Marching Toward Critical Mass
Are Americans ready to legalize marijuana?
Published: April 17, 2013
“Reform the draconian marijuana laws” has been a rallying cry of this newspaper since its inception, with groves felled and gallons of ink spent outlining a folly — at a plant with medicinal, psychosocial and economic benefits.
While it’s only taken 33 years (Metro Times’ first edition was published in 1980), it seems as if that cry has finally moved the argument to a Rubicon of change; when we cross it depends on those who can influence the debate. According to an April 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, for the first time in more than four decades of polling on the issue, a majority of Americans now favor legalizing the use of marijuana. The poll, which has garnered a lot of attention from the mainstream press because of its significance, says 52 percent of Americans now say marijuana should be legal.
For years, the prevailing view on weed has been a dismissive notion that it’s a recreational drug enjoyed by the unmotivated and, worse, it’s a gateway substance to “hard” drugs. Sadder still, a militarized approach toward its domestic eradication — including the incarceration of its users — has contributed to billions of dollars misspent and countless thousands of lives ruined by a hamstrung judiciary forced to impose mandatory minimum sentences.
The story arc of how America came to this point is as old as the country itself. From our most revered founder, George Washington, who chronicled his cultivation of hemp (the stem of the cannabis plant), to the inclusion of cannabis by early 20th century chemists in mixing medications, the story of America would be incomplete without including weed.
The first encroachment of government on the use and possession of marijuana began with the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which required the labeling of cannabis, and the amount contained, in over-the-counter remedies and food. Three decades later, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act in response to growing fear around the drug — a fear brought to you by Hollywood and its propaganda-laden masterpiece, Reefer Madness. The Marijuana Tax Act effectively outlaws pot; save for those who pay an excise tax for certain authorized uses.
Thereafter, the assault on weed grew bold: In 1951 Congress passed the Boggs Act, which established mandatory prison sentences for possessing and distributing drugs, including marijuana. Five years later, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the Narcotics Control Act, which established a minimum sentence of two to 10 years for a first-offense conviction of marijuana possession, and a fine of as much as $20,000.
But the most egregious assault on weed, and one that held public opinion in stasis for decades still to come, stems from the plant’s classification as a Schedule I drug by the federal government under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The Schedule I classification, which is the CSA’s most damning, states that “a drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse; the drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and; there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.” Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and the date-rape concoction GHB.
Sadly, there was a brief moment before anti-pot hysteria fully metastasized when things could have turned out differently. As part of the omnibus legislation that also created the CSA, Congress established what would be known as the Shafer Commission, which was charged with studying marijuana abuse in the United States. Named for its chairman, former Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond P. Shafer, the commission was doomed to failure because the executive branch had little tolerance for views that differed from those of its chief executive.
During the commission’s first report to Congress, Shafer, a moderate Republican, suggested the decriminalization of marijuana in small amounts, saying, in part:
“The 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 [that] our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.”
You would be right to ask yourself, then, how domestic policy toward marijuana use went off the rails so precipitously, languishing as a sideline issue for more than two additional generations.
Conventional wisdom suggests you need not look further than the dickhead who signed the CSA into existence. While it was never a secret, the Nixon White House was less than enlightened — despite Nixon’s Sock-It-To-Me request from a young Goldie Hawn — and had the electorate known just what a shmuck Nixon really was, well … we know how that turned out in the end.
The Shafer Commission was a big ole hornswoggle and its findings ignored by a hostile White House. Nixon, by his own admission, had no intention of considering decriminalization of pot. He hated pot and the counterculture it became associated with:
“I had a press conference in California, which was not televised but I was asked about marijuana because a study is being made by a, group, [unintelligible] the government. Now, my position is flat-out on that. I am against legalizing marijuana. Now I’m against legalizing marijuana because, I know all the arguments about, well, marijuana is no worse than whiskey, or etc. etc. etc.
“But the point is, once you cross that line, from the straight society to the drug society — marijuana, then speed, then it’s LSD, then it’s heroin, etc. then you’re done,” said Nixon, arbiter of justice, during one of his secretly recorded Oval Office conversations; this one made in May 1971 with his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman and White House counsel, John Ehrlichman.
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