The Theory and Practice of Chaos 

Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director and author of ‘What to Choose Between THC and CBD to Treat Chronic Pain.’

This was originally published on on April 20, 2000. It has been slightly edited.

“Chaos theory attempts to explain the fact that complex and unpredictable results can and will occur in systems that are sensitive to their initial conditions. A common example of this is known as the Butterfly Effect.

It states that, in theory, “the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in China could, in fact, affect weather patterns in New York City, thousands of miles away. In other words, it is possible that a very small occurrence can produce unpredictable and sometimes drastic results by triggering a series of increasingly significant events.” [1]

April 20 is the anniversary of the Columbine school massacre, and the day before was the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, and of the Waco massacre, the year before, that apparently led to it. These events have become symbols of the violence of American life.

However, even these tragedies, as terrible as they were, pale by comparison with the violence of the sustained low-intensity state terrorism that is the substance of the decades of marijuana prohibition.

In history and in our personal lives we all know of instances in which small events have ultimately had enormous consequences. The analogy of “the flutter of a butterfly’s wings” is now an established part of our understanding of how the world works.

How then can we see that a minuscule cause can have a great effect, and yet ignore the elements of marijuana prohibition, including more than 12 million (now 20 million) arrests in America, and thousands more everyday in the Western democracies, and pretend that they have no effect?

But these arrests, while devastating to those involved, are only a small part of the violence injected into everyday life by marijuana prohibition.

For violence to hit hundreds of thousands, it must threaten millions, and not just marijuana users. Because there is no “typical marijuana user,” everyone must live under suspicion, and anyone can become a target. Everyone is subject to random stops, urine testing, and surveillance.

From New York to California unarmed people – poor blacks and rich whites – are shot dead by the police.

Some of the sick and dying are persecuted for using a plant, but far more are left to suffer in ignorance or live – and die — in fear.

Children are lied to in a sustained prohibitionist propaganda campaign of an intensity unequalled in a democracy in peace time. Politicians are allowed to prattle meaningless cliches about “sending the wrong message” to children – but the children know that they are being lied to – even when they do not know what is true. There is no worse “message” than that.

“Authorities” lie to the media, who then lie to the public, while pretending to be “watch-dogs” for their victims. At least when they lie, they are acknowledging that it somehow matters what we think.

Perhaps even worse, the media generally ignore almost all of the elements of marijuana prohibition. The numbers of arrests are almost never reported. Events in other countries that reflect badly on marijuana prohibition go unreported. Silence can be the worst lie.

Beyond that, words have their meanings subverted until communication is impossible. As Orwell observed in 1984when words become meaningless, censorship becomes unnecessary, because people are no longer able to express their ideas. “Drug” means marijuana, except when it does not. The very word “prohibition” is never used to describe the current policies.

Marijuana prohibition is the hate that dare not speak its name.

The best lack all conviction: Even when good people do honest research and announce that marijuana is far less dangerous than the legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, as well as most common over-the-counter drugs, and that users should not be arrested, these fine souls still cannot bring themselves to say that it should be legalized so that marijuana-users won’t have to deal with the black-market and confront corrupt police. [2]

While the worst are full of passionate intensity: When the laws are changed, as with medical marijuana in some states, “law enforcement” simply refuses to obey the law.

Can all of these things be happening without consequence? Can the flutter of a butterfly’s wings be thought to have an effect, while this massive evil has none?

Given all of these elements of violence to body, mind, soul, community, and polity, don’t Waco, Oklahoma City and Columbine fit right in?

In a society that uses the welfare of children to justify the worst of crimes, can it be surprising that children become the victims, and especially the victims of other children?

Seen in this context, is the “inexplicable violence” of our society really so inexplicable?

For all that, there are a number of reasons why we will win. However, the most important reason is transcendent.

This is best illustrated by the fact that – in an oddly recurring coincidence of the lunar calendar – today is both Passover and Adolph Hitler’s birthday. Passover marks the beginning of more than 3,000 years of the Jewish people’s struggle for freedom. Hitler is in Hell and the Jews survived – as they survived tyrants before him — and they continue to enrich the human experience and advance the cause of freedom for all.

Tomorrow, those of us who are Christians will observe Good Friday, the judicial murder of Jesus, who told us that we will know the truth and it will make us free. Easter is the guarantee that God is with us.

Our commitment to truth and freedom is thus a part of the human struggle that defines the beginnings of the history of the human spirit. We will win, because that is simply in the nature of who we are.

Why this last struggle for truth and freedom – and I think it is the last global threat — centers around a remarkable plant is a mystery that will unfold as we persevere.

We must understand this, and be sure that this tragedy never happens again.

That will be our gift to the children of chaos.

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