Morning Belz, May 21
I’ve recently watched some of the old War on Drugs ads. Brooke Shields on a stationary bike at the gym, arguing that women who smoke weed let themselves go. Noted champion of moderation David Hasselhof exhorting teens to stay away from the stuff. A woman I don’t recognize leaning against a door, saying marijuana “softens the mind” before a shadow looms behind her and she turns to the camera and exclaims, “Drugs! It’s a bloody shame!”
Cocaine was in fact ruining a lot of lives, so that’s part of why there was such powerful energy against drugs, led for a while by Nancy Reagan. But the rationale for lumping marijuana in with cocaine and heroin was never great.
Times have changed, and now the U.S. sits in a confusing in-between phase with regard to Cannabis sativa. Recreational marijuana is illegal by federal law, but legal in 16, 17 or 18 states, depending on how you count. It’s legal for medicinal use in several more states. And a world of exploration has opened up since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized any cannabis product that doesn’t contain more than the .03% limit on delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol — the key psychoactive ingredient that most of us are talking about when we say the word “marijuana.”
Cannabis is a remarkable plant. It produces hemp for rope and paper and a lot of other stuff, but it also generates, at various stages of its life, a vast array of chemical compounds with intimate, complex relationships to the human mind and body. (Tomatoes, in all their glory, are by comparison, a one-trick pony.)
One cannabis compound is cannabidiol, or CBD, which has already swept the nation. Here’s a feature from The News Station on southern church ladies getting into the stuff, which is not intoxicating but widely credited for pain relief and other benefits. Some of this is disputed. I’m not the guy to resolve those disputes. (I had to look up H, C, and O on the periodic table yesterday.)
The Farm Bill opened the door for experimentation with other compounds, and the hottest thing in CBD shops these days is delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol, a close cousin of delta-9-THC. For now, delta-8-THC is legal by federal law. But it’s still THC. It’s intoxicating in a way that’s similar to its widely-beloved cousin, but less potent, less euphoric, and more relaxing. And while cannabis plants do produce delta-8 naturally in very small amounts, this compound is mostly manufactured by chemically-modifying CBD. Companies are boiling CBD oil in a solvent and an acid, then washing it with water or ether. The resulting oil is used to infuse gummies and honey, fill vaporizer cartridges, and is even sprayed on low-THC cannabis flower. These products are probably available at CBD shops, or even gas stations, near you.
States are scrambling to outlaw them. Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Rhode Island and Utah have already done so. Delta-8-THC is probably going to be illegal in Texas soon. And interestingly, states that already or will soon allow recreational marijuana — Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana — aren’t any more likely to allow delta-8-THC. New York is another example. The state legalized recreational marijuana this spring but is expected to outlaw delta-8-THC soon. Not sure why. Part of it is probably that the delta-8-THC market has outpaced regulators and nobody knows what’s going on.
Delta-8 won’t be the last innovation. The chemistry of cannabis, and how it interacts with the human neurotransmitters seemingly designed to receive cannabis chemicals, is complicated and not well understood. We know the plant produces more than 400 “chemical entities.” We don’t fully understand how CBD or THC do what they do, let alone lab-achieved delta-8. Results vary dramatically based on the specific combination of those chemicals in each product, and each chemical’s potency. And yet a huge portion of the American population is happily consuming these products, and state lawmakers are rapidly outlawing them.
Delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol deserves more scientific scrutiny, but this impulse to outlaw cannabis products is at least in part a legacy of something sinister. The war on drugs, regardless of whether anyone intended it that way, ended up being in crucial ways a war on Black people. That’s most clear when it comes to the harsh sentencing guidelines for dealing crack cocaine. But marijuana was also part of the unfairness.
As one woman (pictured above) I spoke with in Chattanooga said, “Segregation ended, but we were still coming out of that, so there’s still that fear of Black people moving into our neighborhoods. If we can portray them as ‘they all smoke weed and this is what weed does to them,’ it keeps them out of our neighborhood.”
Despite the gradual softening of marijuana law across the country, Black people are still three-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for possessing it than white people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Imprisonment for marijuana is on a downward trend, but arrests continue, and getting arrested means fines. And it’s hard to tell the number for sure, but at least several thousand Americans are still in prison for marijuana convictions.
The culture has outstripped federal policy. I’m hardly the first to say it, but the simplest path forward is federal legalization of all cannabis products, and a regulatory regime that focuses on ensuring those products are clean of contamination. This will likely have to wait another four years, however. Joe Biden is not the president who will push that agenda.
I failed a couple of days ago to say that a) nuclear power is historically very expensive and in need of subsidy, and b) disposing of nuclear waste is, at minimum, an unresolved challenge. Anti-nuclear sentiment is not all just people getting in their emotions. Have a great weekend.
The 6-yr-old girl struck by a bullet in Mpls died — Star Tribune
A letter from Capitol Police to lawmakers re: Jan. 6 — Twitter
America is awash in hand sanitizer — WSJ
Was Flannery O’Connor racist? (yes) — Spectator*
Helpful (but depressing) aides in understanding time — WaitButWhy
*she refused to meet James Baldwin in Georgia, citing “the traditions of the society I feed on.” It’s not clear to me that many other white people would have acted differently in her situation, but, sorry, that’s racist.
“We should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.” — Aristotle
About: I send this email most weekdays in an effort to stay informed and in touch. I was a newspaper reporter for 14 years, most recently at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I explained why my family left Minneapolis here. Now we live just outside Chattanooga and I work on Scuffed News. Please share this newsletter with anyone you think might enjoy it. And please consider supporting this work with your money on Patreon.