Marijuana Is Richard Nixon’s Fault?

The  legalization of marijuana may soon replace abortion as our society’s most controversial issue.  Like abortion, the debate never seems to end. 

During the 1970s, a government commission recommended that marijuana use should not be criminal or subject someone to indictment  based on its findings that it posed very little risk to the public. However, President Nixon took a different direction, declaring all drug abuse as “public enemy number one in the United States.”

The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse was created in 1970 to determine how marijuana should be regulated under federal criminal law. When the Controlled Substances Act was passed, Congress tentatively classified it as a Class I substance; however, legislators also acknowledged that additional study was warranted to verify if it indeed warranted the law’s harshest designation.

After conducting extensive studies, the Commission found that many of the negative public opinions about marijuana were unfounded. “Looking only at the effects on the individual, there, is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of the natural preparations of cannabis,” the report stated. On the basis of its findings, the Commission also recommended that simple possession should be decriminalized, concluding:

[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. 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.’

The recommendations were unexpected and met with significant resistance from President Nixon. He even attempted to influence the Commission’s findings by strong-arming its chairman, Raymond P. Shafer, whom Nixon had believed would come down against legalization. “You’re enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we’re planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell,” Nixon stated.

Ultimately, nothing became of the report, as neither the Nixon Administration nor Congress took any further action. As a result, marijuana remains a Class I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Ironically, the classification is reserved for drugs with “high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and no accepted safety for use in medically supervised treatment.” 

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J.-based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government & Law blogs.

 

"This meeting is entirely off the record. Until somebody leaks it."
—Michael Kempner, addressing a roomful of Democratic powerbrokers organizng for Hillary Clinton