On a freezing morning during the recent polar vortex, a thirty-nine year old mother of three wakes and readies her family for another busy day. Like any other typical American family, the children attend school and both Kat and her husband are employed. Part of the morning ritual for Kat, however, involves filling her water pipe with medical grade marijuana to help reduce the symptoms caused by panic and anxiety disorders; it also helps increase Kat’s appetite, allowing her to enjoy a healthy breakfast. Unfortunately, Kat and her family live in a state where medical marijuana is still illegal and punishments are steep. In Kansas, Kat’s state of residency, any amount, even if it is a first offense, earns the possessor 6 months of incarceration with a maximum fine of $1000; any amount after the first offense garners a felony, a mandatory minimum sentence of ten months, and a fine of $100,000. Though the penalty for first-time marijuana possession was reduced in 2016 in a measure approved by Gov. Sam Brownback, the penalties are still costly.
Likewise, any person cultivating five or more plants receives 12-17 years of incarceration for a non-violent crime (Kansas 2014). Obviously, these are concerns for not only Kat but also her husband and especially her children. Even in 2013, parents who utilize medicinal marijuana face the very real fear of losing their children to the state if they are caught and charged with possession (Riggs 2013). These children are often removed from safe and loving environments, where there is no proof of abuse or neglect, all because their parents choose to medicate with cannabis. As I sit down with Kat in her warmly decorated country kitchen she volunteers, “we can thank the failed policies of the war on drugs for the negative social stigma, the destruction of families, poverty, over-packed prisons, and overall, the stagnation of society.”
Kat’s frustration is not unfounded. Fear, anxiety, and ignorance have all fueled the prohibition of marijuana. In the early 1900’s, marijuana became associated with the suspicion and prejudice that Americans correlated with Mexican immigrants, who frequently smoked the weed. As the country became gripped by the Great Depression, lack of employment and job competition escalated public fear and resentment toward Mexican immigrants, binding marijuana or “Satan’s Smoke” to violent crime and socially deviant behaviors that were primarily committed by “racially inferior classes” (Frontline 1996). The untimely release of “Reefer Madness” in 1936 exacerbated the stigma further as movie studios banned the representation of narcotics, including marijuana, in motions pictures. It was only briefly during WWII that a program allowed farmers to grow hemp for the war (Hemp for Victory) and by 1943, 375,000 acres of hemp were harvested. However, this change in attitude did not last and it certainly did not apply to smoking joints in public. But the youngsters of the 1960s did everything they could to change that, marijuana became the drug of choice for this politically active and anti-war generation. They filled American streets with their hippy freedom marches and love parades (Prohibition 1996). Over time, marijuana got reclassified and state minimum mandatory sentences were reduced or extinguished completely but the social stigma and federal laws still haunt patients across this great ‘free’ country today.
Since its inception in 1984, the D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program and all of its affiliated practices have worked tirelessly on educating the public, especially children, about the dangers of using drugs. It was through this program that Kat herself learned about how dangerous and addictive marijuana supposedly was (D.A.R.E. 2014). It was not until after the birth of her last child that the panic attacks set in and no prescription medication relieved her symptoms without major side effects, making daily responsibilities difficult to handle. Finally, an old friend recommended that she try cannabis. It was a life-changer. But, as Kat remarks, “no one would take me seriously here if they knew I used cannabis regularly. I would be completely unemployable and as it is we barely scrape by.” Kat can thank the D.A.R.E program for creating the stereotype that all marijuana users are substance abusers or “potheads” and are unproductive nuisances to society. In fact, before leaving office, former President of the United States, Barack Obama, upheld his laissez-faire attitude toward the legalization of cannabis, even though by 2016 many states had already legalized or decriminalized it (updated 2017), ignoring federal mandates (Fox 2014). However, in his orations and rallies across the country throughout his presidency, President Obama remained stagnant along with many other individuals in their ignorance and denial that this plant could not only save lives but also our economy (Wall 2014, Dohlin 2011).
In the marijuana movement today, across the country activists are stepping forward and shouting “I like weed and I am a good person,” but still the propaganda manifested by the failed drug war languishes the freedoms of thousands (Imam 2014). Proof of the deficiencies of this war and its policies lie in the stories of Alexandria Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Alexandria, a two-year old, was removed the summer of 2013 from her family’s loving home by CPS because both of her parents smoked pot (Green 2013). No signs of neglect or abuse were found, but still the child was removed and placed in a dangerous foster home. During state approved visitations, her parents reported bruises as well as unhealthy conditions such as mold in her travel bag. However, although her parents reported these incidences, the child was sent back into the system to a different, far more dangerous foster home. The next time her parents saw her, she was in a coma and two days later she died (Green 2013).
Alexandria is not alone. Parents across the country, especially in illegal states face not only severe legal consequences but also the possibility of completely altering their families, all because of a plant that they choose to use for medicine. For others, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, it is about addiction, not to marijuana but to heroin. Why is he an example of the failed war on drugs? Hoffman was forced to feed his addiction in any way he could, buying from street vendors and often obtaining adulterated products because of his very illegal “drug of choice”. He also was a highly esteemed actor, constantly in the public eye and mandated to emit a certain ‘pure’ lifestyle, though publicly he would rehabilitate and relapse frequently in his brief celebrity (Robinson 2014). The result: his death by overdose of a deadly batch of heroin. The same can be said for street cannabis, however. Patients do not know what they are getting or the true dangers in obtaining it and as long as this commerce is illegal and unregulated, the potency of street products will remain questionable and unsafe, with addiction unmanageable. (Robinson 2014).
Back in Kansas, Kat considers herself extraordinarily lucky to not only have her loving family with her but also because she has a job that does not require drug testing for employment nor does it conduct random testing. As we sit in her kitchen enjoying hot cocoa together I ask if she thinks that marijuana will be legal in Kansas within the next five years, “God, I hope so! If not, we may have to migrate to Colorado like so many other families. I am tired of feeling responsible for my family’s hardships here and living in fear does not help alleviate my anxiety. I think at a certain point in the next two years we will have a question to ask ourselves. I know there are others like me here and maybe if we all got together and made a louder voice we would be heard. The local activists that do the footwork, I owe them everything. For now though, I believe I must remain quiet and steadfast, for the safety of my children, and hope that someday I will no longer be considered a criminal.”
Originally published on Nugs.com 02/07/2014 (some updates have been made).
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