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Richard Nixon's Vengeful War on Marijuana

President Nixon saw it as a way to hit back against pot-smoking Vietnam protesters, and presidents since have feared being smeared as "soft on drugs."
 
 
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Editor's Note: Since its origins almost four decades ago, the "war on drugs" has been more a political assault - particularly on the 1960s "counter-culture" - than rational government policy. President Nixon saw it as a way to hit back against pot-smoking Vietnam protesters, and presidents since have feared being smeared as "soft on drugs." Former police officer and prosecutor William John Cox examines the origins of this costly "war" and the hypocrisy that has pervaded it:

In 1971, President Richard Nixon appointed Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond P. Shafer to chair a national commission to report on the effects of marijuana and other drugs and recommend appropriate drug policies. Though Shafer was a former prosecutor and was known as a "law and order" governor, he did not give Nixon the alarmist findings that the President wanted.

Instead, the Shafer Commission conducted the most extensive and comprehensive examination of marijuana ever performed by the U.S. government. More than 50 projects were funded, "ranging from a study of the effects of marihuana on man to a field survey of enforcement of the marihuana laws in six metropolitan jurisdictions," adding:

"Through formal and informal hearings, recorded in thousands of pages of transcripts, we solicited all points of view, including those of public officials, community leaders, professional experts and students. We commissioned a nationwide survey of public beliefs, information and experience . . .

"In addition, we conducted separate surveys of opinion among district attorneys, judges, probation officers, clinicians, university health officials and free clinic personnel."

Among the Commission's findings were:

- "No significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to their marihuana smoking."

- "No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use."
 
- "In sum, the weight of the evidence is that marihuana does not cause violent or aggressive behavior; if anything marihuana serves to inhibit the expression of such behavior."

- "Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety."

- "Marihuana's relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it."

The Commission concluded that "society should seek to discourage use, while concentrating its attention on the prevention and treatment of heavy and very heavy use. The Commission feels that the criminalization of possession of marihuana for personal [use] is socially self-defeating as a means of achieving this objective . . .

"Considering the range of social concerns in contemporary America, marihuana does not, in our considered judgment, rank very high. We would deemphasize marihuana as a problem."

An unhappy President Nixon called Gov. Shafer on the carpet and pressured him to change the Commission's conclusion saying, "You see, the thing that is so terribly important here is that it not appear that the Commission's frankly just a bunch of do-gooders."

Shafer declined to change his conclusions, and Nixon declined to appoint him to a pending federal judgeship.

The War on Drugs

White House tapes reveal that Nixon's opinions about marijuana were based on his personal prejudices rather than the evidence.

He can be heard to make statements such as: "That's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it's because most of them are psychiatrists . . .

"By God, we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss . . . "

When Nixon was talking with TV personality Art Linkletter about "radical demonstrators," he said "They're all on drugs.''

 
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