It goes without saying the decade just ended saw more changes to the societal views on marijuana and the resultant laws than were witnessed during the entire previous century.
Few areas of governmental interest are experiencing such dynamic shifts in both public opinion and new legislation. And as legalization spreads across America, it’s bumping up against other areas where legal reforms are long overdue, making cannabis a locus of broader developments coming to dominate the political trajectory of the early twenty-first century.
So it’s hardly surprising that a mere four years after he published his book, Marijuana: A Short History, author John Hudak has returned to the topic with an updated edition.
When first released, just four states – including Alaska – allowed legal recreational purchase and use. Seven more had legalized it by the time he wrote this update, and the 2020 election (held shortly after this edition was released) brought four more into the fold.
Hudak is a fellow with both the centrist Brookings Institution and the conservative Federalist Society, and his focus is on how we reached our present state of affairs and on finding the best practices to build the industry. It’s a valuable primer for anyone interested in the topic.
In the introduction, Hudak states that policy is his main interest. But despite early indications of neutrality, it quickly becomes clear that he fully grasps the failures of America’s long War on Drugs, and wants to see legalization handled in ways that go well beyond simply allowing consumers to buy and use cannabis plants and products.
He hopes to see the horrific damage wrought by a century of prohibition on society — especially on minority communities which have been brutally targeted — not just reversed, but compensated.
After a brief opening section discussing the biological and pharmacological aspects of cannabis, Hudak gets down to the story of America’s tortured relationship with the plant.
As he explains, cannabis was legal, though not widely used, for many decades. And its medical benefits were sufficiently recognized to warrant inclusion in the United States Pharmacopoeia up until 1942.
Criminalization, as most students of cannabis history know, sprang from racism, and Hudak pulls no punches exploring how this happened. Through a long string of regulatory and legislative moves, driven by the notoriously delusional and racist Harry Anslinger, America’s first drug czar, the plant was outlawed in no small measure to provide authorities with an easy way to incarcerate Mexican and Black Americans. This would be expanded to hippies when Richard Nixon formally launched the War on Drugs in 1971 to bolster his reelection effort, a war he showed no interest in de-escalating even after his own advisory board patiently tried explaining to him that use of the plant is generally safe, especially when compared with alcohol and tobacco.
Ronald Reagan took it to the next level in the eighties, and under his command the War on Drugs went both deep into inner cities, as well as overseas. He militarized the operations and turned it into a real war. A decade later, Bill Clinton offered a kinder gentler drug war, which meant more of the same, but with a smile from the guy who “didn’t inhale.”
During the same decade, first California, then other states (again including Alaska), legalized medical marijuana. This began the trend of states pushing back against an overly oppressive federal regime. It also created conflicts between state and federal laws that are equally applicable to recreational legalization.
Hudak shows how medical marijuana led to a sudden and profound shift in support for full legalization, and offers a state-by-state history of how laws were passed that opened up legal markets. Initially this came through the initiative process, but eventually legalization began to emerge from legislatures as well.
It was Illinois that offered what Hudak paints as the best example yet of how it should be done. Spurred by Black legislators from communities that had been decimated by drug suppression, racial justice was explicitly addressed in the bill. In debates it was noted that while White people who got busted most often just had their hands slapped, Black people caught in possession went to jail. And those criminal records still hamper their lives.
So the state set out to not simply allow a legal market, but to ensure that licensing priority is given to applicants in underprivileged communities, and that economic benefits flow to those communities.
The state also moved to expunge low-level marijuana convictions from its records. Illinois acknowledged the gross inequalities of the War on Drugs, and looked to make amends for them.
Hudak cheers this and calls for racial disparities to be a major consideration as legalization expands. Especially during a time when Americans are (hopefully) confronting our country’s long ugly history of racism, the cannabis industry has the potential to be a leader in finding ways to do things differently.
As Hudak writes, “we owe it to the groups and individuals targeted by the drug war to think comprehensively, creatively, and analytically about how to reverse this trend.”
Hudak explores other challenges in the final section of this book as well, including banking and taxation policies, avoiding severe price fluctuations that can destroy small businesses, the very real concern of major corporations jumping in the game, international treaties that legalization puts America in violation of, and more. These are all things that need to be worked out, because they cannot be avoided.
Cannabis developments will continue to move faster than publishers will be able to keep pace with, and more has happened in the months since this new edition was published. But this brief book offers a helpful history of how we got to where we are, discusses what needs fixing, asks some pressing questions, and offers insight into where we are headed. The history of marijuana in America is still being written. Think of this book as a progress report.
David James is a freelance writer in Fairbanks. Comments about this story? Email jstricker@AlaskaCannabist.com