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Fourth of July Poetry: Light Up For Liberty

In the 1600's, a group of enraged colonists marched on the government center of Carolina. In one of the earliest recorded acts of civil disobedience in America, they defiantly lit up and smoked an illegal plant substance. History didn't record the consequences to those particular colonists, but eventually the laws were changed which banned the use of tobacco.

On July 4, 1969, the Youth International Party, or YIPPIEs, held a similar civil disobedience in Washington DC; this time the illegal plant substance was marijuana. They vowed to return every year until it was legalized and there has been a July 4 Legalization Demonstration in Washington DC ever since. One DC NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) activist, who asked to remain anonymous, recently stated, "If hemp products such as paper, cloth, and oil are so valuable that we spend billions overseas to import them, why can't we just spend that money on products grown and manufactured here in America? Hemp and marijuana aren't compatible crops; those who accuse us of only wanting to smoke pot and get high don't understand that. Hemp uses only the male plants, that grow taller and have longer fibers, while marijuana uses only the female plants, that have the flower buds, and the two have to be miles apart to prevent ruining both crops! George Washington wrote about how to tell them apart. America might not have even existed without hemp! Ben Franklin used hemp that was grown here to start one of the first paper mills in the Colonies so they could have a free press without trying to get paper from England. That's why July 4th was chosen for the demonstration in the first place.  It was the birthday of freedom and liberty in America."

He really did his homework: hemp and marijuana are derived from the same plant, Cannabis; marijuana's psychoactive properties are the crux of the legalization debate. Hemp has one of the longest and strongest natural fibers on earth and has been used for several thousand years, throughout recorded history, in rope, paper and cloth. The seeds are valuable for oil (usable in lamps, paints, engines, etc.) and for food (hemp seeds contain the highest amount of protein and essential fatty acids of any plant known.) Marijuana has been used in China, India, and Africa as a medicinal tea, a poultice, and a smokable medicine for at least 3,000 years. According to Jack Herer, author of “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” cannabis was even used as money in the Colonies from 1631 until the early 1800's. Ironically, at the time of the 1600’s march, farmers were legally required to grow hemp in Virginia, Massachusettes, and Connecticut, and could be jailed for not doing so! Under Bill Clinton's crime bill, however, they, Thomas Jefferson & George Washington would all be growing enough acreage to be executed!

In the first few years of the YIPPIE demonstrations, which were called “Light up for Liberty Smoke–Ins,” participants were sometimes tear–gassed and often scuffled with police. In the mid to late 70's they brought live plants with which to turn themselves in, insisting that the police arrest every single one of them or be guilty of selective enforcement of the law. The police had learned from VietNam War protests just how tough it was to deal with mass arrests & wouldn't arrest everyone, so pot charges were phased out in favor of disorderly conduct or other charges. Over the years, the demonstrations steadily grew in size and decreased in antagonism on the parts of both the participants and the police. Organizers no longer call for acts of civil disobedience, but for people to attempt to make changes in the laws in their respective home states.

The focus has expanded; the personal liberty issue of legalizing "pot" for "getting high" is still important to many people, who point out that other much more dangerous substances are not just legal but widely advertised. But recreational consumption has taken a back seat to calling for re-evaluation of the government's stance against hemp being used even industrially and against the medicinal use of marijuana for AIDS & chemotherapy patients—people who really need to be able to smoke it since they cannot keep anything in their stomachs & therefore cannot take pills. Several groups actively lobby Congress for changes in the laws. Libertarians & strict Republicans favor keeping government regulation of personal behavior to a minimum, thus supporting marijuana legalization, or at least decriminalization. American farmers (prime example: tobacco growers), textile workers, and paper industries, just to name a few, are being left behind in the world economy as many industrialized nations expand into the hemp market. Britain has begun farming hemp, the Eastern European nations count on it for economic survival; we import millions of tons from China, but we won't let our struggling farmers grow it.

Those who support legalization know they are fighting the federal government through the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), as well as pharmaceutical manufacturers, the DARE (Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education) program, and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, just to name a few groups who oppose legalization. DARE is even required in many school systems across the country, despite a continued lack of success in lowering the rate of drug use among youth (based on published government studies). Other anti-legalization forces, such as the Partnership, have large bankrolls paying for lots of TV ads, although some of the information they have put out is disputed even by government marijuana researchers. Government researchers have shown that DEA claims of increased potency since the 1960's and DARE claims of marijuana deadliness are patently false.

In fact, in dozens of tests done at UCLA, Harvard and other universities using the Food and Drug Administration's own toxicity standards, marijuana has been shown to have no toxic level at all. Activists say misinformation makes young people question the validity of all given information, which is why the rates of use have gone up instead of down, and that since the yearly demonstration in Washington is their largest available forum to counter the false claims, they will continue to come back every year. They cite a difference between use and abuse, stating that addiction to any substance is a health problem rather than a legal one, and that, since public education has helped decrease drunk driving and tobacco use, it could also decrease drug dependency.

The annual event begins with a noon rally at Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House which draws about 3-5,000 activists from across the nation to hear speakers on such topics as medical marijuana for AIDS and other diagnoses, industrial uses (which includes hundreds more products than those already listed above), and alleged abuses by the legal establishment against casual and medical users. This gathering is followed by a march to additional rallies with concerts. The primary rally/concert is held at the ballpark at 23rd and Constitution NW, sponsored by the July 4 Hemp Coalition. The event has been held at this site since 1984 and has music generally in the reggae and Grateful Dead genres.

A second rally/concert site, sponsored by YIPPIEs and DC Metro NORML (the local chapter of the organization, which is also part of the July 4 Hemp Coalition), was begun in 1993 on the Ellipse across from the back of the White House, and has usually had approximately 5-6,000 in attendance. They feature harder rock music styles like heavy metal, punk, and death metal.

Members of sponsoring groups (at least 15 are represented) believe it's ridiculous that every year the U.S. spends billions of dollars to eradicate marijuana, plus billions more to import tons of hemp products, plus billions more to prosecute and jail the citizens arrested (one every 54 seconds) for marijuana. The issue of regulating marijuana in a similar fashion to alcohol is hotly debated even within the ranks of those working for legalization, but there is general agreement on the issues of medical marijuana and industrial hemp.


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