This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of Humanistic Judaism Magazine. It was written by Prof. Michael Whitty, a member of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit and an advocate and activist since the 1970s for cannabis decriminalization/legalization because of harsh and over-regulated prohibition.
The 2020 election was remarkable for cannabis (botanical name for marijuana) in America. Voters approved legalization of medical cannabis in Mississippi and South Dakota, bringing the total to 36 states (California was the first to do so, in 1996). Voters also legalized adult use (sometimes called “recreational marijuana”) in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota; bringing the total to 15 states and the District of Columbia.
These victories made it increasingly likely that federal legalization will happen soon, especially now that Congress is in Democratic control and the Biden administration promised its support. Expected majority leader Senator Chuck Schumer recently announced he would work to remove criminal penalties. “But even more important—some state and localities have legalized and/or decriminalized, and all the horror stories people told about what’s going to happen—crime would go up, kids would graduate to the worst kinds of drugs—none of that happened,” said Schumer.
Concurrent with the march to legalization is a fast-growing effort to expunge the records of people arrested and/or incarcerated for marijuana before legalization. For example, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the forgiveness and expungement of about 500,000 criminal cannabis cases. Pritzker issued pardons for 9,210 low-level cannabis convictions, while Illinois State Police eliminated nearly a half million non-felony cannabis-related arrest records. “We will never be able to fully remedy the depth of the damage” [done to brown and Black people] Pritzker said. “But we can govern with the courage to admit the mistakes of our past and the decency to set a better path forward.”
Why should humanists care about cannabis?
Humanism offers a philosophy of acceptance and tolerance and individual responsibility that respects other people’s needs. Humanists value personal autonomy and liberty which includes the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Supporting legalization is one of the ways humanists can contribute to a more heartful worldview—a live and let live vision for the future.
Cannabis can offer vital assistance psychologically to coping with COVID, political stress, and for many people a way to relax, sleep better, and take our minds off aches and pains. Research shows that it is an effective aide to reduce post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The punishment for cannabis use is too harsh and does not fit the crime. It is futile, costly, and is counter- productive. Police enforcement has been race- and class-based. As humanists we should reframe racist and moralist assumptions with models for responsible use.
One of the textbooks for my Drug Policy class is The New Jim Crow by attorney and law professor Michelle Alexander. This book links drug reform policy to social justice, focusing on the racist aspects of the drug war. She presented reams of data showing that for decades Black and brown people have been incarcerated at significantly higher rates than white people, even though their use is proportionate to their share of the population. White people are five times as likely to use drugs, but African Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites.
“War on Drugs” laws and policies targeting minorities have created a racial caste system, with arrests and
incarceration making life as an ex-felon extremely difficult. More than 40% of arrests for drug possession in the U.S. are for cannabis. Mandatory minimums force federal courts to send and keep perpetrators in prison. Civil forfeiture practices take away possessions even before adjudication and may never be returned. “The war on drugs and the war on crime are the most recent manifestation of an impulse to punish, control, and exploit poor people of color,” writes Prof. Alexander. The first drug laws, the anti-opium laws of the 1870s, were directed at Chinese immigrants. When the first federal drug czar wanted to criminalize marijuana in 1930 he appealed to people’s fear of Mexican immigrants.
Let us start with the wisdom that moderation is a positive goal when applied to cannabis just as it is to alcohol, which has the potential to be more problematic and addictive to the user and society. Cannabis use for adults is generally considered a relaxant, a minor vice when the set and setting are appropriate and no one but the user is affected. Overuse might be worthy of counseling in some cases, but wasteful, futile, and overly harsh policing is not productive.
A team of investigators affiliated with Harvard Medical School, Loyola University, and the University of Miami assessed alcohol consumption patterns in a group of non-treatment seeking cannabis consumers between the ages of 14 and 25. All participants acknowledged having consumed alcohol in the month prior to their enrollment in the study. Study participants were randomly assigned to two groups – one that required cannabis abstinence for four weeks and one that did not. Researchers reported that over 60 percent of those assigned to the abstinence group increased their frequency of alcohol consumption as well as the quantity consumed. Following their completion of the study, participants’ use of alcohol returned to pre-trial levels. By contrast, those participants who were permitted to continue consuming cannabis did not increase their alcohol use over the length of the study.
Just as gay folks coming out reduced bias, so too must responsible adult users come out as role models to ease public fears about cannabis usage. Aside from medical and relaxation benefits, the larger society benefits in protecting young people from getting arrested and jeopardizing their futures and even their federally dispersed college loans.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a prominent proponent of wholistic integrative medicine, observes that cannabis helps us embrace the world with greater self-acceptance and inner peace. The Beckley Foundation of Great Britain has documented that a deeper inner contemplation into the psychological and emotional aspects of life are added benefits of thoughtful, reflective cannabis use. The Foundation has researched the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids (CBD) as well as the positive connection between cannabis and creativity. The Foundation is creating an international network of philosophical thinkers who believe that this psycho-spirit medicine can change the world through a change of human consciousness. Possibly more peace, acceptance and joy will result – in other words, by improving human consciousness, improved mental health of the entire society may be a desired outcome.
Dr. Sunil K. Aggarwal a physician, medical geographer, and co-founder of the Advanced Integrative Medical Science (AIMS) Institute in Seattle in 2013 published in the medical journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. He describes a collection of plants, fungi, and animal secretions that people have cultivated since prehistory, and carried around the world, because of their usefulness for human health and survival, whether as food, medicine, clothing, or other vital supplies from honey and grains to caffeine. They include plants and fungi that humans have administered for millennia to treat some of our worst sicknesses and pain, of both body and mind. According to Dr. Aggarwal, one forbidden species stands out as our biggest loss, and for likely being the single most useful plant that humans have ever gotten to know—and which may even have helped us become “more human”: cannabis.
I have presented workshops on empowerment and self- realization as part of the life journey and believe cannabis is a spiritual medicine which can be very helpful in completing our healing on the psychological and emotional level: peace of mind for self and society. Conscious users may encounter their inner wisdom and heartfulness which allow them to discover fully their creativity and intuition.
Look around your town and consider joining the local drug reform group and the wider criminal justice reform coalition. A good starting point is NORML.org (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the organization that represents consumers and has been in existence since the 1970s with chapters in most states. NORML has been active in the effort to legalize in the states and at the federal level. Currently it is advocating a change in national banking laws – because cannabis is not legal federally, all transactions must be done in cash, leading to complications and extra hardship for business owners. Also, IRS guidelines on income generated by cannabis means business owners cannot deduct legitimate business expenses when calculating federal taxes owed.
For those who want more soul in their life cannabis can open the doors of perception to universal connectedness. Perhaps it can lead to more human unity and a consciousness evolution which will change the current paradigm of fear to one of love and joy. Cannabis can help on the unique journey to self-acceptance, self-forgiveness and an open heart toward all of life. That has been the experience for me.