entirely lost, and gradually has worked its way back into the public consciousness.
That's why, in places like Colorado, medical marijuana became legalized again. It was entirely on the strength of families who were in desperate need of some type of pain relief for a treatment of a debilitating disease, had nowhere else to turn, and in a last-ditch attempt to provide relief for a loved one, turned to marijuana because they were completely at their wits' end. They found that, almost instantaneously, this much-maligned weed provided incredible relief of suffering and relief of disease-related symptoms. When someone sees an aging family member able to die in peace, or when someone sees a child that is racked with hundreds or thousands of seizures per day, and all they want is for the poor child to have relief when none is coming from any of the arsenals that are available [in] the standard medical chest. But word reaches that person that if they were to give their child a little taste, a little dose of CBD that they could extract from a hemp plant, it might help their child.
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If someone can save their child with cannabis, they are no longer going to listen to someone from the federal government who tells them that cannabis is evil or there's no medicinal value in cannabis. They're going to become converts, and they're going to tell other people, because distressed parents know what it feels like to be told that they have to prepare for their child's death. If they can help their own kids, they become determined to help other kids, like the folks in CannaMoms do.
That is what has driven the change in the U.S. It's not racial enlightenment, not a chance of that. We're almost in worse shape now than we were ten years ago, thirty years ago or fifty years ago as far as racism goes in the U.S. What's turned the tide for cannabis is the re-emergence of the benefits of cannabis as a folk remedy that provides more and better relief for a humongous range of ailments.
Do you make any parallels between the Trump administration now and what you learned while writing about the ’30s for the book?
Oh, my goodness, yes. The parallels are extraordinary. Jeff Sessions, the first attorney general in the Trump administration, used the very same playbook. Jeff Sessions was quoted as saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan were okay until he found out that some of them smoked marijuana. Our [former] AG, while he was in office, made a very racist statement, and was not the least bit bothered by the KKK's racism. I'm sure Harry Anslinger in his day would have been great friends with all sorts of members of the KKK. Where Anslinger and Sessions would have drawn the line is if any of the KKK guys had lit up a marijuana cigarette.