Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic to live in a democratic society where crucial matters are decided by vote rather than swift, angry order of a monarch or dictator. As the great Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried…” Most of the time, democracy works… most of the time.
Like the execution of any good plan, democracy’s success hinges on the strength and wisdom of those tasked with carrying it out. Corruption is a deep-seeded element of the psyche, embedded in the ego instincts which have shouted “Me first!” for hundreds of millions of years. It’s instinctual to take more than you should if you can get away with it, which is what makes the world’s most powerful men and women “truly great.” Robber barons and industry titans have enjoyed a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back”- type of relationship with the federal government throughout American history. But what happens to the American people? They get the literal fallout – the dead skin off the baron’s exfoliated back. (I know, gross, right?)
Ergo, it’s necessary to install the most incorruptible of public servants to design, implement and enforce laws meant to protect the public from destruction of the upper classes and the government itself. When these public servants aren’t available, the wealthy win at the expense of the public. Think Robin Hood and the plight of the common folk before Robin Hood walked onto the stage. This lack of diligence can have a devastating effect on the livelihood, freedom and often health of the average American citizen, not only now, but for generations to come. Throw a pebble into a pond and watch the ripples flow to the water’s edge. That’s what we’re dealing with here.
You may have heard of William Randolph Hearst, sensationalist media mogul of the early 1900s. The son of millionaires, Hearst became manager of his first newspaper at the age of 24, a company his father received as payment for a gambling debt a few years earlier. Hearst went on to accrue a massive newspaper conglomerate and entered politics, during which time he rose to become a congressional representative for the state of New York. While he earned his reputation of journalistic integrity exposing fraud and corruption in his early days, Hearst later found ways to exploit the media arm of his empire for his own personal benefit, often using newspapers to convey profitable sentiments in their headlines and “Op-Ed” sections.
Hemp, the low-TCH, high-CBD strain of cannabis sativa, has been used to make paper for over 2,000 years, yet it was illegal to grow in the United States for almost a century. Despite having little-to-no psychoactive effect, hemp was grouped with all cannabis strains and made illegal by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, against the advice of the American Medical Association. The AMA, having incredible foresight at the time, recognized the medical benefits of cannabis and its ability to alleviate certain conditions. Somehow, the legislation passed despite the fact, effectively prohibiting any transfer, sale or use of cannabis (including hemp) across the U.S. The act capitalized on hysteria created by propaganda in print and films, most notably 1936’s Reefer Madness, which portrayed cartoon-esque and largely incorrect stereotypes about the “violent” behavior of marijuana smokers. Hearst’s newspapers were caught up in the sweeping public movement.. With headlines like such as “Marihuana Makes Fiends of Boys in 30 Days: Hasheesh Goads Users to Blood-Lust”, Hearst’s newspapers helped popularize the anti-cannabis campaign, though not necessarily out of sense of moral duty. As is the case with any good tycoon, Hearst owned a variety of industries, the most successful of which were mining, ranching and forestry operations. It’s speculated that Hearst probably lost money on his newspaper conglomerate and made his true wealth through these industries. New developments in hemp processing in the early 1900s made it a viable alternative for paper production over the wood pulp-based papers which had been popularized 50 years earlier. Although this argument is somewhat debated, it is thought that Hearst saw the potential for hemp to replace wood in the paper for his newspapers, as hemp was cheaper and faster to grow. This could pose a potential problem for Hearst’s investments in forests and paper plants. Thus, Hearst was all-aboard the marijuana prohibition train, using his power as media baron to deny millions of people use of cannabis in any capacity. Regardless of whether hemp would be used widely in newspaper worldwide (it was not) or other industrial applications (it is), a wealthy man’s quest for even more wealth in 1937 ended up dictating America’s current health policy, as marijuana remains a DEA Schedule 1 drug (along with the likes of heroin and LSD). How ass-backward is that?
More recent examples of the entanglement of private and public interests include the sugar industry’s attack on fat in the 1950s and 60s, to shift the public perception of blame for cardiovascular disease from sugar to fat. While certain amounts of fat (LDL cholesterol) have long been correlated with heart health, sugar’s role is often downplayed in scientific literature. Sweet-heavy corporations such as Coca-Cola were recently found to have paid scientists to produce research emphasizing the correlation between fat intake and heart disease and downplaying the involvement of sugar. Wait… what? I know, this is serious stuff! The Sugar Research Foundation, formed from a coalition of mega-wealthy sugar business owners, also paid researchers at ivy league institutions to help pin the blame for heart disease on sugar. Thus, the federal government’s legislation regarding fat intake was based on an inaccurate reality, affecting the lives of millions of Americans since. According to a 2016 Journal of American Medicine Association review of these events, candidly stated is the omen, “The industry may have a long history of influencing federal policy.”
Other examples include the eternally-influential tobacco industry’s attempts to remain profitable by using public perception to downplay the fact that their method of nicotine distribution is one of the most harmful methods of drug administration, with smoking being the root of millions of cancers and health problems worldwide. In 2012, a letter from a coalition of painkiller manufacturers was sent to congress promoting a hearing about the epidemic of pain in America… Not painkiller abuse in America, which had already been a prevalent problem for quite some time, but pain itself. The authors of this letter were part of a lobby group called Pain Care Forum, which spends about a hundred million dollars a year in efforts to persuade the drafting of legislation favorable to the pharmaceutical industry.
The rough proportion of men/women who would be willing to sacrifice the health and livelihood of others to achieve gain for themselves – no matter how modest or certain – is probably the same today as it was in William Randolph Hearst’s time. Though society has evolved slightly in some ways, the human brain has not, meaning humanity will remain subject to base instincts and less-than-noble behavior for the foreseeable future. Thus, effective legislation and enforcement of the laws that dictate public policy for millions will continue to rely on the strength and wisdom of a select few. In this case, we hold faith in the system like we would in anything else that is less than a proven certainty – with cautious optimism and expecting the occasional disappointment. Remember that just because a law may seem arbitrary, it’s not without reason; whether it’s a good reason is highly debatable as “goodness” is extremely subjective. I’m a firm believer that we as a people need to start looking more closely at laws and the building blocks/contextual stories behind them, rather than accepting laws at face value simply because they are laws. After all, “skeptical scrutiny is the means…by which deep thoughts can be widowed from deep nonsense.” – Carl Sagan.