How does the politics of cannabis relate to the notion of emancipatory and lifestyle politics?
The cultivation, trade and consumption of cannabis is forbidden by law throughout the world and for this reason anyone engaging in these activities, generally does so hidden from the public eye in a safe private place. However, cannabis activism or any sort of political advocacy for the emancipation of cannabis users remains entirely lawful and tends to occur in places where it will receive the greatest amount of public and media exposure. The politicised â€˜cannabis movementâ€™ is a sub-set of the wider cannabis using community providing a public face for a largely clandestine sub-culture. The politics of cannabis therefore acts as a bridge between the public and private spheres for this â€˜communityâ€™.
There is no doubt that the issue of cannabis use and its ongoing prohibition is a highly politicised issue. In New Zealand the past two governments have been formed on the basis of an agreement not to change the legal status of cannabis. These agreements between the Labour government and the United Future party followed two select committee inquiries into the health effects of cannabis, both of which recommended relaxing the cannabis laws. The entire Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is currently under review by the New Zealand Law Commission, who will seek public submissions before reporting back in 2009. The impetus for change is a recognition that the current prohibition law has not succeeded in restricting drug use nor minimised social harms. The widespread use of cannabis by a diverse range of people across society indicates that to engage in its use is not merely an illegal activity but also an adoption of genuine sub-cultural identity.
The West has a cannabis culture because we consume a lot of it. Here in Britain 40 percent of young people have tried pot; it is huge business which is worth, on different estimates $1 to 3 billion a year in this country and is the fourth cash crop by value in the United States ($15.1 billion in wholesale value).1
NZ has the highest reported rate of cannabis use of any country in the world with upwards of 80% of 21 years olds having tried the drug. This is also reflected in arrest rates with more people arrested for cannabis offences per capita than any other country. In 2004 the NZ Police recorded 22,249 drug offences, 18,271 of which were for cannabis only. The court successfully prosecuted 93.8% of these cannabis offences. From these figures alone, it is clear that a significant number of New Zealand citizens are disaffected by the cannabis laws. Not only those arrested are affected by the law. It causes many to lead a double life keeping their use secret from family, friends and colleagues, it brings many into contact with criminal black-markets and it generates paranoia regarding unwanted scrutiny. For example no user can rely on law enforcement in the case of theft of marijuana as they themselves are implicated in criminal activity. Thus cannabis users do not enjoy the same rights and protections as ordinary citizens do and as such form their community on the basis of mutual trust and dissatisfaction with authority. For these reasons, a large number of cannabis users are becoming politicised and are contributing to the cannabis law reform (CLR) movement, spearheaded in New Zealand by the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). As a political mouthpiece for the cannabis community, the CLR movement has sought to emancipate cannabis users from criminal persecution by lobbying the government for the removal of penalties for personal use.
The use of cannabis by mankind dates back several millennia. Eminent US scientist Carl Sagan considered cannabis to be among the first crops ever cultivated by man in the fertile crescent during the agricultural revolution, 8000 BC. In 2300 BC Chinese Emperor Shen Nung breed wild cannabis into a potent medicinal herb, establishing it within the Chinese Herbal Medicine tradition. Greek â€œFather of Historyâ€ Herodotus records its use for psychoactive and textile purposes amongst the Scythians in 450BC. Its widespread appeal was due not only to its ability to medicate and inebriate, but also because it provided a highly nutritious food source as well as a range of material resources including rope, paper, canvas and fuel oil. Hemp became an important resource for naval and merchant shipping fleets with the USS Constitution requiring over 100 tons of hemp for rope, sails and uniforms, replaced every few years. Hemp resources became a strategic factor in warfare, influencing Napoleon to invade Russia in 1812. Up until the twentieth centaury the vast majority of the worldâ€™s paper and textile needs have been meet by cannabis hemp. The history of cannabis is one of service to mankind as an important material resource. The reason the cannabis plant is so significant as renewable resource crop is because it produces at least four time the cellulose of any other plant. Cellulose can be made into gun-powder, fuel, plastic and fertiliser. Almost all of these needs however came to be provided by fossil fuel rather than cannabis.
The War on Drugs has out lasted the Cold War and cannabis is enemy number one, being the worldâ€™s most popular illicit drug. Cannabis prohibition was initiated in the USA in 1937 by way of the Marijuana Tax Act. This effectively outlawed the plant because no tax certificates, necessary to grow it, were ever issued by the government. The ban on marijuana followed a widespread propaganda campaign aimed at total demonisation of the drug. Media Mogul William Randolph Hurst was a principle agent in disseminating dramatic anti-marijuana propaganda over a period of many decades using â€˜yellow journalismâ€™ in his many tabloid publications. Yellow Journalism is defined as â€œthe use of cheaply sensational or unscrupulous methods in newspapers and other media to attract or influence the readers.â€2
Hearstâ€™s and others sensationalistic tabloids ran hysterical headlines atop stories portraying â€œNegroesâ€ and Mexicans as frenzied beasts who under the influence of marijuana, would play anti-white â€œvoodoo-satanicâ€ music (jazz) and heap disrespect and â€˜viciousnessâ€™ upon the predominantly white readership.3
Hearst had every reason to discredit cannabis. His newspapers were printed on newsprint made from his own forestry interests using newly developed chemical treatment processes developed by DuPont petrochemicals. Competition from cannabis hemp was a significant threat to the development of this industry. In 1931 Harry Anslinger was appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a position he would hold for 31 years. Anslinger played a chief role in passing cannabis prohibition legislation into law. He regularly quoted Hearstâ€™s propaganda before congress, claiming that â€œmarijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankindâ€ and that â€œif the monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster Marijuana he would drop dead with frightâ€4. Anslinger was appointed to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics by future uncle in-law Andrew Mellon who was Secretary of the Treasury under President Hoover. Mellon also happened to be a multi-millionaire banker and chief financial officer of DuPont. He had been closely involved in implementing alcohol prohibition at a time when ethanol was seen as a viable alternative to petroleum fuels, and would later extend the same courtesy to cannabis. Dupont began as an gunpowder and explosives company which rapidly grew in size, consolidating two thirds of the market. DuPont processed cellulose first from vegetable matter then later from fossil fuel.
The February 1938 Popular Mechanics article states â€œthousands of tons of hemp hurds are used every year by one large powder company for the manufacture of dynamite and TNTâ€â€¦ [DuPont] were the largest powder company, supplying 40% of the munitions for the allies in WWI. As cellulose and fibre researchers, DuPontâ€™s chemists knew hempâ€™s true value better than anyone else.5
Dupontâ€™s newly developed synthetic fibres and plastics were directly threatened by the hemp Industry, itself in the process of developing Industrial technology necessary for mass production. Its is estimated that if â€œhemp had not been made illegal, 80% of DuPontâ€™s business would have never materialised.â€6 Anslinger and his friends made clever use of language to eliminate the burgeoning Hemp Industry. The Mexican slang term â€˜Marihuanaâ€™ was virtually unknown until it was introduced into Hearstâ€™s racist propaganda. Hemp was a common crop in the US at the time but virtually no one knew that the prohibition of the â€˜evilâ€™ drug marijuana would also outlaw the Hemp crop. So the law passed virtually without opposition. Marijuanaâ€™s identification with the widely available medicine cannabis was also not apparent. Dr William Woodward of the American Medical Association told the committee that approved the Marijuana Tax Act, that â€œthe entire fabric of federal testimony was tabloid sensationalism.â€
Woodward told the committee that the only reason the AMA hadnâ€™t come out against the marijuana tax law sooner was that marijuana had been described in the press for 20 years as â€œkiller weed from Mexico.â€ The AMA doctors had just realised two days before these spring 1937 hearings, that the plant Congress was intending to outlaw was known medically as cannabis, the benign substance used in America with perfect safety in scores of illnesses for over one hundred years.7
By creating confusion regarding the different names of marijuana the petrochemical industry along with their government supporters, successfully outlawed cannabis in order to gain an industrial monopoly of resources. They eliminated all competition the Hemp Industry posed to the newly developed synthetic chemical industry, under the pretext of sensationalist claims about the effects of smoking the drug. The prohibition of cannabis which Anslinger started and which continues internationally to this day, almost certainly exists to maintain a certain economic paradigm dominated by the Petrochemical industry and not to save users from the harms of the drug.
Following WWII the USA had gained the power it needed to export cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs globally. The newly formed United Nations would be used to achieve this as the US held significant power within the organisation.
US efforts to control the UN began at the organisationâ€™s founding conference in April 1945. Delegates from 50 countries met in the San Francisco Opera House to shape a post-war world order that could â€œsave succeeding generations from the scourge of warâ€. The New Zealand delegation played an important role in arguing for a United Nations built upon the â€œthe equal rights of nations large and smallâ€¦living together in peace with one another as good neighboursâ€. President Roosevelt had fought hard to host the conference in San Francisco. But declassified 1940s intelligence documents now show that this generosity was to allow US intelligence staff to eavesdrop on delegates as they exchanged messages with home.8
Saving the world from the scourge of war obviously did not apply to the Drug War. At the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Anslinger sought to bring cannabis under control of a Single Convention on Narcotics. By threatening to use the USAâ€™s veto powers on upcoming decisions, Anslinger was able to blackmail other countries into supporting him. In 1954 he forced the UN to accept that cannabis had no medicinal use and that it should be prohibited internationally. The UN single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was ratified in 1961 fully prohibiting cannabis throughout the world. â€œeven if an individual country wished to legalize it, it could not.â€9 Significant loss of financial support would also occur if a country opted out of the convention.
NZ is a signatory to several UN treaties whereby it agrees to impose a harsh prohibitionist regime on its own people. To withdraw from these treaties could have political consequences far worse than those resulting from the nuclear ships ban.10
Average cannabis smokers are merely pawns in a multi-national system involving powerful interests, who are mostly to likely to be suppressing cannabis for it value as a renewable resource rather than because it gets its users high. However the supposed negative effects of cannabis are a convenient political tool to justify its ongoing prohibition. This being the case cannabis users have significant reason to feel aggrieved by the drug laws as is seem nothing short of a conspiracy has been waged against their favoured drug-plant. This oppression has led to protest throughout the world over a period of many decade. Only Holland has allowed the commercial sale of cannabis although the soft-drug market is tolerated rather than legalised, in order to comply with the UN regulations.
Despite millions of dollars being spend annually on irradiation of cannabis and prosecution of it users, the culture surrounding its use has grown at a phenomenal rate. Cannabis is a global phenomena, as the plant is hardy enough to grow in almost any climate. Localised strains of cannabis such as Durban Poison, Panama Red, Maui Wowie and Te Puke Thunder, have gained a great deal of notoriety and have become highly sought after. Other powerful â€œSkunkâ€ varieties have arisen since the 1960s when American travellers crossed mountainous Asian Cannabis Indica with tropical Cannabis Sativa, stabilising the breed-stock of the potent modern day cannabis. The cannabis community resembles that of fine wine or food connoisseurs, with every strain of marijuana being carefully assed for quality of flavour and effect. The unique appeal of cannabis is partly due to the fact that it can exhibit a wide range of flavours, many reminiscent of various food flavours such as blueberry, bubblegum or mango. Any two strains can be mixed together by exposing the flowering female plant to pollen from a male plant. Thus new flavours that donâ€™t exist elsewhere such as shishkaberry and bubbleberry can be created.
Crush or use a grinder to reveal the true smell. Four main smell groups: Sweet - floral, fruity (berry, citrus), minty (menthol), sweet (vanilla, bubblegum) Spicy - woody (sage, pine, incense), seasonings (pepper, clove, basil), chocolate Musky - earthy (loam, dirt, musty, dusty), hay, leaves, animal (gamey, skunky) Chemical/astringent - solvents, metallic, ammonia, bleach, etc.11
Unlike wine and food aficionados, cannabis consumers must operate within the framework of the black-market, where the highest quality product attracts the greatest value. Unlike many commodities the demand for cannabis is never fully met by supply. This is partly due to difficulties of concealing a growing operation and the fact that the final product takes upwards of four months to produce. The cannabis community has largely organised itself into friendship networks to enable supply and avoidance of criminal elements who control a share of the market. Strong bonds can develop amongst cannabis users resulting in the observance of certain etiquette, discretion and shared knowledge that would seem foreign to an outsider. Research released in 2008 by PhD student Geoff Noller of the University of Otago, Psychological Medicine department challenges many of the negative stereotype surrounding cannabis users. The study involved comprehensive interviewing of 76 cannabis users about their use.
Cannabis users can range in age from teenagers to seniors, are likely to be in full or part-time employment or study, and hail from all walks of lifeâ€¦ 70 percent of the survey group placed rules around their cannabis use, relating to where, when and how often they used, non-use at work, and who they used with. â€œthis challenges the notion of cannabis-users as out of control people,â€ Mr Nollar said.12
Thus cannabis community adopts a strong form of cultural citizenship which makes it a prime candidate to seek emancipation and recognition as a legitimate lifestyle choice.
Life politics is the politics of a reflexively mobilised order â€“ the system of late modernity â€“ which, on an individual and collective level has radically altered the existential parameters of social activityâ€¦where that reflexivity links self and body to systems of global scope. The concerns of life politics presage future changes of a far-reaching sort: essentially, the development of forms of social order â€˜on the other sideâ€™ of modernity itself.13
While pro-cannabis demonstrations are legal, they are almost always combined with the illegal activity of smoking cannabis. Thereby not only is a spectacle created which is likely to generate media attention, but the usually hidden cannabis culture is brought out into the public area. Public exposure is aimed at gaining acceptance of the cannabis culture within the wider community. Just like homosexual and prostitution law reform, cannabis law reform is about recognising the rights of a significant minority, without having to actively condone their activity.
The basis of the pro-cannabis argument is primarily that cannabis use is a matter of personal choice. Cannabis contains over 60 active cannabinoids, primarily Î”9 Tetrahyrocannabinol (THC). When THC enters the bloodstream it meets with cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) in the brain and body. Cannabinoids are also produced naturally in the body but are only partially effective compared with THC. When activated, CB1 receptors set off a chain-reaction of chemical processes stimulating mental activity and creativity, while CB2 reactors generate a feeling of mild to strong bodily euphoria. The cannabis community takes great exception to the fact that the cannabis laws legislate against processes that happen within the confines of the body. Denial of bodily self-determination is viewed as a violation of human rights.
We can recognise the problem of â€˜ownershipâ€™ of the body as one distinctive issue posed by its double involvement with abstract systems and the reflexive project of the selfâ€¦ â€˜ownershipâ€™ here is a complex notion bringing in all the problems of defining a person.14
The fact that the law seeks to dictate what can and cannot enter a personâ€™s body, is seen as an intrusion into personal freedom of choice, invoking the old adage that its not what goes into a mans mouth that defiles him but that which come out. The CLR movement seeks to establish policy based on harm minimisation. While prohibitive cannabis laws have been in effect, use of the drug has increased steadily to record levels, clearly indicating that the intended effect of the law has failed. Any risks or harms associated with the use of the drug are maximised, especially since criminalization is a barrier to health treatment. Therefore law reform is not only a means to minimise health risks but also a way of reducing drug use. This is confirmed by the Dutch model. Only 15% of Dutch adults have tried cannabis compared with 52% in New Zealand.15 Prohibition is also based on the absurdity of banning a drug that is entirely non-toxic, physically non-addictive and by-and-large not harmfully to the majority of users. Many of the problems that do exist with cannabis use could be addressed by effective education. Aside from the social augments for law change there are massive economic implications. The annual cost of enforcing and policing cannabis prohibition in New Zealand, currently costing hundreds of million of dollars, would be saved, in addition, the taxation revenue from a legal cannabis market would equate to a significant contribution to the economy.
At present in New Zealand the cannabis law reform is slowly making progress. Much of the debate centres around whether the separate aspects of the cannabis issue can be dealt with individually or whether the different uses of cannabis are integrated enough to warrant dealing with them together. The Hemp Industry has been able to begin trials of low THC cannabis thanks to legislation introduced by Nandor Tanczos in 200x. Now in 2008 the government is in the process of introducing cannabis based pharmaceutical spray Sativex.
GW is a Â£32 million company that grows thousands of marijuana plants in a secret British location, and gives it to volunteers suffering from a variety of ailments. Reputable scientists measure the effects and the collected results are checked by the British Governmentâ€¦The GW spray will be a â€œwhole cannabis productâ€ not an isolated part of the drug. And yes, it will be possible to get high using it. â€œTHC is the psychoactive agent and it is present because it has therapeutic valueâ€¦ It is considered to be the active ingredient in cannabis when it comes to pain, nausea, promoting appetite and anti-spasticityâ€¦ What GW is saying is that, for most people, it is not necessary to get high.â€16
NSW recently approved the medical use of cannabis after five years of trials. NSW Premier Bob Carr told the House in May 2003 that â€œno decent government can stand by while fellow Australians suffer like that, while ordinary people feel like criminals for simply medicating themselves.â€17 The Carr government had previously maintained a zero-tolerance approach to cannabis. A great deal of care has been taken to separate medical issues from recreational use. It is feared by many including United Future leader Peter Dunne that medical marijuana is a backdoor way of allowing recreational use.
Dunne says many of the people who are advocating for the medicinal use of cannabis are long-time campaigners for its legal recreational use. â€œSo that obviously heightens our anxiety. We didnâ€™t want to see the sort of argument that says â€˜lets move on the medical use and then, having proved that there is no problem with that, we move to open up its availability in a widespread way.â€™â€18
Dunne does not support compassionate use of cannabis because he sees it a the â€œthin end of a revolving wedgeâ€ leading towards the legalization of the drug. Drug educator and former United Future MP Pauline Gardiner also seeks to put distance between medical and recreational use
You donâ€™t ram a bloody foxglove plant down someone who needs digitalis, and people arenâ€™t out the back door growing a paddock of deadly nightshade for atropine or poppies for morphine. We give them a pill. I think we should be relatively consistent on this if we are appreciating its value as medicine. Lets make it a medicine and separate the issue about any kind of relaxation of the laws.19
For the past six years the United Future party has insisted that the government make no change to the cannabis laws in return for itâ€™s coalition support. This has made any law change difficult. Rastafarian, Green MP Nandor Tanczos believes that the cannabis vote put his party into parliament but opportunities to relax the law were missed because the issue was seen as too controversial.
Mr Tanczos said his only regret after nine years in parliament was that the Greens has not got Cannabis Law Reform. He believes they could have done it but said a collective decision had been made to â€œback offâ€ from it, which he considered to be a losing strategy. Mr Tanczos said he did not believe the party realised how much support it had got from those backing Cannabis Law Reform.20
While the Misuse of Drugs act is under review by the Law Commission and the Green party had medical marijuana legislation before the house, no change is likely before the General Election at the end of 2008. The shape of the next government will determine the fate of CLR in New Zealand in the near future.
The New Zealand CLR movement is run largely by the NGO Norml NZ and the political wing of the movement, the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party (ALCP). Norml NZ publishes a free magazine each quarter with a readership of 47,000. Norml has recently finished a highly successful bus tour of New Zealand promoting CLR. Mary-Jane The Cannabus visited 42 towns in 42 days holding public protests at 4.20pm each day where cannabis was consumed openly. These types of protest are known as four-twenties. Four Twenty is slang for cannabis smoking particularly as a form of public civil disobedience.
Many American cannabis users continue to observe 4:20 as a time to smoke communally. By extension April 20 has evolved into a countercultural holiday where people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis. The 420 campaign urges individuals to become involved in the political process and the drug reform movement.21
This nationwide tour follows the successful establishment of weekly 420s in Dunedin, Christchurch and Auckland, where people gather to smoking publicly. By politicising the act of smoking marijuana the 420 groups achieve a degree of protection. The NZ Police have previously decided to turn a blind-eye to cannabis protesting for fear of adding to the publicity of the cause. Attempts by the University of Otago security staff to shut-down 420 protests on campus have generated national media converge on more than one occasion, popularising the phenomenon further. As the size of the protest grows the ability of police to arrest law-breakers become logistically difficult. However individual and small groups of cannabis smokers have been targeted by police.
What we hadnâ€™t seen, until last week, was an actual police response. This came in the form of the Campus Cop apparently arresting a student at the behest of a Campus Watch staff member, which inevitably prompted a protest against almost every authority involved in the whole mess.22
This recent arrest sparked protest questioning the jurisdiction of the Campus Cop. When the role was established, it was intended as a liaison position and â€œthe example that was given was that the Campus Cop wouldnâ€™t be going out actively pursuing people for smoking marijuana.â€23
Now that NORML Otago with the blessing of OUSA, have been provoking the University twice a week and protesting against any slight, perceived or otherwise, national media coverage has ramped up. The University may now find itself in a difficult position, forced either to make an unpopular decision to advise police to arrest its own students for breaking an unjust law, or ignore that law and face the wrath of public opinion in tax-paying, law-abiding, middle-class Dunedin.24
It is not clear how the stand off will end. While the police will inevitably be provoked into further arrests, it seems like there is little chance of the cannabis movement backing down from its high profile public stand unless the law changes. The ALCP will aim to channel the recent upsurge in political activity into votes in this yearâ€™s General election. Achieving 5% of the party vote would bring at least six cannabis representatives into parliament, significantly increasing the likelihood of law change. The ALCP is non-aligned to the traditional political spectrum and as such will support any government that agrees to implement its policy minimum programme. If successful this would see the development of a cottage industry trade in cannabis and hemp products. Anyone over the age of 18 would be entitled to grown personal amounts of marijuana at home or buy it over the counter at a Dutch style cannabis cafÃ©. CafÃ©â€™s would be supplied by licensed growers and would pay Goods and Services tax to the government. Medical Marijuana would be made available in the health system with specific varieties of cannabis targeted for specific ailments. Finally a widespread hemp industry would be developed producing a range of products. Paramount would be the localised production of biofuel to offset rising oil prices. If CLR is successful the mysterious cannabis culture would largely become integrated into mainstream culture. The key question in this debate is whether both the cannabis community and mainstream society are ready for such a dramatic shift. The cannabis community for its part will need to see beyond the paradigm of black-market organization, anti-establishment values and social alienation. While mainstream society must become accepting of the lifestyle choices of significant minorities like the cannabis community even if they themselves do not approve of that lifestyle.
The establishment of the â€˜cottage industryâ€™ would move the cannabis from the black to the white market. In doing so the criminality associated with the cannabis would evaporate leaving a culture based on the appreciation of the herb. Cannabis hemp is the major weapon needed to fight environmental degradation, and cannabis medicine could bring relief to thousands. For the cannabis community to achieve legitimacy within society, it is going to require an ongoing political conscience to grow amongst its members and an increased willingness to fight for change in the public domain. If CLR is successful much of the stigma surrounding cannabis use would disappear, allowing the culture to reinvent itself. Only when the cannabis community collectively step outs of the shadows and takes their rightful place within society, will the culture of cannabis blossom into its full pot-ential.
Matthews, P. (1999) Cannabis Culture. Bloomsbury: London.
Herer, J. The Emperor Wars no Clothes. www.hemperor.com
Booth, M. (2003) Cannabis, a history. Doubleday: London.
Solomon, D. (1970) The Marijuana Papers. Panther: London.
Andrews, G. (1972) The Book of Grass. Penguin: Harmondsworth.
Conrad, C. (1997) Hemp for Health. Healing Arts Press: Vermont.
Conrad, C (1995) Hemp Lifeline to the Future. Creative Xpressions: LA.
Yska, R. (1990) New Zealand Green. David Bateman: Auckland.
Grinspoon, L. (1993) Marihuana the Forbidden Medicine. Yale Press: New Haven.
Sherman, C. (1999) Highlights. Top Speed: Berkeley.
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How does the politics of cannabis relate to the notion of emancipatory and lifestyle politics?