“Some of the things I’m going to tell you tonight will be disturbing for some of you,” said marijuana attorney Merwin “Moe” Spencer. “Some of the things you will not like to hear. But these are facts that I wish I were making up.”
Last week on Wednesday, April 18, the University of Northern Colorado hosted “Smokescreen: Under the Influence of Marijuana Politics and Power,” with Spencer as a guest speaker.
“I have the best job in the world,” Spencer said.
Spencer, a marijuana defense attorney practicing in Washington State, specializing in defending growers and processors, spoke about the history of marijuana growth, its influence in the United States, the political reasons for its criminalization, and the origins of its classification as a schedule one narcotic. His firm has completed over forty trials in both Federal and State courts and takes on numerous cases, including civil rights, protest law, murder cases, sex cases, juvenile and restorative justice law, expungement of past criminal records of marijuana law and contracts.
“My goal tonight is not encouraging people to go out and get high,” Spencer said. “ Instead, I want to educate individuals on the implications of history and why marijuana is illegal in the United States so that they can make up their own minds about policy or regulation.”
The University Program Council and Fraternity and Sorority Life were also responsible for sponsoring this event. Kimberly Molina, a student employee under the University Program Council and a Diversity Events Coordinator, shared her thoughts regarding the purpose of Wednesday night’s event. As the Diversity Events Coordinator, her goal is bringing together diverse backgrounds at UNC into one certain event, and targeting different audiences, which include as many individuals as possible.
“It’s cool to bring someone educated on this topic to our university,” Molina said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about marijuana with more negative than positive connotations. This presentation will hopefully educate individuals about laws, policies and restrictions regarding marijuana in general.”
Spencer started off the night with the story of Robert Randall. Randall, a former advocate for the use of medical marijuana and founder of the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, became the first legal medical marijuana user in the United States. The story went something like this:
The year is 1973 and Randall was just diagnosed with glaucoma. The doctors told him in a few years time he would go blind, certainly by age thirty. He already suffered from poor eyesight. At the age of 25, Randall left his D.C. apartment late at night for a walk, lit a joint, and began wandering the streets. As he returned home, while waiting to cross a street, Randall stopped at a street lamp and looked directly at the illuminating light being emitted from the lantern.
“That’s when something shocking happened,” Spencer said.
The light began to come into focus. Randall could actually see the lamp clearly. He looked at the lamp, then the joint, then back at the lamp again. Upon returning home Randall’s vision reverted back to its normal state, but one thought, thanks to this experience, he could not get out of his mind.
“Maybe marijuana had something to do with what I saw earlier,” Randall pondered to himself, according to Spencer.
Following this, he started growing marijuana in his apartment to treat his glaucoma, before officials raided his residence, confiscating his stash, and arresting him for possession of a controlled substance in 1975. Randall up until this point had tried almost every other treatments available, but nothing besides cannabis worked for him.
“He grew his own marijuana until he was prosecuted. He then underwent exhaustive tests that indicated that no other glaucoma drug halted the deterioration of his eyesight,” a 2001 Associated Press article stated.
“I have to have this because it is a medical necessity for me to use it,” Randall explained in court.
Eventually, Randall would also stumble on a study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, between 1973-74 regarding using marijuana for medical reasons. After 10 days of research, the study concluded that marijuana can in fact help individuals like Randall with glaucoma, for example, but once off, the effects would cease. As a result, Randall, citing this particular study, petitioned the U.S. government to use marijuana medically, which was granted to him in 1976, allowing him to become the first legal medical marijuana user. He never went blind, even up until his death in 2001.
“In November 1976, D.C. Superior Court Judge James A. Washington ruled that Mr. Randall has established a defense of necessity…The evil he sought to avert,– blindness — is greater than that he performed,” the Washington Post said.
Next on Spencer’s mind was yellow journalism and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). Hearst constructed the nation’s largest newspaper chain and media company, Hearst Communications, possessing a monopoly and owning approximately ⅔ of all newspapers in the U.S.
Seeing his company losing out to other businesses who produced their papers more cheaply with hemp (Hearst’s company used logs, which were more costly), Hearst launched a full on assault against narcotics, specifically targeting marijuana in order to compete with these other businesses.
“The association of murder, torture and mindless violence with marijuana was not only borne out by evidence or actual events but blossomed thanks to the vivid imaginations of the journalists charged with sensationalizing the tired story of drug use and addiction,” writes the History Departments at Ohio State and Miami Universities.
“Because of Hearst also, people began demagoguing marijuana and associating it with people of color,” Spencer said.
Since society could not distinguish fact from reality, the propaganda strategy worked as planned, helping to establish the first marijuana prohibition act in 1937, setting the stage for the war on drugs, and the events leading up to Nixon’s administration.
“We know a lot of what we know now concerning the criminalization of marijuana because of the Nixon tapes and also from his Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, through his biography,” Spencer said.
“Like any other president would probably have in mind, Nixon set his eye on the upcoming next four years in terms of reelection, Spencer added. The problem for him, however, was remembering Lyndon B. Johnson’s term in office, witnessing how the counterculture movement and protests affected his administration.”
“Seeing counterculture as a threat to his reelection, Nixon, along with his Chief of Staff, Haldeman, and White House Counsel, John Ehrlichman, devised a plan in order to keep him in office. They understood that they couldn’t just make it illegal for African-Americans to be poor and young. Instead, they thought it could be possible to criminalize their “common pleasure” and throw them in jail that way. All of this was said on the Nixon tapes. It’s all right there, literally,” Spencer said.
“Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure,” Ehrlichman said years later in an interview with Dan Baum. “We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue for the Nixon White House that we couldn’t resist it.”
Ehrlichman was also a key figure in the events leading up to Nixon’s Watergate scandal, convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury, serving a year- and-a-half in prison.
Nixon’s administration became responsible for transforming marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a felony offense, preventing those convicted from future voting, and classifying it as a schedule one narcotic, meaning it has no known medical benefits, a high potential for abuse, and an absence of safety for use overall (the scheduling system did not exist before Nixon’s presidency).
According to Spencer, Nixon actually intended to reduce marijuana’s class severity, just before his term in office expired, but he resigned before this could take place. Therefore, marijuana, still to this day, remains classified as a schedule one narcotic under federal law.
“If you can take one thing out of tonight, I want to get across to everyone that our marijuana laws and policies were set in place explicitly to target and discriminate African-Americans. Now it’s devastating our white communities,” Spencer said.
Towards the end of his presentation, Spencer closed with various facts, statistics, and other important information regarding marijuana in the U.S. Roughly 800,000 are arrested each year for marijuana possession. Over $20 billion has been spent by U.S. taxpayers on enforcing these marijuana laws, with some estimates reaching as high as $30 billion. Since 1975, 16.5 million have been arrested on marijuana violations alone. He also discussed the history post-Nixon, discussing Bill Clinton’s crime bill during his presidency, making it virtually impossible for drug violators to receive welfare, former Attorney General Eric Holder’s position during Obama’s administration and other laws and regulations relating to marijuana, such as FAFSA and students.
“The United States by far has the largest prison complex in the world, larger than both China and Russia almost combined. It is time for us to realize, at the very least, that drug related offenses are not criminal issues; this is a public health problem and concern that needs to be addressed through medical rehabilitation, not imprisonment,” Spencer said.