LETTER: Why Norman Zinberg is one of my Heroes
As noted in previous entries, America’s national drug policy began when the deceptive Harrison Act was signed into law by Woodrow Wilson in December 1914. Controversial from the start, Harrison generated a series of affirmative 5-4 Supreme Court decisions based on erroneous assumptions about “addiction,” an entity with which the medical profession of that day was just starting to grapple and still had little experience. Unfortunately, the premature intrusion of the criminal justice system into what should have remained a medical problem would politicize it and severely hamper its unbiased assessment from that point forward. Thus was a new facet of human behavior eventually misidentified as a “disease;” an error that can now be recognized as much more than merely semantic; one which has had tragic consequences for victims of a destructive policy still rigorously enforced the world over.
Ironically, politicization of addiction eventually led to its criminalization, even before it could be understood; thus effectively placing it beyond of the reach of unbiased medical scrutiny. That anomaly couldn’t be addressed until similar “Medical Marijuana” initiatives were passed in California and Arizona in 1996. Even then, the dead judicial hand of the past was quickly invoked to strike down Arizona’s law simply because its use of the word, “prescription” was interpreted as violating the letter of the 1970 federal law its sponsors had hoped to clarify and either modify or overturn.
Thus did ninety-two years elapse after the Harrison Act before Prop 215 finally provided opponents of drug prohibition with their first real opportunity to gather the kind of clinical information needed to scrutinize the basic assumptions underpinning our “War on Drugs.” That such an irrational policy could have avoided critical scrutiny and been accepted as necessary by so many for so long is, in my opinion, compelling evidence of a serious flaw in the vaunted cognitive process that has allowed our species to dominate other life forms while also creating so many of our planet’s serious environmental problems. Thus it’s also the main reason I think cannabis prohibition deserves far more attention than it is receiving.
Norman Zinberg MD was a Harvard Psychiatrist who took an unfashionably courageous and intelligent position on the emerging problems of drug use and addiction shortly after the CSA became the law of the land in 1970. His report on that experience, Drug, Set, and Setting, The Basis for Controlled Intoxicant Use, (1984) is available online. His cogent description of the thought process he went through in 1972 before opting to make drug users his research subjects was so remarkably parallel to my own in 2001 that I’m quoting it here: “Only after a long period of clinical investigation, historical study, and cogitation did I realize that in order to understand how and why certain users had lost control I would have to tackle the all-important question of how and why many others had managed to achieve control and maintain it.”
The study Dr. Zinberg describes in that book began before either the DEA or NIDA were created (1973 and 1974 respectively) but his results were compared to similar NIDA-sponsored studies. Sadly, the most important principle his study exemplifies: the need for impartiality in “drug research” has long been ignored. It’s a problem he had also devoted considerable attention to, but not now. Under the influence of drug war inspired fear, most of the drug “research” that’s been done since 1975 mimics the repetitive “Monitoring the Future” studies of youthful initiation that have became the industry standard since 1975 and are obviously intended to show that cannabis initiation is “associated” with pejorative outcomes.