November 26, 2012

Recovered history: A 42 year old city council hearing on pot

One of our favorite articles from this publication's past - then the DC Gazette - is this one from January 22, 1970 that describes a DC city council hearing on marijuana. The city council chair, incidentally, was a white Republican. This article illustrates how the real problem over the past 40 years has not been pot smokers but politicians and law enforcement trying the control them. And how much wiser a lot of people were back then. 

They weren't alone. At the time, your editor owned a farm in Virginia's extremely rural Rappahanock County. Associate editor Erbin Crowell, who wrote the article below, lived there for some years. His neighbor, G Brown Miller, once said to me, "You know, partner, your friend Erbin is a mighty fine fellow." I agreed and Miller went on, "He gave me one of them marijewwana cigarettes." 

"So how did you like it, Brown?" 

"Well, I'll tell you, partner. For a man who's lived on moonshine all his life it don't do much."

Erbin Crowell, DC Gazettte, 1970 - Nobody can prove that the Father of our Country was a pot-head, but old George's diary shows evidence that he was well aware that only the flowering female cannabis sativa had uses other than rope— the male and female marijuana plants were meticulously separated at Mt. Vernon. Now, a couple of centuries later, near Washington's old homestead, the appointed overseers of the Congressional plantation carved out some of George's vast land holdings are publicly examining the medical, psychological, social and legal aspects of marijuana. The hardy plant seems to have yielded not only miles of hemp rope and volumes of literature on its other properties, it is now eliciting opinion from everyone — from City Council Chairman Gilbert Hahn and the Surgeon General of the United States to Joseph Alsop and Petey Greene's grandmother.

The Public Safety Committee of the City Council held two days of hearings this month to hear scientific and public testimony about marijuana. Most what it heard was expectable:  marijuana, scientifically, is a mild consciousness altering drug; it is not addictive, nor does it lead to the use of addicting drugs; it has been known and used and studied for literally thousands of years, and no physiological damage whatsoever has been discovered; instances of adverse mental effects resulting from its use are extremely rare.. Most significant to the Council's hearing — and to a good number of kids who are in prison on pot convictions — was the fact, reiterated by Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld, that "in the case of marijuana, legal penalties were originally assigned with total disregard for medical and scientific evidence of the properties of the drug or its effects."

"I know of no clearer instance in which the punishment for infraction of the law is more harmful than the crime, " Steinfeld concluded

That touches on the ostensible reason the Council is so concerned, but Catfish Turner probably got closer to the reality of the matter when he noted that no one in the white establishment was concerned when the use of pot was limited to Mexican Americans, ghetto blacks and a few musicians

"It's only when it gets into your suburbia and your white middle class colleges that you begin to get at all concerned," Turner said. And Petey Greene, who testified alongside Turner agreed: "See, you people are just conning. . .  (What? Councilman Daugherty asked). . .  Faking, man, just faking. You're showing all this concern not for the community but just because some congressmen's kids got busted.

"Marijuana smoking is now so widespread among the white middle and upper classes, said Greene, that "probably some of you up there got a little nickel (five dollar) bag you go back to when this is over."

The government has never worried about lying to the ghetto, but now, Catfish said, it is realizing that it "has got to stop telling these youngsters all these lies 'cause they know you're lying and you know they do."

Greene "testified" on behalf of his grandmother, whose opinions on marijuana are based on practical experience. She once told her grandson to quit: "Petey, you gotta stop smoking those reefers, because they make you too hungry, and I can't buy all that extra food. " Later, on comparing its effects with those of alcohol, "She said she'd rather me smoke reefers and just sit and smile at people than drink that old wine and come in throwing chairs around."

While Council Chairman Hahn admitted that the Council has no power to make the use and possession of marijuana legal, "it may have the power by regulation to create an alternate lighter penalty for the use and possession of marijuana." And more important, Hahn told reporters afterwards, the hearings provided an opportunity both to hear from and educate the public

So the scientists were called in. (There were only a couple of cops guarding the Council chambers on that day and about five times that number the next morning when "the public" was to be heard.) The Surgeon General lauded the Nixon Administration's position and seemed to be calling for an even more drastic reduction of penalties for pot. But he hinted at at a possible ulterior motive of the Administration: since the present law has not served its purpose (many jurists won't envoke present penalties because they are too harsh), a "more realistic penalty structure" might do more "to control the use of marijuana than the present one."

Harvard's director of psychiatric research, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, called for immediate legalization under controls similar to those now on alcohol. Grinspoon recommended continued study, but said under questioning that there is already more than sufficient scientific knowledge to conclude that "no amount of research will ever find marijuana as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco."

Much of the other scientific testimony said as much about the testifiers as it did about pot. The John Hopkins Drug Abuse Center,,- and the Pharmacology Departments of Howard and George Washington attempted to convince the Council that "we know so little" and that what was needed was a great deal more research money, presumably to their own institutions

The testimony of representatives of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was notable for its meekness. Although the narcs still refer to marijuana as a killer drug before high school audiences, still try to imply that pot inevitably and immediately leads to heroin, still pass out 1930's posters of marijuana as the Grim Reaper—they backed off under Council questioning. The narc's Dr. Milton Joffe even allowed that although "legalizing simply for hedonistic purposes" was not warranted, "I'm not against pleasure. . . "

And there were few surprises in the public testimony from about thirty individuals and organizations

Judge Charles Halleck recommended more realistic penalties, since present laws tend to cause the community "to lose faith in the entire system of justice." James H. Heller of the National Capital Area Civil Liberties Union called for legalization of pot. He said he saw no reason that it should be treated any different from alcohol. (He admitted to having tried grass once, "but it didn't have any effect."

"Maybe you just didn't know how to smoke it, " Councilwoman Polly Shackleton consoled him.

Rev. John Bussey, President of the D. C. Baptist Ministers Conference, called marijuana evil and sinful and warned against the terrors of bending or reducing any penalties. "This is not the time to let up," said Bussey.

Dr. Seymour Albert, speaking for the D. C. Medical Society, promised to testify only on medical grounds but could cite no medical evidence for his opinion that pot was more harmful than alcohol, expressed worry that "marijuana is only used in a deliberative effort to escape reality," said he had no opinion on legal matters but that marijuana should "be not legalized," and concluded that the penalties should be "left up to lawyers."

Virginia Riley of the D. C. Bar Association Mental Health Committee took the time to testify that the Bar Association had no opinion and no position on the matter.

Father Robert Judge, a dean at Georgetown University, estimated that as many as 85% of Georgetown freshmen have used marijuana at one time or another. He felt that continued use might indicate a tendency to "cop out, " but admitted that "often the continuing users are the better students." He recommended that legal sanctions against pot "should be extremely minimized."

The D. C. Republican Central Committee asked for more study, expressed the hope that it could after a year or so "make a more mature judgement," and under questioning hinted that penalties should be reduced. Dr. Dan Fivel of the D. C. Democratic Central Committee submitted its resolution (passed 7 to 1) that all penalties be eliminated "for possession, use, and distribution of marijuana except insofar as may be required to control sale to minors and use by persons operating motor vehicles." Hip blacks echoed Green and Turner that the Council exhibited its racist bias by ignoring the marijuana "problem" until it had spread outside the bounds of the ghetto. A couple of conservative Negroes asked for stricter enforcement of present laws

Intense kids placed marijuana laws in their proper context of illegal draft laws, insane war, robot-producing public schools, and institutional racism. A couple of ex-addicts who had smoked, shot and drunk virtually everything they could get their hands on testified to the mild nature of pot. One even told the Council that it was liquor—not marijuana—that led him to heroin. The Capitol Hill Action Group recommended legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana— the tax revenues,would be significant to this tax-poor colony.

Terry Becker, a Quicksilver Times reporter, surprised everyone by calling for more stringent penalties and stricter enforcement.Becker wanted "everyone to turn on and everyone to get busted;" it would hasten the revolution, he said."

There were 100 to 125 spectators on each day of the hearings and [public TV station] WETA carried some of the proceedings so, as Chaiman Hahn hoped, there was ample opportunity for "educating the public. " And Hahn made sure there was a full and accurate record.

Noting that Surgeon General Steinfeld had referred to the famous Alice B. Toklas marijuana or hash brownies but claimed the recipe was not to be found in Alice's cookbook, Hahn opened the second day of hearings by setting the record straight. You will find the recipe on page 273 of Alice B. Toklas, announced Hahn, and having fulfilled his public responsibility, he ordered the proceedings to proceed.

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