40 Years Ago Today, Feds Denied the Truth About Pot -- Now It's Obama's Chance to Act
Forty years ago today, the members of a congressionally mandated commission on US drug policy did something extraordinary: they told the truth about marijuana.
On March 22, 1972 the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, chaired by former Pennsylvania governor Raymond P. Shafer, recommended that Congress amend federal law so that the use and possession of cannabis would no longer be a criminal offense. State legislatures, the commission added, should do likewise.
“[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use,”concluded the 13-member commission, which included nine hand-picked appointees of then-president Richard Nixon, “It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.
“… Therefore, the Commission recommends ... [that the] possession of marijuana for personal use no longer be an offense, [and that the] casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration, no longer be an offense.”
Members of the commission further acknowledged that marijuana did not meet the criteria of a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law, a classification that places cannabis alongside heroin as a prohibited substance without any therapeutic value.
Nonetheless, Nixon, true to his law-and-order roots, shelved the report and its recommendations, announcing instead, “We need, and I use the word 'all out war,' on all fronts.” Since Nixon’s rejection of the Shafer report, annual data from the FBI reports that more than 21.5 million Americans have been arrested and criminally prosecuted for violating marijuana laws. Upwards of 80 percent of those arrested were charged with possession-only offenses, not sales or trafficking.
Yet despite the federal government’s 40-year war on pot, today an estimated 45 percent of US adults acknowledge having consumed cannabis at some point in their lives, with nearly 12 percent admitting having done so in the past year. A majority of Americans now say the plant should be legalized and regulated for adults. Over 80 percent of Americans say cannabis should be available as a therapy when recommended by a physician.
Why? Because Western civilization has been using cannabis as a therapeutic agent or recreational intoxicant for thousands of years with relatively few adverse consequences, either to the individual user or to society. In fact, no less than the World Health Organization has acknowledged:
“Overall, most of these risks (associated with marijuana) are small to moderate in size. In aggregate they are unlikely to produce public health problems comparable in scale to those currently produced by alcohol and tobacco. On existing patterns of use, cannabis poses a much less serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol and tobacco in Western societies.”
Most recently, investigators at the Imperial College of London assessed "the relative physical, psychological, and social harms of cannabis and alcohol." Writing in the journal of the British Association of Psychopharmacology, they concluded:
“A direct comparison of alcohol and cannabis showed that alcohol was considered to be more than twice as harmful as cannabis to users, and five times more harmful as cannabis to others (society). … As there are few areas of harm that each drug can produce where cannabis scores are more [dangerous to health] than alcohol, we suggest that even if there were no legal impediment to cannabis use, it would be unlikely to be more harmful than alcohol.”
Forty years ago today, the Nixon administration had an unprecedented opportunity to enact a rational pot policy. They were given the truth about cannabis, but they refused to listen.
Four decades later, it is time for the Obama administration to listen — and to act. It’s time to make peace with pot.