Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Asking Alice

Despite the legalization of marijuana at the state level in state after state, the sale, transport, and use of the substance remains a federal crime. Those in favor of legalization (I’m one) were disappointed but unsurprised last week when the DEA retained for marijuana a Schedule I classification, a status reserved for the most dangerous drugs without accepted medical value and with a “high potential for abuse.” Heroin, Ecstasy, and LSD are a few other Schedule I drugs.

There was a time when Congress passed laws about one thing and another, but for the past several decades the legislative body instead lazily has passed broad and vague statutes that give Administrative bodies including the DEA the authority to issue regulations arbitrarily that have the force of law.  Under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, the DEA can classify pretty much anything under Schedules I through V. Schedule V includes substances with low-level abuse potential such as prescription cough syrup. No further action by Congress is required to put something on the list, much less a Constitutional Amendment as was once considered necessary to ban alcohol at the federal level – a failed experiment that apparently taught no broader lesson.

I should point out (or maybe I shouldn’t, but I will) that I’m not an aficionado of the herb and never have been. Despite the plot of my short fiction Brown Acid set largely in the 60s and 70s at my short story site, I’ve never been a fan of any other Schedule I or II substance either – or Schedule III, IV, and V for that matter. I do have a liquor cabinet, but since my 20s I’ve made modest use even of that. So I’m not defending a personal recreation. I’m defending personal choice partly out of principle (the principle that voluntary actions that don’t defraud or initiate force against another person are no one else’s business) and partly because of the damage such prohibitions has done to people in my life.

I won’t rehash (no pun intended) the arguments about how prohibition enriches gangsters and fosters crime. They’ve been repeated for half a century. Nor will I make a long list of perverse effects of the laws such as the growing popularity of heroin among seniors that has been much in the news lately: it is cheaper, more powerful, and more easily available than prescription synthetic opiate painkillers. I’m not likely to change anyone’s mind here with old arguments or new. Well-meaning people can have different views on these matters. But I do wish to make the historical note that the USA once did without any restrictions at all without falling into chaos. The very first federal anti-drug act – disguised as a tax act because an outright ban was thought unconstitutional – was the Harrison Act of 1914. Sale and possession of cocaine and opiates became effectively illegal. Prior to the Harrison Act they could be bought openly. Laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) was a popular, cheap, and very effective over-the-counter painkiller. They caused no more problems (intoxicants always cause some problems) before 1914 than after. During the half century prior to 1915 the US economy with the usual ups and downs grew a remarkable 6% annually in real terms, showing they didn’t get in the way of prosperity.

Opium is a particularly interesting example with a fuzzy legal status. It is a Schedule II drug – meaning it is considered less dangerous than marijuana by the DEA despite being physically addicting – yet you can buy dried poppies (Papaver somniferum) in flower shops and buy poppy seeds in groceries. Poppy seeds are supposed to be sterilized but in fact some of them will germinate if spread on the ground, as will the ones from the dried bulbs.  Opium is technically the sap from the poppy bulb, though active ingredients are in the bulbs and leaves, too; they also are present in very tiny amounts in the seeds which is why poppy seed cake can make a person test positive for opiate use. Growing poppies ornamentally is widely done (albeit not necessarily legal) but if you plant a garden of them expect a visit from the DEA. Poppies in the 19th century were farmed all over the United States, as they had been elsewhere since the days of the Sumerians. Many of the plants spread out from the farms and consequently can be found today growing wild from New Hampshire to California. Contrary to myth, they don’t need special conditions. They prefer cool climates, but will grow almost anywhere government agents don’t burn them. Smugglers don’t bother with opium because it is bulky and low-value; they turn it into heroin instead which is compact, high-value, and vastly more dangerous. Heroin is a semisynthetic developed by Bayer in the 1890s by the acetylation of morphine.

Opium is nowhere near as harsh as its derivatives morphine and codeine. It is common to list some famous opium smokers, so I’ll do the same: they include Marcus Aurelius, Ben Franklin, Edgar Alan Poe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas De Quincey, and (famously) Lewis Carroll. Their minds remained first-rate, and any health problems they faced (Poe in particular) are clearly related to alcohol rather than opium. It’s hard not to wonder if those gray-haired seniors currently prowling streets for drug dealers wouldn’t be better off loading their hookahs with hops from a backyard poppy garden.

The hookah-smoking caterpillar tells Alice about magic mushrooms


  1. Yeah, it's odd the Congress kept it at a Schedule 1, which makes no sense to me, unless there's some sort of other legality attached to it. I keep wondering if they can't find more and more uses to aid medicine. Sure seems it would be better to prescribe that than the opioids at least for minor medical things. It's odd how they can skirt some things like Hemp Milk and Hemp seeds sold in stores, yet exclude others things.

    1. Yes, though it wasn't Congress that made the decision but some unelected pencil pusher at the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). Congress regularly avoids making such politically awkward decisions itself by passing them off to bureaucrats, even though making awkward decisions is supposed to be their job.

      In Congress the only real yen (from Chinese yenyen for opium withdrawal symptoms) is to be reelected.