*This article was authored by Dauntless Dialogue guest writer, Mel Summers.
Over the last eighty or so years, we’ve seen cannabis come almost full circle. From a widely accepted medicinal failsafe, to an illegal demon, and now back to a medical marvel again, it’s been a strange ride for the humble cannabis plant. Its journey says a lot about the interplay between authoritarianism and populism – and a lot about the state of our nation.
The Cannabis Cycle
Prior to the 1940s, cannabis was sold in pharmacies for its medical properties , although after 1937 non-medical use of cannabis was made illegal. Then, along came the Boggs Act and the Narcotics Control Act, which codified and tightened drug possession, sale, and usage offences. Marijuana fell into the Boggs net, and passed into the realm of outlawry. Following this, cannabis usage became an act of rebellion , something done by individuals wishing to prove their rebel status without actually subjecting their bodies to the rigors of more addictive narcotics. However, the world had not forgotten that marijuana was once considered a great medicinal gift to humanity, and the medical potential inherent within cannabis was ‘rediscovered’ by scientists in the seventies. This prompted many more daring patients to seek out marijuana for medical purposes (often with the tacit support of their doctors) – and the growing wealth of knowledge on this subject led medical authorities to seek loopholes through which to allow marijuana prescriptions. One oft-used method was to issue marijuana to those in need as part of ‘medical trials’. However, it was not long before people could no longer be content with constant ‘trials’, and wanted more. In response to this, the State of California passed the ‘Compassionate Use Act’  in 1996, allowing those who could prove that they were using marijuana for medicinal purposes to have an affirmative defense against criminal prosecution. Other states swiftly followed suit. Finally, we are once again reaching a stage in which it looks likely that marijuana will be increasingly downgraded from its former ‘criminal’ status and reinstated as an important part of our medicinal armory.
Authority And Rebellion
The trouble with the ‘rebel’ stage of cannabis’s recent cycle is that it discourages law-abiding citizens from taking it on purely scientific grounds. Once a drug has built up a host of associations in the manner which cannabis very quickly did, it becomes instantly less enticing to those who might otherwise benefit from it. Doctors working in the seventies and eighties have described the apprehension which they encountered from certain kinds of patients when it was suggested that they may benefit from medical marijuana . They worried about ‘getting high’, and about engaging with what they saw as a ‘delinquent’ culture. They also worried a lot about getting into trouble with the law. It is fortunate, therefore, that the populist revolution in our perceptions of cannabis was underwritten by a wealth of solid, scientific research and evidence . The presence of demonstrably ‘steady’ and ‘respectable’ figures like doctors and scientists on the pro-marijuana side of the cannabis debate lent an air of authority to the case which would otherwise be strongly lacking. Obviously the science plays a big part in this case, but it is an unfortunate fact that many chose to join the populist pro-cannabis movement because such figures as scientists and doctors are associated with authority. Perhaps not governmental authority, but authority nonetheless. While the pro-cannabis movement has much of rebellion at its heart, it is, ironically, the trappings of authority which have allowed it to come this far.
All over the world, however, the burgeoning change in governmental attitudes towards marijuana has been put down to ‘people power’ . Authority-figures aside, it cannot be denied that this is the case. The control of substances is in many ways a tool by which regimes can control, partition, and demonize portions of the population it rules over. While our ‘War On Drugs’ is perhaps not quite that extreme, it is sometimes not far off . The fact that we have not blindly toed the government line on cannabis, and have gone with what we know to be accurate rather than consistently doing what we’re told speaks well of our ability to question and seek the truth, despite the awesome mechanisms of law and order ranged against us.
Sources Patrick Stack, Claire Suddath, “A Brief History of Medical Marijuana”, Time, Oct 2009  Paul M Kohn, G W Mercer, “Drug Use, Drug-Use Attitudes, and the Authoritarianism-Rebellion Dimension”, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Jun 1971  California Department of Public Health, “Proposition 215”  Roger A Roffman, “Compassionate Populism on the Road to Rediscovering Cannabis as Medicine”, Rehabs.com, Jun 2015  Center For Medicinal Cannabis Research  Nick O’Malley, “People power drives marijuana law reform”, Sydney Morning Herald, Jan 2014  Graham Boyd, “The Drug War Is The New Jim Crow”, ACLU, Jul/Aug 2001
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