Nothing's Either Good or Bad — Unless the State Says So


Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet: Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

The United States, nominally a constitutional republic, has a population of roughly 300 million people. That figure represents a rounding error in trying to calculate the population of China, which is a nominally Communist nation. Yet the US has a larger prison population than China.

Granted, in China one can find himself thrown in prison for various ideological crimes that don’t involve offenses against persons and property. But the same is true of the United States, as well, even if the specific list of such u201Coffensesu201D is different.

Subjects of tyrannical governments are left in a state of perpetual insecurity, never certain how or when the u201Clawu201D will change in such a way that something considered perfectly legal today may be regarded as a grave crime tomorrow. By that definition, the regime ruling the United States is at least as tyrannical as the one ruling China, and as we’ve observed, the rate of incarceration reflects that reality.

Ashley Epis, 8 years old, displays her support for her father, Bryan, who was sentenced to federal prison for the supposed crime of growing medicinal marijuana. “My daddy is not a criminal,” Ashley explains. The purulent hypocrites who sent him there are, however.

It is difficult to tell how many of the 2,245,189 people held in prisons and jails as of June 2006 (the last year for which figures were available) had been locked up for driving under the influence of alcohol, or for DUI-related probation or parole violations. And of course, drug offenders of various kinds are well-represented in detention facilities of all kinds: By one recent estimate, the imprisonment of non-violent offenders — meaning, for the most part, substance abusers of some variety — accounted for 77% of the growth in the prison population between 1978 and 1996.

Do my eyes deceive me, or is the battle-scarred sailor in this 1942 war propaganda poster seeking comfort in an elaborate water bong?

Such people are in prison not because they have committed crimes that are wrong in themselves (mala en se), but rather because the State has banned those acts (mala prohibita). A century ago, drug use was not considered a crime of any sort — much less a felony — in most American jurisdictions. Thanks to the u201Cwar on drugs,u201D it is now possible to be imprisoned for growing a non-narcotic that is arbitrarily banned by the same Federal Government that, a little more than a half-century ago, all but required its cultivation: Hemp.

Recently, a group of farmers from North Dakota (including state representative David Monson) filed suit against the Drug Enforcement Agency, seeking to lift the ban on the industrial production of hemp, an immensely profitable cash crop that can be used for food, fiber, and fuel. Oilseed and fiber hemp cannot be used to produce the narcotic commonly called marijuana. The State of North Dakota has licensed its production. And yet the farmers would find themselves subject to prosecution and imprisonment unless the DEA issues the appropriate permits, which the agency is unwilling to do.

Seven decades ago, when FDR and his gang were in charge of the regime, cultivation of fiber hemp was encouraged as a u201Cpatriotic duty.u201D In 1938, Popular Mechanics published a feature story extolling hemp as a u201Cbillion-dollar cropu201D that could lift American farmers from the slough of the Great Depression. Ironically, at the time (as we’ll shortly see) an effort was already underway to criminalize hemp production.

After FDR successfully maneuvered the US into World War II (albeit with the timely help of Imperial Japan), growing fiber hemp — for various naval applications — was seen as vital to the war effort, as this 1942 federal propaganda film illustrates: