Banned in the USA: How Much Truth Is In a Meme?
A meme of truth? What’s the science and legal behind the popular internet image “BANNED IN THE USA?”
That old saw has never been more useful than in the digital age, where a meme asking “When did nature become illegal” has been making the rounds for months. And is ‘banned in the USA’ synonymous with “illegal?”
There are variations, but the meme’s format is simple: it shows four to six images of naturally occurring products, like raw milk, rainwater, fishing and cannabis under a giant headline that reads “BANNED IN THE USA.” The bottom text asks us to consider why these “natural practices” are illegal and, sometimes, what that says about American freedom.
It’s an effective argument because it seems to play all sides of the political divide. It appeals to a sense of American self-reliance and freedom, denounces regulations, and lauds natural products. In this kind of political environment, it’s almost unheard of for any meme to be so appealing to both the left and right sides of the spectrum. The biggest flashpoint is probably the inclusion of cannabis, but most polls shows that divide is dwindling.
But apart from its bizarre nonpartisanship, does this meme actually have an argument to make? Is it really based on facts — or is its position just a facile attempt to oversimplify real, complex issues? (Spoiler alert: While it’s a bit of both, the meme is more correct than it is misleading.)
Of course, it’s ridiculous to read a meme too closely. They’re the political cartoons of the modern era, meant to distort arguments in order to make broad points. In this case, the meme is asking why Americans aren’t free to use natural products and public goods. This argument adheres somewhere close to the Naturalistic Fallacy, which reminds us that just because something is natural does not mean it’s good for us (poisonous mushroom is one counterexample).
But it’s worth noting that nothing the meme usually depicts — Vitamin B17, raw milk, collecting rainwater — is inherently dangerous to human beings. But let’s take a closer look.
“Raw milk” refers to milk that has not gone through the pasteurization process, which involves heating the liquid to remove contaminants. Pasteurization was a godsend for big countries like the U.S.A. and dairy farmers, because it allowed milk to be transported greater distances without spoiling. But the process also reduces flavor and, advocates say, reduces its nutritional value.
In actuality, 28 U.S. states allow the sale of raw milk — with some restrictions on how far away from the farm it can be sold, etc. and the federal government bans its transportation across state lines. States that ban raw milk due so because of health risks, such as E. coli outbreaks, but other places in the world allow it. The European Union says it’s acceptable to sell raw milk as long as it is clearly labeled, but permits members states to make their own decisions.
So is it really banned? No. But it’s definitely hard to find and hard to sell, so it might as well be. It is so heavily regulated, raw milk is practically illegal.
Rainwater is iffier. In most places in the U.S., it’s not banned at all. However, some states have indeed made it illegal to collect vast amounts (think swimming pools) of rain. Why? Because they think it’s possession with intent to distribute — that nobody needs that much water unless they plan to sell it. Colorado overturned its anti-collection law years ago. And the only states with restrictions are Illinois, Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington and Virginia. In this case, the meme overreaches. Rainwater collection is hardly banned at all.
Unlicensed fishing sounds harmless — if there’s a lake down the road, why shouldn’t you be able to cast a rod in it? And some states feel the same way. In many places, you can fish on your own land, fish without keeping any fish (catch and release), or learn how to fish (being under age 16) without a license. Many states even have “free” days or bodies of water that don’t require a license. But for the rest of the people, a license is required.
Why? For public bodies of water, government agencies actually re-stock fish and maintain the property, and money from fishing licenses go toward those efforts. Another reason is simple conservation that started with Theodore Roosevelt, who also chartered the first National Parks.
Or that’s what the government says, anyway. The truth is that the requirement to have a fishing license greatly depends on who you are, where you are, and what you’re going to do with the fish you catch. For the most part, it’s fair to say that it’s banned in the USA.
Vitamin B17 (also called amygdalin) is a substance that some people claim can fight cancer once it’s processed into Laetrile. What’s the truth? Well, it’s unclear. While the substance occurs naturally in foods like almonds and peach pits, it breaks down to cyanide in the body, which can be harmful. It’s not necessarily illegal everywhere, but it is banned from interstate commerce by the federal government. While there are competing ideas on whether it actually helps cancer patients or not, the FDA is firmly against it and attempts to jail vendors. From a practical standpoint, it is indeed natural and banned by the U.S.A.
So what do all these items have in common with cannabis? Although the meme is ostensibly about nature, it’s really about overly broad regulation. While rainwater has escaped that fate in recent times, and there’s an argument to made about fishing, it’s hard to say that Americans shouldn’t be allowed to drink raw milk if they want. Many natural substances bring consequences with them: allergies, food poisoning, the chance that they don’t work beyond a placebo. The meme is grouping cannabis in with other victimless crimes in the United States in an effort to change minds.
Let’s hope it works.