Dare to get the federal government off weed

America's 40-year war on marijuana was known to be a mistake when Nixon declared it

December 3, 2013 6:30AM ET
Medical-marijuana advocates demonstrate in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building in 2011 in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Smoking marijuana is going to be legal in the United States. Maybe not tomorrow but definitely in Colorado and Washington come January, and as the movement builds, it's only a matter of time before the rest of the nation follows suit.

The federal government knows legalization in two states will have an effect nationally, but for the first time, Americans don't seem to mind. In October, Gallup reported that a majority — 58 percent — of Americans surveyed favor legalization, a dramatic 27 percentage-point increase since 2000 and 9 times the increase in the preceding 23 years combined. It looks more or less like the trend in support for gay marriage. By 2020, I'm optimistic we'll have seen the last arrest for marijuana use in the United States, bringing to an end a 50-year mistake that never had to be made in the first place.

The year was 1970, and Congress had just passed and President Richard Nixon just signed the Controlled Substances Act, in what would become the first shot of a long and bloody drug war. The act created the five-level schedule of controlled substances, but it didn't decide which drugs would go where right away. Instead, it called into being the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, which went about developing a policy.

What the commission came back with in 1972 sounds uncanny to anyone who grew up in America in the last 40 years. Its report, "Marihuana, a Signal of Misunderstanding," didn't advocate a different approach to prohibition, but instead mused on the limits of human understanding, the rise of leisure time and the future of surveillance. The report is modest and sympathetic to everyone involved, with an acute focus on the consequences of its recommendations. In short, it's everything U.S. marijuana policy hasn't been since.

With sections like The Need for Perspective, Drugs in a Free Society and Marihuana and the Dominant Social Order, "A Signal of Misunderstanding" is the cool uncle of government reports. After a thorough review, the commission decided that marijuana was mostly a symbolic problem rather than a real public-health crisis. The proper role of the federal government, it wrote, was to lower the emotional stakes of the debate so that they match the drug's actual risks. The commission concluded that the criminal-justice system was the wrong way to address personal use. "The existing social and legal policy (i.e., prohibition) is out of proportion to the individual and social harm engendered by the use of the drug," a group of adults reasonably concluded. Yes, more than 40 years ago, a government commission headed by a Republican, reporting to Nixon, tasked with developing what would become marijuana policy for much of the world, told the feds to chill out. The whole story sounds like stoner apocrypha, but it's true.

The report was not, however, to become policy. Nixon wasn't about to extend understanding to the yippie radicals who were the face of marijuana use as well as his extraparliamentary opposition, so the Department of Health's temporary — and wholly arbitrary — classification of weed as a Schedule I narcotic would stand.

Since then, marijuana prohibition has been the kind of unmitigated disaster that makes America's ill-fated dalliance with alcohol prohibition look like responsible lawmaking in comparison. Law professor Michelle Alexander went so far as to call the drug war — and in particular the war on black marijuana users and their communities — "the new Jim Crow" in her hit book of the same title. Drug arrests, she writes, increased over 1,000 percent in the 1990s, and 80 percent of that increase was for marijuana possession. She describes in detail a system of incentives in which local law-enforcement agencies were seduced by federal anti-drug money and changed their policing practices to meet crude progress metrics. It's not the American people who got addicted to weed — it's their cops.

The fathers of our contemporary drug policy were paranoid fools who were already caught in the past 40 years ago.

How did this reversal happen? Back in the '70s, it was Sen. James O. Eastland's subcommittee that suppressed the Marihuana Commission's report and held the line on prohibition. Eastland was such a virulent racist that Malcolm X used his name in speeches to stand generally for Southern white supremacists. Eastland was so bigoted, he made Strom Thurmond the second most hateful member of the subcommittee. For Eastland and his cohort, marijuana was associated inextricably with the new left and black radicals. Here's how the senator imagined the drug's spread, in direct contrast to the commission's studied findings of widespread use across ethnic and class groupings:

From Berkeley, the marihuana epidemic spread rapidly throughout the American campus community. Then it spread down into the high schools and junior high schools — and within the last year or two it has begun to invade the grade schools. It has also spread into the ranks of professional society and of the bluecollar workers, so that all sectors of our society are today affected by the epidemic.

In hearings on the "marihuana-hashish epidemic and its impact on United States security" they dove into Maoist and Trotskyist lines on getting stoned. To distract from the commission’s findings, they paraded tall tales about hyperpotent strains of marijuana from Asia. These are the fathers of our contemporary drug policy: the worst that postwar America had to offer, paranoid fools, men who were already caught in the past 40 years ago.

After a big historical loop, there is renewed hope that the president and Congress might leave behind the prejudices of Nixon, Eastland, Thurmond and the like. There's even a bipartisan bill in the House to allow states to develop their own marijuana policies, in spite of court rulings that give Congress broad powers under the commerce clause to regulate all drugs.

But despite the national mood change, federal drug policy is hard to shift. Even though President Barack Obama has never tried to hide his past marijuana use, he hasn't been eager to attach his name to major drug reform. Marijuana's unjustified placement on the schedule of controlled substances is a serious stumbling block, and it's not going to disappear without the president's support. Here's where the lessons of the past come in: Resurrect the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse.

There's no reason to believe a renewed commission, composed in good faith, would come to conclusions any different from the original’s. Perhaps Sen. John McCain would be willing to provide rare bipartisan cover; he told a reporter in September, "Maybe we should legalize. We’re certainly moving that way, as far as marijuana is concerned." Maybe Obama could appoint Dr. Sanjay Gupta, his 2009 nominee for surgeon general and an out weed-reform supporter since August, to chair. It would be a golden opportunity to present the facts and demythologize marijuana, stem the flow of anti-drug weapons to the nation's streets, as well as set the stage for localities to experiment with their own regulatory schemes. It's not just time to get the government off weed; we're generations late.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter