Anti-Marijuana Rhetoric Final Essay

Kyle Montero

English 5001

Dr. DeVries

20 May, 2010

Anti-Marijuana Rhetoric of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics:

Cultivating an Understanding of the American Marijuana Debate

The year is 2010 and the state of California is in an economic crisis.  In a recent study conducted by California’s Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor, the Legislative Analysis Office, researchers concluded: “the state must address a General Fund budget problem of 20.7 billion (  Dwelling in the overwhelming shadow this monetary sum casts, California voters are considering the legalization and taxation of marijuana in order to alleviate the budget crisis.  Derived from an article entitled “Legal-Marijuana Advocates Focus on a New Green”, featured in The New York Times on March 25, 2010, “The California Secretary of State certified a November vote on a ballot measure that would legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana, a plan that advocates say could raise $1.4 billion and save precious law enforcement and prison resources” (  Utilization of the term “advocates” in the previous sentence implies the presence of opponents; of which there are many.  Skip Miller, chairman of D.A.R.E, a drug abuse prevention program, opposes the attempted legalization, stating, “Do we really want this habit forming drug easier to get, particularly as the nation has made significant strides in reducing illegal drug use” (

In Miller’s proclamation, he employs the negatively associated term “drug”; a word deeply permeated with content in American society.  According to the text Rethinking our War on Drugs, written by Gary Fisher, “The actual term ‘War on Drugs’ can be traced back to 1971 during the Nixon Administration, due to a concern that many serviceman returning from Vietnam were addicted to heroin” (4).  By declaring a war on drugs, America has established drugs as the enemy.  Furthermore, in defining marijuana as a drug, America has delegated marijuana as an adversary, in a similar fashion to the heroin designation.  However, as a result of the saturation of the word “drug” by its environment, in this case, by American society, it is difficult, if at all possible, to define.  What is a drug?

The War on Drugs in America is not a physical form of combat but a rhetorical battle of opposing ideologies.  In accordance with William Elwood in his text Rhetoric in the War on Drugs: The Triumphs and Tragedies of Public Relations, I will examine the War on Drugs “as most people see it: through rhetoric” (3).  Within the context of this essay, exploring the publicity through which drug discourse seeps to the masses, I refer to rhetoric as defined in the text Rhetoric and Composition, written by Edward Fulton, as, “the art which consists in a systematic use of the technical means of influencing the minds, imaginations, emotions, and actions of others by the use of language” (3). I will center upon the rhetoric of the marijuana drug war in America, referring specifically to the anti-marijuana discourse of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics; a government agency established in the 1930’s in order to counteract the use of marijuana in the United States.  Rather than argue for the legalization or prohibition of marijuana, an argument with no clear synthesis of the opposing ideologies, marijuana should be elevated as a word with a malleable concept made malleable by the word’s environment and the rhetorical discourse shaping its meaning.  Thus, one may not be able to define drugs, but one is capable of examining its conceptual discourse, a discourse which has further determined marijuana as a drug.

In Jacques Derrida’s Rhetoric of Drugs, the French philosopher provides the founding ideology from which I build upon in this essay:

“Drugs” is both a word and a concept . . . A plant, root, or substance, is also for us a concept, a thing apprehended through the name of a concept and the device of an interpretation.  No, in the case of “drugs”, the regime of the concept is different: there are no drugs “in nature”.  There may be natural poisons and indeed natural lethal poisons, but they are not as such “drugs”. As with addiction, the concept of drugs supposes an instituted and an institutional definition: a history is required, and a culture, conventions, evaluations, norms, and an entire network of intertwined discourses, a rhetoric, whether explicit or elliptical (19-20).

According to Derrida, “drugs” is not solely a word but a concept susceptible to multiple connotations influenced by various elements.  More specifically, the rhetoric of drugs has evolved through time, altering the meaning of drugs, bending its implications in order to satisfy diverse factors of the historical process.  Thus, the word “drug”, as Derrida explains in his text Dissemination, can be rendered as a “poison” and paradoxically, a “remedy” (71).  The term “drug”, as a result of its flexible meaning, or rather, as Derrida clarifies, the “roles and strange logic that links” the signified to the signifier, “has been dispersed, masked, obliterated, and rendered almost unreadable . . . first and foremost by the redoubtable, irreducible difficulty of translation” (The Rhetoric of Drugs 71-73).  Therefore, “drugs” is a word but one untranslatable.  Consequently, it cannot be linked to a solid concept or definition.  Accordingly, I will not attempt to classify the term, but rather examine the “intertwined discourses”, or rhetoric, that assign meaning to the word “drug”.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue is presented between the Classical Greek philosopher’s foremost protagonist Socrates and his intermittent orator Phaedrus.  In discussing the art and practice of rhetoric, Socrates associates the written and spoken word with the term “drug”.  Referring to Phaedrus’s vocal influence, Socrates states, “you seem to have discovered a drug (pharmakon) for getting me out. A hungry animal can be driven by dangling carrot or a bit of greenstuff in front of it; similarly if you proffer me speeches bound in books, I don’t doubt you can cart me all round Attica” (71).  If words are analogous to drugs, having the ability, as Derrida writes, to make “one stray from one’s general, natural, habitual paths and laws”, then interchangeably, the term “drug” is a word (Dissemination 70).  Given that “drugs” is both a “word and a concept”, the word has power to rhetorically render the concept of the drug as a “medicine and/or poison” (Derrida 70).  Thus, the word “drug” is not a truth but an interpretation reinterpreted throughout history.

In order to examine history as an impressionable entity rather than an absolute truth, thus exemplifying the history of drugs not as a history of truth but rather a variable history of rhetoric, it is essential to review Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideologies regarding truth.  In the 19th century philosopher’s critical essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”, Nietzsche questions, “What is truth? – in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished, poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to people”(my italics) (42).  If truth is a product of human society, than the possibility of objective truth dissolves.  Thus, the only way to study the truth is to examine the subjective, or the rhetoric augmenting the aggregate of human relations.  However, throughout the process of history, “the sum of human relations” which alters truth has been inescapably susceptible to its relationship with power.  Thus, the rhetoric of those in power eclipses the rhetoric of the less powerful.  Therefore, it is appropriate to consider truth not solely as the sum of human relations, but the sum of human relations subjugated by systems of power.

The concept of truth not as an independent entity but rather derivative of power is thoroughly explored in Michel Foucault’s landmark text Discipline and Punish. In the chapter entitled “The Body of the Condemned”, Foucault writes, “Power and knowledge directly imply one another . . . there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (175).  Thus, knowledge regarding the concept of drugs is instilled to the masses by those in power, using various rhetorical strategies to introduce their own agenda.  Furthermore, as Foucault explains in his text “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, those in power are granted more control by “giving rise to the universe of rules” and installing these rules within humanity (150).  Those who have been “successful” throughout history, as Foucault writes, “are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them” (151).  Thus, rules are established within society by the dominant group and used to reinstate dominance over the less powerful.

The ancient relationship between knowledge and power is firmly embedded within contemporary society by the recent advent of mass media as a source for information.  The term “Mass Media”, coined in the 1920’s, is described in Alan Wells’ text Mass Media and Society as referring to “newspapers, magazines, television, film, radio, and recording” and “a product of mass society” (4).  Clearly, mass media is designed to reach a large audience.  In successfully doing so through the multiple mediums generating information, those in control of said media can be referred to as the dominant group holding the power to impart “knowledge” to the masses. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), established in 1930 in an era of mass media development, had the means to reach large audiences with their drug rhetoric, shaping the foundation of American ideology regarding marijuana.

Harry Jacob Anslinger, born in 1892, became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics on August 12, 1930 (Booth 176).  Although pilloried as the individual responsible for the criminalization of marijuana in the United States, anti-marijuana organizations were in existence prior to his appointment.  However, as Martin Booth writes in his text Cannabis: A History, Anslinger masterminded  “a very efficient national campaign that was to do much to determine public attitudes toward marijuana . . . As such, he is probably the most important player in the history of both American and international anti-narcotics law enforcement and legislation” (174).  Furthermore, according to David Musto, during his reign within the FBN, Anslinger’s radical assessments were unrestricted.  Musto writes, “Anslinger’s opinions on how to best put teeth into the law met with almost no objection.  He rarely found himself curbed by the administration under which he worked” (212).  As a result of Anslinger’s dominant presence in the establishment of public thought regarding marijuana, a presence made dominant by his ideological free-range, it is crucial to examine the anti-marijuana rhetoric he created and ratified under the FBN.

As stated by Booth, regarding Anslinger, “where marijuana was concerned . . . he was out to get the drug and all those connected with it, almost at any cost and often with a blunt disregard for the truth of any facts that were contrary to his argument” (177).  However, when first appointed head of the bureau, Anslinger “had been dismissive of a federal ban on marijuana.  At the time, he simply did not see it as that great a threat” (Booth 178).  In a 1932 report provided by the FBN entitled “On the Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs”, the bureau’s de-emphasis on the marijuana problem is evident.  The report reads,

A great deal of public interest had been aroused by newspaper articles appearing from time to time on the evils of the abuse of marijuana, or Indian hemp, and more attention had been focused upon specific cases reported on the abuses of the drug than would otherwise have been the case.  This publicity tends to magnify the extent of the evil and lends color to the inference that there is an alarming spread of the improper use of the drug, whereas the actual increase in such use may not have been inordinately large” (221).

Therefore, why the later fixation upon marijuana? What lead an individual with “only sporadic contact with narcotic control” (Musto 210) and an initial “reluctance to address marijuana” (Booth 178), to target cannabis?

Two years after the formation of the FBN, the effects of the Great Depression began to place economic pressure on the organization.  This notion is evident as Booth writes,

The Depression caused a considerable fall in tax revenue and government spending plummeted.  The FBN budget was substantially cut.  In order to boost his organization, Anslinger had to find a new target – a new drug menace – upon which to peg a budget increase.  Although he had previously given marijuana little thought and differed putting it under federal legislation, he now set about demonizing it, circulating pamphlets and painting stories in the press about murders committed whilst under marijuana intoxication (180).

In order to regain the power momentarily abated by the Depression, Anslinger directed his attack on marijuana, spreading grotesque anti-marijuana literature and reports.  As evidenced in the FBN’s 1932 report supplied previously within this paper, Anslinger understood that publicity rhetoric “tends to magnify the extent of the evil” of its target.  Consequently, working within the rules regarding the active maintenance of power within society, Anslinger alters his own apprehensive response toward marijuana in favor of a dramatic, extremist approach to gain federal funding.  In Lewis Hershey’s essay “Burke’s Aristotelianism: Burke and Aristotle on Form”, the author examines Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric and the Aristotelian association of rhetoric and power. Hershey writes,

Careful examination of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric reveals an intuitive knowledge of a dynamic, process view of human communication. Aristotle defines rhetoric “as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”.  It is interesting to note that the Greek word for “faculty” is variously translated as “technique” and “power”. “Observing” across many possible and varying situations is an exercise of “power” that implies a conscious, on-going activity. Recognizing “available means” demonstrates an awareness that means vary with ends, an observation consistent with a process orientation towards language use (182).

The FBN, interested in the maintenance of power through the acquisition of money, allowing the bureau to survive in a capital-driven society, employed rhetoric, or “power”, by “observing” the “available means” in which to persuade, thus obtaining monetary support.  This “conscious, on-going activity” varies based upon one’s observations.  Observing the media’s ability to amplify public fear of marijuana, the FBN inverts prior apathy toward the drug, emphasizes its “evil”, and consequently increases FBN power by manufacturing publicity.  Thus, the FBN engaged power through rhetoric, rhetoric through power.

Having established the inconsistency of the FBN, evidencing the flexibility of ideologies dependent upon a variable environment, we now look to specific examples of Anslinger’s rhetoric, previously characterized as inconsiderate of the truth.  In support of the Uniform State Narcotic Act, which gave states the ability to utilize police authority in the seizure of drugs and punishment of users, featured in the Hearst Newspaper on September 11, 1935, Anslinger states, “the insidious and insanity-producing marijuana has become among the worst of all narcotic banes, invading even the school houses of the country, and the Uniform State Narcotic Law is the only Legislation yet devised to deal effectively with this horrid menace” (Bonnie &Whitebread 101).  However, regardless of the FBN’s support of the Uniform State Narcotic Act, as Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread write, by the end of 1935, “only ten states had enacted the Uniform Narcotic Drug Law. This lack of success led Anslinger to . . . dictate a new strategy. The bureau needed to arouse public interest so that the professional objections would seem inconsequential beside a ‘felt need’ of the legislatures” (96-97).  By intensifying public concern, Aslinger’s goal was to establish a subjective feeling within a legislation attempting to objectively weigh marijuana.  In doing so, the FBN evidences the ability of rhetoric to upset the formation of objective judgments.

In an attempt to classify marijuana as a demonized drug, Anslinger sought newspaper support in reiterating stories enlarging the bond between marijuana and violence.  Through the Union Signal, a paper that did not, as Bonnie and Writebread state, “reflect any significant interest . . . in marijuana until 1934”, whose prior focus had centered upon the “narcotic nicotine”, Anslinger’s stories reached the masses.  In February of 1936, the Signal transcribed Anslinger’s approximation that “fifty percent of the violent crimes committed in districts occupied by  Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negroes may be traced to the use of marihuana” (Bonnie 106).  Another story released by the Universal News Service in 1936 regarded marijuana as a “killer drug” and “those addicted . . . lose all restraints, all inhibitions.  They become bestial demoniacs, filled with a mad lust to kill” (Booth 182).

Not solely did newspapers join the anti-marijuana movement but Anslinger’s operation generated movies that reflected societal fears by depicting “evil-weed”.  The most notable being the 1936 film Reefer Madness directed by Louis J. Gasnier.  Described by Booth, the movie presents the story of Mae and Jack who “introduce their fellow students to marijuana.  The lives of all are shattered, especially that of one committed to an insane asylum for life” (183).  The movie seems to echo Anslinger’s famous comment that “marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users, insanity, criminality, and death” (Booth 191).

According to Booth, although Anslinger’s initial objective was state legislation, federal lawmaking would “considerably raise the FBN arrest rate, giving the organization a higher standing both in public and government eyes and, consequently, generate a greater budget. He [Anslinger] increased his efforts” (182).  In 1937, Anslinger’s comment, “If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster Marihuana, he would drop dead of fright”, was published in the Washington Herald.  Furthermore, in the same year, Anslinger authored an article in American Magazine entitled “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth”.  The article reads,

The sprawled body of a young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk the other day after a plunge from the fifth story of a Chicago apartment house. Everyone called it a suicide but actually it was murder. The killer was a narcotic known to America as marihuana, and history as hashish. It is a narcotic used in the form of cigarettes, comparatively new to the United States and as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake (Booth 190).

Within the same article, Anslinger rhetorically enhances another significant story:

An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an ax he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze… He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crimes. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called ‘muggles’, a childish name for marihuana (Booth 190).

To be clear, these were not unbiased stories but elaborate devices used to strengthen the bond between marijuana and criminality.

Two weeks following this shocking propaganda campaign against the “evil drug”, Congress met to measure The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.  The law decreed that any person “cultivating, transporting, selling, prescribing, or using the ‘drug’ had to be registered and pay a tax levy of one hundred dollars an ounce every time the drug changed hands . . . the price of a brand-new Ford Model-Y saloon car in 1937 was $250”( Booth 188).  Implementing a punitive tax of such a great amount would control social use, making marijuana unattainable by repressive taxation.  In deliberation of the act, only one individual was allowed to speak in opposition.  Dr. William C. Woodward of the American Medical Association, according to Booth, stated that “the whole hearing process was biased, there was a lack of scientific proof for the claims being promulgated, witness testament was vague, the assumption the medical use of cannabis was responsible for the marijuana menace was unfounded” (187).  However, when the bill reached Congress, when asked about the AMA’s opinion, “a Democrat supporter replied . . . They support this bill one hundred percent” (Booth 188).  Thus, on August 2, 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act passed.

Derrida explains that Plato, as evidenced in Phaedrus, remains suspicious of all drugs (pharmakon) in general, “even in the case of drugs used exclusively for therapeutic ends, even when they are wielded with good intentions, and even when they are as such effective. There is no such thing as a harmless remedy. The pharmakon can never be simply beneficial” (Dissemination 99).  Rather than adopt Plato’s skepticism of every drug, studying the “poison” and “remedy” within each, the public tends to become exceedingly fearful of specific drugs while accommodating others.  Much of this specified discrimination is the result of the power of rhetoric.  In the 1930’s, the FBN’s anti-marijuana rhetoric generated fear regarding the “drug” to a public first encountering the substance.  In response to Anslinger’s article “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth”, the FBN received over “fifty letters addressed to the commissioner which say, ‘Your article was the first time I ever heard of marihuana’” (Bonnie 99).  Thus, Anslinger’s biased rhetoric, which disregarded scientific evidence, defined marijuana as a drug in a world unprepared to make objective judgments, thus primed to subjectively judge drugs.  Consequently, Anslinger’s rhetoric facilitated the development of American society’s view concerning marijuana.  Before 1938, the federal Pure Food and Drug Act contained only two jurisdictional definitions of “drug”:

1) medicines and preparations recognized in the United States Pharmacopoeia or National Formulary … and 2) any substance or mixture of substances intended to be used for the cure, mitigation, or prevention of disease.  In 1938, Congress added a third definition . . . articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body

Marijuana fits into this third definition, created shortly after Anslinger’s campaign and the pass of the Marijuana Tax Act.  Clearly, the FBN’s rhetoric assisted in defining marijuana as a drug.

Although, much has changed since the FBN’s lurid anti-marijuana campaign, rhetoric is currently shaping the concept of marijuana.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a United States federal department responsible for the promotion and protection of public health, classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.  In order to inhabit this category, the drug must fit three criteria:

1) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse. 2) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. 3) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision. Examples include heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana, and methaqualone.

Susan Bro, a spokeswoman for the FDA, in a New York Times article entitled “FDA Dismisses Medical Benefit from Marijuana”, concluded, “smoked marijuana has no currently accepted or proven medical use in the United States and is not an approved medical treatment”, thus maintaining marijuana’s classification as Schedule 1  However, within the same article, Bro’s statement is said to contradict a review by the Institute of Medicine “the nation’s most prestigious scientific advisory agency”.  Their review found “marijuana to be ‘moderately well suited for particular conditions, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and AIDS wasting’”.  Dr. Jerry Avorn, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, summarizes the general sentiment of the article, stating, “Unfortunately, this is yet another example of the F.D.A. making pronouncements that seem to be driven more by ideology than by science”.  Clearly, the rhetorical battle of opposing ideologies, equally comprised of facts and fabrications, continues to this day.

In Language as Symbolic Action written by Kenneth Burke, the literary theorist provides his definition of humankind.  The author explains that man is a “symbol-using animal” (5) because what we refer to as “reality”,

has been built up for us through nothing but our symbol system. . . What is our “reality” for today . . . but all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present . . . And however important to us is this tiny sliver of reality each of us has experienced firsthand, the whole overall picture is but a construct of our symbol system (5).

Rhetoric, part of this “symbol system”, shapes each individuals “reality”.  It is difficult to measure the extent of truth or fallacy at rhetoric’s source, having previously been imbued with prior truths and fallacies, vulnerable to systems of power.  In a position of power, the FBN, with their campaign against marijuana, unavoidably operated within this “symbol system” to create anti-marijuana rhetoric, shaping multiple realities.  Reiterated by Robert Heath, Burke argues that “rhetoric is shared social knowledge which can be manipulated in ways that motivate people to believe and act one way as opposed to others” (198).  In an era of mass media development, the FBN manipulated “shared social knowledge” to induce individuals to fear marijuana and bestialize its users.  In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke suggests, “rhetoric is not only persuasion but identification as a social cohesive force”.  When an institution of power identifies a substance as a “poison” or “remedy” through the persuasive force that is rhetoric, this identification predisposes individuals to unite in endorsement of the former or the latter, rather than acknowledging the presence of both.  Anslinger and the FBN identified marijuana as a “poison” through an exercise of power, thus unifying society in marijuana condemnation.  However, although rhetoric is a “cohesive force” unifying others in opposition to some, it concurrently is a contrasting force separating individuals into different groups of opposition.  When conflicting groups exchange rhetoric in argument, the “tiny sliver of reality each of us consider firsthand” may alter.  In contemporary society, as rhetoric spreads through multiple mediums of mass media (most importantly the internet), the hierarchy of power disseminates as individuals receive more information from various sources of power.  Consequently, individuals may arrive at less subjective judgments regarding marijuana, more free from monopolies of power  However, rhetoric is an extremely powerful force and as long as people are “symbol-using animals”, complete objectivity is inaccessible.

Works Cited

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“The 2010-11 Budget: California’s Fiscal Outlook.” Legislative Analysist‘s Office, n.p., 18 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 May 2010.

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