Friday, August 9, 2013

Beaumont, Texas, 1958: A Perfect Microcosm of the Drug War

In 1958, in Beaumont, Texas, a sheriff found out just how voracious and stubborn cannabis can be.

Dang nabbit, if that mari-ja-wana ain't gon' go away, I might jest have ta SHEWT IT!! YEEEEHAW!!

No, not him. But that image might not be too far off.

In a wire story I found while combing past editions of The Billings Gazette, I found not only a hilarious story of a law-and-order Texan frustrated by a persistent plant, but also the entire essence of the U.S. drug war in a nutshell.

The headline reads like one the day after a prize boxing match: "Officer Winner Over Marijuana." It was a fight, indeed. Beaumont assistant police chief Willie Bauer wanted to educate new officers on marijuana and decided to grow some himself. Curiously, Bauer was unsatisfied with "the quality of the marijuana the force picked up" in raids, so he "acquired" some seeds - the article does not mention where - and "in 12 weeks" he "possessed marijuana 11 feet tall."

Bauer harvested enough of the crop for his training program, then cut down and burned the rest of the plants. Then things started to get crazy: "Sprouts grew back almost overnight. He pulled them up. More sprouts appeared." Then, "In desperation, Bauer poured oil over the garden and set it afire."

Done deal, right? Nope: "But here came those plants peeping up again and shooting upward fast. For several days Bauer spent most of his spare time trying to mow faster than the plants grew. He kept mowing until mowing in the same spot began to appear odd."

I love how he thought the mowing seemed odd. Call me crazy, but I would have thought dousing your garden in oil and tossing a lit match on it would get more sideways glances from neighbors than obsessive mowing. In any case, the mowing didn't work. So finally, Bauer "telephoned a construction company, ordered a concrete slab poured on his garden and a garage built on top."

There! GROW THROUGH THAT S**T, YOU DEVIL WEED. Clearly, in the sheriff's mind the presence of one particularly tenacious, illegal plant justified the unequivocal banishment of all plants from his garden.

Apart from being one of the funniest cannabis-related stories I've unearthed for this project, Bauer's frustrated grapple with ganja is ripe with drug-war metaphors. To pick up on them, one only has to consider the attitude and approach of law enforcement officials like Bauer, not only in the 1950s but in the decades before and after.


Since the early twentieth century, for reasons elsewhere stated but too numerous and complicated to list here, state and federal governments have essentially decided that cannabis plants must be wiped off the face of the Earth. From roughly the 1930s until the mid-1990s, when this prohibitionist furor began to wane*, law enforcement officers at the local, state, and federal levels actually believed this was possible. Multiple newspaper reports from several Western states include claims by police chiefs that they were close to totally eradicating the supply of marijuana in their respective communities.

Law officers everywhere, just like Bauer, cut down, pulled up, and burned cannabis plants. Unlike Bauer's, most of those plants didn't automatically grow back in the same spot, but they didn't have to; people simply grew them elsewhere. In the western states and rural areas, they found well-hidden, suitable growing areas on the banks of irrigation ditches and streams, behind taller vegetation or in between rows of corn. In urban areas like Chicago and New York, vacant lots or window boxes would do. Every time officers dug up, cut down, or burned cannabis plants (at least once, in Chicago, they even used military flamethrowers) people were undoubtedly growing and planting more elsewhere.

Law enforcement officials recognized relatively quickly they were outnumbered, yet they continued their dogged pursuit of a plant whose splendid adaptability lent no help whatsoever to their extinction campaign. Like Bauer, their options weren't just limited to cutting and burning. They also performed a kind of repetitive, social "mowing," arresting the growers, dealers and users and confiscating whatever they had. Much like the way constant cutting forces ordinary grass to adjust its height downward, the frequency of law enforcement's "mowing" in a given area may have told cannabis growers, dealers, and consumers how large their operations could be, but it hardly stopped them.

Such is the prohibitionists' habit of mind. Their best idea for how to meet a perceived threat is to completely annihilate it, no matter how impossible that task proves to be.When annihilation fails, it is thought to fail simply because it wasn't pursued strongly enough or on a large enough scale. So, their next step is to simply up the scale or intensity of the same approach, hoping for a different result. And again, and again. In simpler, clinical terms, prohibitionists are insane.

In Bauer's case - and he definitely acted like a crazy person in parts of that story - the annihilation attempts went from cutting to burning to mowing, to smothering (building a garage). Bauer was able to destroy the weed and escape with his sanity only because he was fighting a small group of plants on his own property. Moreover, the cost of all his destructive measures left him with a "pocketbook dent."

Now, let's put Bauer's frustrating experience on a larger scale, with not only marijuana but all illegal drugs (most of which are derived from plants): The U.S. and untold numbers of other governments across the globe are fighting hundreds of thousands of growers, who are cultivating hundreds of millions of plants, in their homes or outdoors, on millions of acres of property, ALL over the world. Truly, only an insane person would fight that fight, and it has indeed left quite a "pocketbook dent" on taxpayers all over the world.

If anyone from the DEA is reading this, I hope you're taking notes. The next plan of action is obvious: You need to start building a f**kload of garages.

Primary source: "Officer Winner Over Marijuana." The Billings Gazette, February 19, 1958. Other newspaper articles are indirectly referenced. If you want to know which ones, ask!

*Prohibitionist zeal also waned for about a decade between the mid 1960s and 1970s, when counterculturals had enough pull to get penalties for pot possession  relaxed in many states.

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