America has a long and storied history with marijuana. Once grown by American colonists to make hemp rope, by 1970, it was classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic. Possession of it was — and is — a federal crime, despite the fact that in recent years 25 states have legalized medical marijuana and four states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for recreational use.
Author John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, traces the history of America's laws and attitudes toward cannabis in his new book, Marijuana: A Short History. He tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that the recent shift in public policy is, in part, a recognition of the drug's medicinal value, which became apparent in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
"People were saying, 'If I smoke this and I get the munchies, maybe it will help people dying of AIDS who are so nauseated that they can't eat and they're dealing with clinical anorexia as a result of that,' " Hudak explains.
The grass-roots movement turned political, and in 1996, California became the first state to pass a medical marijuana ballot initiative. Other states followed, though the impetus for the movement grew beyond the medicinal.
"One significant argument in favor of adult use marijuana that not many people talk about is a simple one, and that is some people just like to get high," Hudak says. "I think in this policy debate, oftentimes seeing marijuana as a recreational product, it is frowned upon to discuss it, but it's a reality. People enjoy it like people enjoy wine or people enjoy a good steak."
On Harry Anslinger, who played a pivotal role in the effort to criminalize marijuana
Harry Anslinger was the nation's first real drug czar. He came from the Bureau of Prohibition and was put in charge of a variety of federal government agencies that changed names over the course of time, but were effectively the precursors for the Drug Enforcement [Administration].
He was essentially the J. Edgar Hoover of drugs in the United States. He had the same types of tactics that Hoover had — that was being very aggressive with Congress, going into the media to try to advance his political and policy interests. He had, by all accounts, details and histories of members of Congress and senators that they did not want to become public, and he was a one-man force in expanding drug prohibition in the United States. He did this for a variety of drugs, but he had a special place in his heart for marijuana.
On how marijuana use was made into a racial issue
Anslinger brought to it this real racialized aspect. I mean, he was an absolute avowed racist, and when you look at the letters he wrote to different civic organizations or op-eds that he published, or even congressional testimony, it is riddled with racist language and racist claims about the use of marijuana really being only in Mexican communities in the Southwest, and then eventually it transitioned to be a product that was used by the individuals who were around jazz music, which of course was code language for the African-American community.
And so proceeded this racialized history, and [Anslinger] ... claimed that marijuana would turn people into psychopaths, murderers, rapists — it would make women promiscuous, particularly promiscuous around men of color, and this was seen as something that was brought into communities by people of color in order to make the most vulnerable in society behave in ways that would appall society.
On government efforts to suppress studies that showed that marijuana was not as addictive or dangerous as had been claimed
In the 1970s President Nixon commissioned the former governor of Pennsylvania, Ray Shafer, who was a good friend, a fellow Republican, a good friend of Nixon's, to commission this report about this evil drug infecting society, and Shafer came up, again, with the same answers — it wasn't as addicting, that there were reasons to try to think about this drug in different ways than the federal government was thinking about it, that it wasn't causing violent crime.
Shafer was actually called into the Oval Office and read off by the president for this draft report, and [Nixon] said to Shafer, "You cannot publish this." And Shafer stood his ground. He said, "I'm publishing it." And Nixon trashed that.
It was just this extended period of president after president asking for answers, not getting the answers that he liked, and then throwing the report away.
On what led to policy change for use of marijuana
This really began in the Castro District of San Francisco in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The AIDS epidemic was ... ravaging this community, and it was one that individuals, I think, looked at this product that was largely being used recreationally and understood that it helped with pain relief.
So you had a few individuals — Dennis Peron is one; a woman named Brownie Mary who was an orderly at a hospital in San Francisco who would bake brownies laced with marijuana and deliver them to AIDS patients each day. This community popped up around delivering medical cannabis for those who are dying.
And it wasn't only people dying of AIDS, it was people who had a variety of ailments — and that grass-roots, underground, even though it was pretty much in the daylight for some time, movement transitioned into a political one, and in 1996 California became the first state to pass a medical marijuana ballot initiative.
On arguments in favor of legalization
We have 750,000 arrests in a year that have to do with marijuana. And so in communities of color that criminal justice argument is a tremendous one. For libertarians you talk about personal liberty and privacy and property rights, and that is an important issue for them. For conservatives or liberals who are interested in balancing the budget, talking about all of the law enforcement dollars that are spent on the prosecution and investigation of marijuana crimes in a year, that's budget savings, as well as revenue in the door on the tax side.
For others, it is about product safety, understanding that a regulatory system is going to be able to test the product and you'll know exactly as a consumer what you're getting, whereas on the black market you don't know that.
On the federal government's decision this past summer to continue the Schedule 1 classification of marijuana
One of the reasons for the maintenance of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance was that the medical community is not convinced of its medical value. There are plenty of doctors who believe that there is medical value to marijuana, they're willing to recommend it to patients, but the threshold required to demonstrate medical value for the medical community as a whole is much higher than it is for the reform community.
There is this cannabis Catch-22 and it is, as a Schedule 1 drug, it is very difficult to do research on the plant. There are only certain researchers who will get the certification and licensure necessary to handle the drug. Then, of course, you need the funding to study it. You need approval from university institutional review boards, and the burdens that exist to do the type of research on a Schedule 1 drug are tremendous. But that research is what will inform the medical community as to its medical use, and so what you need and what you can do are entirely prevented by this federal government policy.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're going to talk about the confusing state of our public policy toward marijuana and how attitudes toward marijuana have evolved in the U.S. Twenty-five states have legalized medical marijuana. And four states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot for recreational use. The state of Colorado alone has issued 25,000 licenses to work in the burgeoning marijuana industry. Yet possession of pot, even for medical use, remains a federal crime. For decades, police in the U.S. have arrested untold numbers of people for marijuana offenses, resulting in tough prison sentences for some and stigmatizing all with criminal records.
Our guest John Hudak is the author of the new book "Marijuana: A Short History." He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and deputy director of the Brookings Center for Effective Public Management. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, John Hudak, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, the very first line in your book is marijuana is not new. And so I know it dates back thousands of years. But let's just talk about this country. How long have we been using this plant in this country?
JOHN HUDAK: We've been using this plant in this country before the United States was a country. The plant cannabis is used to produce hemp. And in the early colonies, hemp was grown quite widely. And in fact, for a period of time, the British crown required landowners to grow the cannabis plant because hemp was such a vital part of the British economy.
DAVIES: So hemp, from which rope is made, is the same as marijuana?
HUDAK: It comes from the same plant. The difference is that hemp is not psychoactive. It can't get you high if you harvest it. You harvest it for different reasons and it gives different products. So you can make ship sails and ropes and clothing and food and oil and a variety of other products that were absolutely essential for the royal economy. In the 1600s and 1700s, hemp was part of that.
DAVIES: I gather from the book that there is evidence that the Founding Fathers and their families were also getting high with this stuff, too?
HUDAK: Well, we have evidence that the Founding Fathers - Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams - grew hemp on their farms. It was, again, such a vital cash crop. They were doing it. But we have some evidence from John Adams actually, where he writes under a pseudonym at one point that if you grow the cannabis plant in a certain way - and I'm paraphrasing of course - it has some mind-altering effects.
And it suggests that either John Adams heard through the grapevine - or through the hempvine - that there was a way to produce cannabis that might get you in a great place like the old grog could. Or he did that himself as a hemp farmer. And we don't know for sure, we won't know for sure. But, you know, the Founding Fathers were certainly aware of what this plant could do.
DAVIES: OK. So no widespread evidence that people were toking? (Laughter).
HUDAK: Yeah. I - we didn't see George Washington in the early White House smoking reefer. But we know that they were producing the plant from which they could have if they wanted to.
DAVIES: The term marijuana is a product of the 20th century, right? Where did it come from?
HUDAK: So throughout our history, this plant has been in the United States. And actually, throughout the 1800s, it was used for medicinal value. Not widespread, but there were doctors who were prescribing essentially medical marijuana. At that time, it was called cannabis. It was named for what the technical plant name was. And for the longest time, that is how you - if you used medical marijuana, medical cannabis, that's what your prescription would call for. Or the products that you would use would say that they contained cannabis.
It wasn't until really the introduction of this product as a labeled Mexican product. And the term that was used in Mexico - marijuana spelled not with a J but with an H - began its sort of linguistic introduction into the United States. And it very quickly became a center point for political conflict in the U.S.
DAVIES: Why was that?
HUDAK: Well, in part it was what happens in this country from time to time. And that is the political class using an individual group or a product or a behavior to vilify huge groups of people. And so after the Spanish-American War and after Mexican immigration into the United States began to increase, there were people in this country who were very uncomfortable with that.
And so marijuana gave individuals - in media organizations in particular - an opportunity to vilify these new Mexican immigrants. And to say that they were lazy, and that they were a problem, and that they were bringing these drugs into this country, who were ruining the quote, unquote, "good Americans." Thankfully, our politics don't do that anymore. But it was certainly something that was happening at the turn of the century.
DAVIES: And the name stuck?
HUDAK: The name stuck. And it's actually an interesting story. And I discussed this in the book about this terminology being so controversial, even in the reform community today. An anecdote I like to tell is that I was at a drug policy conference last year. And there was a speaker up on stage who said, I refuse to spell cannabis with an M. And I sat there and I'd never heard that phrase before. And I thought, what is he talking about? I don't understand it. Until I realized he was so offended by the word marijuana and the racialized history that it had, that he was never willing to use that word, even though it is the more common term rather than cannabis.
DAVIES: All right. So going back to the early 20th century, what was the government's approach to the regulation of marijuana?
HUDAK: The government's approach to regulation early on was nonexistent. And that's typically true of any medical product in the United States. We had very little federal-level regulation of anything, frankly, in - for much of the 1800s. But as the Progressive reform movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s began, you started to see the federal government step in and flex its regulatory muscle. And so the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed. That was a law passed by the United States Congress that sought to do pretty much what the title of the law says, and that was regulate food, drugs and cosmetics.
And so the first step toward regulation was just to try to make sure that this product - which was being prescribed by doctors or doled out by doctors for certain types of medical treatment - would be regulated in some way. That there would be safe means of getting that product, producing that product, making sure that it was the real thing. Which, again, turn of the century medical regulation was nothing like it was today. But it was one step forward at least.
DAVIES: You write that a key figure in drug policy in the United States was a guy named Harry Anslinger, who was there for decades. Tell us who he was, and what was his impact?
HUDAK: Harry Anslinger was the the nation's first real drug czar. He came from the Bureau of Prohibition and was put in charge of a variety of federal government agencies that changed names over the course of time, but were effectively the precursors for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Harry Anslinger is someone who is not well known, even though he was essentially the J. Edgar Hoover of drugs in the United States. He had the same types of tactics that Hoover had. That was being very aggressive with Congress, going into the media to try to advance his political and policy interests. He had details and histories of members of Congress and senators that they did not want to become public. And he was a one-man force in expanding drug prohibition in the United States. He did this for a variety of drugs. But he had a special place in his heart for marijuana.
DAVIES: All right. So at a time when marijuana was used maybe - certainly not as widely as it came to be, but used and might have been seen in any number of ways by government regulators, what was the attitude that Harry Anslinger brought to it? And what was its impact on enforcement and regulation?
HUDAK: Anslinger brought to it this real racialized aspect. I mean, he was an absolute unavowed racist. And when you look at the letters he wrote two different civic organizations or op-eds that he published or even congressional testimony, it is riddled with racist language and racist claims about the use of marijuana really being only in Mexican communities in the Southwest, and then eventually it transitioned to be a product that was used by the individuals who were around jazz music, which of course was code language for the African-American community.
And he was one who thought that marijuana was this evil that was coming to the United States, and he claimed that marijuana would turn people into psychopaths, murderers, rapists. It would make women promiscuous, particularly promiscuous around men of color. And this was seen as something that was brought into communities by people of color in order to make the most vulnerable in society behave in ways that would appall society.
And this was, at the time, considered serious public policy claims. Anslinger would use statistics that oftentimes were made up just to advance these claims and to turn America against this plant and groups of people. And he was masterful in terms of fear mongering, in terms of propaganda and in terms of really making the United States Congress a puppet. And he was aided in this way by Hollywood. He was aided in this way by the American media. Regardless of what you think of marijuana, the way that this was perpetrated really leaves a dark mark on this nation's history.
DAVIES: We're speaking with John Hudak. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with John Hudak. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has a new book about the history of marijuana policy in the United States. It's called "Marijuana: A Short History."
Harry Anslinger guided drug policy in the '30s, '40s and '50s, and I guess then marijuana was criminalized and banned. When we look at the post-war era, you write quite a bit about the various administrations - Eisenhower, Nixon, others - and there's a pattern that I discern, which is that in many cases presidents, often Republican presidents, would commission reports on marijuana and its actual effects and potential ways to regulate or deregulate it. And then there would be the actual policies that the government followed.
Let's talk about the reports first. What did these commissions conclude when they looked at marijuana?
HUDAK: There were a lot of reports that were produced over a period of time, the first actually being royal. The British government commissioned a report to look into this and it found that marijuana was not as harmful as people believed widely that it was, that it wasn't as addictive, that there could be medicinal value to it. But the British government was not the only government to do this. As you said, the American government really worked in this way.
The first major report in the U.S. was by Fiorello La Guardia, who ended up becoming the mayor of New York City. And he looked at this crisis, quote, unquote, "crisis" that was happening in New York City because he was being told of course by Anslinger that this was a very serious drug in his community and a public health threat and a public safety threat.
So he looked at it and he found that the statistics that were being used were false, that marijuana was not as addictive as it was claimed and that it had no relationship with the types of violent crimes that were being reported on in New York City. Well, La Guardia's report was trashed. Anslinger trashed him personally and went on a crusade to undermine him, eventually pushing the American Medical Association to respond negatively to it.
There was an Eisenhower report commissioned in the '50s. Again, it was an interdepartmental, a cabinet-level group who looked into the same question and came up with the same answers that La Guardia did.
In the 1970s, President Nixon commissioned the former governor of Pennsylvania Ray Shafer, who was a good friend, a fellow Republican, a good friend of Nixon's, to commission this report about this evil drug infecting society. And Shafer came up again with the same answers. It wasn't as addicting, that there were reasons to try to think about this drug in different ways than the federal government was thinking about it, that it wasn't causing violent crime.
And Shafer was actually called into the Oval Office and read off by the president for this draft report. And he said to Shafer, you cannot publish this. And Shafer stood his ground. He said, I'm publishing it and Nixon trashed that. And it was just this extended period of a president after president asking for answers, not getting the answers that he liked and then throwing the report away.
DAVIES: If these reports concluded that marijuana was not as addictive, was not necessarily a gateway drug to heroin, was not causing, you know, violent crime and mental pathologies, what did guide government policy and where did it go?
HUDAK: Government policy was guided by a few things. One was politics at its core. Being able to be tough on drugs and fighting the drug war was something that was very successful for many presidents over a period of time, chief among them of course, Richard Nixon. This was a way to vilify out-groups, which in some cases were communities of color - again, blacks, Latinos, others - but there were other groups, there were beatniks in the '50s and hippies in the '60s and groups that Richard Nixon personally thought to be a threat to him and to his coalition. And so the politics there really allowed or really encouraged the president to crack down on this drug, and he did.
At the same time, you started to grow a law enforcement community around this, which culturally took hold to believe that this was bad, and you also grew culture within the United States among the mass public that this was a problem. This was a serious threat.
When you look at Ronald Reagan's rhetoric about this, you have no idea, in a vacuum, whether he's talking about marijuana or talking about the Soviet Union, the way he's talking about this threat, this war, this evil. And I think when you take a step back, you understand that rarely is politics nice to look at. But when you're talking about the drug war, it really has a nasty tone to it.
DAVIES: So one of the things that began to change public opinion about marijuana was its increasing use for medical purposes. When did that happen, and how?
HUDAK: Well, people have been self-medicating with marijuana for millennia. We have evidence from the Chinese empire of this. We have evidence that British royals were prescribed cannabis for pain relief. And in America, it was part of the United States Pharmacopeia until 1942.
But in terms of a policy change, this really began in the Castro District of San Francisco in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The AIDS epidemic was savaging and ravaging this community, and it was one that individuals, I think, looked at this product that was largely being used recreationally and understood that it helped with pain relief. Or people were saying, you know, if I smoke this and I get the munchies, maybe it will help for people dying of AIDS who are so nauseated that they can't eat and they're dealing with clinical anorexia as a result of that.
And so you had a few individuals, Dennis Peron was one - is one. A woman named Brownie Mary, who was an orderly at a hospital in San Francisco who would bake brownies laced with marijuana and deliver them to AIDS patients each day. And this community popped up around delivering medical cannabis for those who were dying. And it wasn't only people dying of AIDS. It was people who had a variety of ailments.
And that grassroots underground - even though it was pretty much in the daylight for some time - movement transitioned into a political one. And in 1996, California became the first state to pass a medical marijuana ballot initiative.
DAVIES: Now, when states began to develop medical marijuana programs, they were illegal under federal law. And there are, of course, federal agencies that can investigate - you know, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI. Did they? Were there raids?
HUDAK: Absolutely. There still are raids today because, again, it remains a federal crime. In California, for instance, after the initiative was passed in 1996, DEA agents and others were cracking down on these marijuana grow cooperatives and individuals who had plants. And these were sometimes done in conjunction with local or state law enforcement. Sometimes it was done unilaterally by DEA and FBI and others. But this was happening because the federal government did not know how to react to this real slap in the face from California about federal law. And those raids continued. As more states legalized medical marijuana, raids continued in those states. And like I said, they even continue today.
DAVIES: Well, were - I mean, there's a lot of discretion in what gets investigated and what gets prosecuted among law enforcement personnel. Was there any logic to the raids? I mean, were there particularly bad actors they were going after, however you define that?
HUDAK: There were absolutely bad actors who the federal government was going after. I think some people in the policy community often paint the raids in marijuana - medical marijuana reform states as only, you know, arresting old ladies and people dying of cancer. The reality is that there were certainly individuals who fit that profile who were being raided, but there were also operations that were, you know, violating even the spirit of the initiative in California. But it was...
DAVIES: ...What were the - who were the bad actors? What were they doing that made them, you know -
HUDAK: Well, there were certainly institutions who were working with cartels, you know, growers working with cartels. There were growers who were growing extraordinary amounts of marijuana and not necessarily working with individuals who were qualified patients - that is, individuals who are eligible under the initiative and under the law to be medical marijuana users. And so that was going on. There's no doubt about that.
But in the process, others were being affected, too. And so grow cooperatives in California that were serving, you know, communities who had cancer or other illnesses that the law was meant to help, that the initiative was meant to help were also seeing these crackdowns.
And so in some ways, there appeared to be very little rhyme or reason as to how the federal government was enforcing except that they oftentimes tried to work with local law enforcement. But they cannot force local law enforcement to help them, so where they could get the help they oftentimes went in. And sometimes these were almost paramilitaristic (ph) operations with helicopters and huge guns and nighttime raids and things like that.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with John Hudak, author of the new book "Marijuana: A Short History." He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. After a break, they'll talk about upcoming initiatives to legalize marijuana. And Ken Tucker will review the new solo album by Bob Weir, a co-founder of the Grateful Dead. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with John Hudak, author of the new book "Marijuana: A Short History." It's about how public policy on marijuana has evolved and the current conflicting laws and regulations. Twenty-five states have legalized medical marijuana. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot for recreational use. But the possession of pot, even for medical use, remains a federal crime.
DAVIES: So let's talk about how legalization has worked in places where it has happened. We've - there are four states that permit recreational use. That's happened within the last - what? - five years or so. And a lot of - to get that done, it often required winning a referendum, which can be a big political job in a big state. I mean, typically these are, you know, won when political professionals are involved. Was that the case with the marijuana legalization efforts, and who paid for it?
HUDAK: That's absolutely correct. So to lay out the landscape, sort of the legal landscape around this, four states and D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana. Colorado and Washington were the first in November of 2012. They were followed by Oregon and Alaska and D.C. in 2014. Each was passed by a ballot initiative. And they set up a system of - with the exception of Washington, D.C. - a regulated commercial market in which marijuana would be sold at dispensaries throughout the states. And individuals 21 and over can go into those stores and purchase marijuana like they would purchase products at a grocery store or a clothing store or a shoe store.
DAVIES: So California has an initiative this year. Are there other states that are near votes on this question?
HUDAK: There are five states this year, in 2016, that will consider recreational marijuana initiatives. They are California, here in Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine. There are also four states running medical marijuana ballot initiatives. They include Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota and Montana.
DAVIES: You said that taxes are as high as 37 percent in some state taxes on marijuana. I mean, do states look upon this as a revenue source the way they look at casinos, kind of a cash cow that will fund public needs?
HUDAK: Yes, states definitely see the revenue benefits of marijuana happening every day. I mean, Colorado has made hundreds of millions of dollars in tax and fee revenue since legalization has happened, both off the medical and the recreational side. States see this as an opportunity to get more money in the door. It's certainly not, you know, going to be the cure-all to balance the books in states, but it is money that would not be collected otherwise if this remained a black market industry.
That said, what - if you talk to people who work on these campaigns and have worked on these campaigns, early on, they thought that the revenue argument - oh, let's get more taxes and let's spend that money on schools and law enforcement and mental health and addiction services - was going to be a huge selling point. And it is for some people, but it was much less of a convincing argument for a lot of voters. And other issues like personal liberty or criminal justice issues or safety issues, those were the ones that were selling with different sub demographics within these states. And revenue was only a small part of that argument.
DAVIES: Well, let's just go into that for a moment. When these fights over marijuana legalization occur, and there are these ballot initiatives, give us a sense of the arguments against and the arguments in favor.
HUDAK: The arguments against focus quite a bit on public health and public safety, and those focus on mental health and addiction on the access of marijuana for children and young people. They look at - they focus on things like DUID, driving under the influence of drugs. They look at - and now, as this industry matures, they'll look at unfortunate cases in states that have legalized and make political arguments around that. For instance, challenges that existed around marijuana edibles in Colorado early on was part of the conversation in opposition in later states to legalize.
DAVIES: And what are the arguments in favor?
HUDAK: Yeah, the arguments in favor focus on a variety of issues. So you can go into communities of color - Black and Latino communities - and say, look at what law enforcement has done to your young men and young women by enforcing this law. Let's legalize it. Let's stop these arrests. You know, we have 750,000 arrests in a year that have to do with marijuana, some of them large-scale things, but many of them simple possession. And so in communities of color that criminal justice argument is a tremendous one.
For Libertarians, you talk about personal liberty and privacy and property rights, and that is an important issue for them. For, you know, people who are interested - conservatives or liberals - who are interested in balancing the budget, talking about all of the law enforcement dollars that are spent on the prosecution and investigation of marijuana crimes in a year. That's budget savings, as well as revenue in the door on the tax side. And so that makes sense to them.
For others, it is about product safety, understanding that a regulatory system is going to be able to test the product, and you'll know exactly, as a consumer, what you're getting, whereas on the black market, you don't know that. Arguments are made about displacing cartels and displacing illegal operations in states that can have violent elements around it. And, frankly, one of the - one significant argument in favor of adult-use marijuana that not many people talk about is a simple one, and that is some people just like to get high. And I think in this policy debate, oftentimes seeing marijuana as a recreational product is - it is frowned upon to discuss it. But it's a reality. People enjoy it like people enjoy wine or people enjoy a good steak, and they're getting some sort of utility out of that, some sort of benefit out of it. And while that's, you know, not plastered on billboards in states that are looking to legalize or run on TV ads, it is an important part of what people consider.
DAVIES: Take us to a city where recreational marijuana is legal now - you know, I don't know, Seattle or Denver or Portland. What's the experience like? What do you see?
HUDAK: You can go down to downtown Denver, and you can look into the storefront or pop into the storefront of a marijuana dispensary, and it looks more like an Apple store. You go in, and it's not like going into a convenience store where everything's just laid out on shelves and you pick and choose. There are, in these states, limits on how much you can buy at a time, so everything is behind counters.
And the individual who serves you is called a budtender, and that person will guide you through what your - what type of experience you're trying to achieve, whether it is - you know, someone who wants an appetite increase or an appetite suppressant, or someone who wants to relax or someone who wants energy. Depending on what kind of high you want, they'll help you - walk you through that. And you'll have whole-flower marijuana that you can grind up and roll and smoke or put into a bowl or a bong or whatever. You can get edibles. You can get creams and other types of products. You know, the variety of products you can get, particularly on the adult-use market, is something that is fascinating. You can get pre-rolled joints or rolling papers to roll your own.
It's a pretty interesting experience, actually. Regardless of what you think of marijuana reform, if you are ever in a state that has recreational marijuana, I encourage everyone to go into a dispensary just to see what it looks like. I mean, you might hate it. You might love it. You'll probably be surprised by what you see.
DAVIES: We're speaking with John Hudak. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with John Hudak. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His new book about marijuana policy is called "Marijuana: A Short History."
You know, we have this circumstance where, you know, there's increased legal marijuana use in many states. But it remains illegal under federal law. And even if the federal government doesn't choose to conduct investigations and raids, there are still some problems associated with the fact that it's not legal. You want to talk about some of those?
HUDAK: There are a number of problems that exist because the legal marijuana framework that we have in this country is wholly done at the state level, and then sort of allowed at the federal level. And what happens, what that means is that there are challenges within industry, there are challenges for customers. And so let me talk about a few. One of them involves taxes.
So if you're a marijuana business - or let me back up. If you're any business in the United States that's not a marijuana business, and you invest in your company or you do research or you do any variety of everyday business operations, you're entitled on your federal taxes - federal business taxes to certain write-offs. And that's how businesses stay afloat and make financial decisions about expansion or what. Under federal law though, because this is an illegal substance, those businesses are still required to pay their taxes. But they're not entitled to any write-offs. So they are effectively just communicating incoming revenue to the state without really being able to write-off much of anything. There are a few write-offs they're entitled to, but nothing that allows them to function as a normal business. So that can mean for some businesses, you have - in a year, 100 to 150 percent of your revenue is a tax burden. And so as much money as - is coming in, as much or more is going out the door to the IRS.
Beyond that, banks are loathe to enter this space because of federal prohibition. So it means that in most states, the marijuana industry is a cash-only business, which introduces security challenges. And to put that into perspective, most marijuana businesses cannot get a checking account. They can't get a savings account. They're not entitled to a business loan or a line of credit, things that any business in the United States depends on heavily. So that cash-only business means that the marijuana industry is trafficking in huge sums of cash at any time. That increases security challenges. It poses opportunities for money laundering. And it's just a really ineffective policy.
DAVIES: There have been been several efforts to get marijuana declassified as a schedule I drug, that is to say, the most serious, dangerous drugs under the Controlled Substances Act. That - one of those efforts came to a conclusion this summer and the government did not change it. It left it as a schedule I drug. Why? What happened?
HUDAK: One of the reasons for the maintenance of marijuana as a schedule I substance was that the medical community is not convinced of its medical value. There are plenty of doctors who believe that there is medical value to marijuana. They're willing to recommend it to patients. But the threshold required to demonstrate medical value for the community as a whole - the medical community as a whole is much higher than it is for the reform community. And so I think they are looking for more rigorous, broader extensive research into this as a medicine.
And even though we do have a significant number of studies that indicate medical value under certain circumstances for certain conditions, we don't have a ton of research that meets that gold standard, the double-blind placebo experiments that are done on a variety of other medical issues in this country every day. But marijuana research has been slow to get there, and thus the federal government issued that ruling in August.
DAVIES: Is there a catch-22? I mean, can you demonstrate that it has medical value if there's - if it's illegal? And...
HUDAK: That - so, yeah, there is this cannabis catch-22. And it is as a schedule I drug, it is very difficult to do research on the plant. There are only certain, you know, researchers who will get the certification and licensure necessary to handle the drug. Then of course, you need the funding to study it. You need approval from university institutional review boards. And the burdens that exist to do the type of research on a schedule I drug are tremendous. But that research is what will help inform the medical community as to its medical use. And so what you need and what you can do are entirely prevented by this federal government policy.
And so for me, I think given that this is a - policy reality in the states, the federal government should be doing everything it can to answer these questions about medical value. And they should be doing it as quickly as possible. I understand the rescheduling decision was made because of that three-part criteria. But given that there are 25 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical marijuana, you would think the federal government would carve out some sort of exception that would facilitate research in the face of this policy reality.
DAVIES: You write that there have been a number of efforts to change marijuana regulation at the federal level and they've all failed. And, you know, everybody knows how much partisan gridlock there is in Congress. And I wonder if the fault lines of the battles over marijuana legalization fall along the lines of the other partisan battles in Congress.
HUDAK: It really doesn't. This is the most fascinating part of the marijuana issue for me. You look out at our politics right now and they are exactly what you said, partisan gridlock. It's not so with marijuana policy, though. So when you look at Congress and you look at the people who are working on some of the most cutting-edge reform legislation, you see people like Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey who is a progressive - as progressive as they come, in many ways - working side-by-side with Rand Paul, who is a Libertarian senator from Kentucky and in many ways very, very conservative.
That is not just two senators who happen to like each other and happen to get along on this one issue. It actually puts into perspective how diverse this coalition of support around marijuana is. Different members of Congress from different parties, from different perspectives, from different backgrounds are coming at this in very different ways. But at the end, they're coming out to the same outcome. And increasingly, that outcome is moving toward a pro-reform direction.
DAVIES: How did you get into this area of research?
HUDAK: So this is an interesting question. I get this a lot. If you told me five years ago when I was, you know, finishing up graduate school that I would be studying this, I would've laughed at you. I study the presidency. I study the executive branch of government. And I don't - before this really never looked at marijuana. And a colleague of mine came down to my office in October of 2012, and he said, you know, Colorado and Washington, I think one of these states - there's an outside chance - might legalize marijuana this year. Have you ever thought of doing research on it?
And I said, absolutely not at all. All I knew at that point was that there were ballot initiatives there. I didn't know anything about it. He said, well, if one of them passes, if one of them happens to pass, this - these states or this state is going to have to set up a huge regulatory system, a new administration, hire people. And you ask about all those questions in a variety of other areas. And I don't think anyone's going to be asking these questions around marijuana. Why don't you take a look at it and see what you think?
And so I started to do some reading on these initiatives and the movement, and just really - it became such a fascination for me. And you might say I got addicted.
DAVIES: Well, John Hudak, thanks so much for speaking with us.
HUDAK: Thank you.
GROSS: John Hudak is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book "Marijuana: A Short History." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the new solo album by Bob Weir, who co-founded the Grateful Dead. This is FRESH AIR.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, our guest incorrectly refers to the Drug Enforcement Administration as the Drug Enforcement Agency.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.