STORIES

35 Years Ago This Report Made Nixon Furious

By David Jenison on March 24, 2017

On February 1972, The Guardian published the following headline: "A presidential commission report concludes that penalties for private use and possession of marijuana should be abolished." The story previewed "Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding," released 35 years ago today, which was a report commissioned by President Richard Nixon to make permanent the Schedule I status of cannabis. Tricky Dick was in for a big surprise. 

When the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) became law in 1970, Congress established five schedules with specific regulations and oversight and then determined the placement of drugs into the five-schedule system. As suggested by Assistant Secretary of Health Roger Egeberg, the CSA temporarily classified cannabis as a fully prohibited Schedule I substance while the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, a.k.a. the Shafer Commission, studied cannabis to propose its proper placement. Participants in the commission included Republican Governor Raymond Shafer, Republican Congressman Tim Lee Carter, Republican Senator Jacob Javits and Democratic Senator Harold Hughes along with medical doctors, college presidents, attorneys and psychiatrists. President Nixon appointed nine of the 13 members, and he assumed the Republican-led commission would do his bidding and permanently prohibit cannabis. Instead, the Shafer Commission reported back that cannabis should be descheduled and decriminalized. 

Per the 1972 Guardian article, "It is estimated that 24 million Americans have sampled the drug more than once… yet it is still possible to go to prison for 20 years in some states on a first drugs conviction. Such sentences are not merely notional. In Houston a young civil rights worker is serving a 30-year sentence for selling three marijuana joints to an undercover agent, while in Virginia an 18-year-old high-school student is not due out of [jail] for 20 years because he smoked marijuana with younger classmates. Against this draconian legal background a presidential commission has unanimously decided to recommend that all criminal penalties for the private use and possession of marijuana should be abolished…. It is obvious the authorities are now going to find it very difficult to hold the line against pot in [the] future."

After two years of study, the Shafer Commission concluded that cannabis is not physically addictive, a gateway drug or proven harmful in any physical or physiological way. Or to quote the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), "Thirty-five years ago this month, a Congressionally mandated commission on US drug policy did something extraordinary: They told the truth about marijuana."

Shafer knew this was not the conclusion that Nixon wanted, and he met with the President in the Oval Office before presenting the report. According to public transcripts, Nixon said those who fight prohibition are "not good people," and he warned the former governor against presenting an honest account of their findings. "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," said Nixon. 

Shafer, to his credit, delivered the report on March 22, 1972 and called for an end to prohibition, yet Nixon ignored the findings. Instead, he recruited Mississippi Senator James Eastland to provide a second opinion. Eastland, who urged the public to defy the Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation, is famous for quotes like this one: "The Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period…. Segregation is not discrimination… Mr. President, it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself."

In other words, we now know the identity of Jeff Sessions' childhood crush.  

The Eastland-led subcommittee, which naturally included Strom Thurmond, held "Marihuana-Hashish Epidemic and Its Impact on United States Security" hearings that presented an entirely different view. Eastland said, "The [cannabis] epidemic began at Berkeley University at the time of the famous 1965 'Berkeley Uprising.' Not only was pot-smoking embraced as a symbolic rejection of the establishment, but, together with the 'dirty speech movement,' the right to pot became an integral part of the catalogue of demands of the uprising." 

From there, the senator claimed the epidemic overtook the nation with horrifying results. He testified that cannabis can make you impotent and sterile, cause brain damage and shrinkage, reduce cell birth, harm immune cells, impair testosterone production, break chromosomes, kill fetuses, make people lazy, deteriorate mental function, lead to poor hygiene and produce conditions like emphysema, sinusitis, pharyngitis, bronchitis and "the total loss of [a person's] own will." Still, Eastman's finest hour involved the "zombie-like appearance of chronic cannabis users." 

"If the cannabis epidemic continues to spread at the rate of the post-Berkeley period," Eastman literally said on the record, "we may find ourselves saddled with a large population of semi-zombies." 

Presented with the findings of the Shafer Commission in 1972 and the Eastman subcommittee in 1974, Nixon opted to keep fighting the zombie army and its weapons of weed. Two months after the final hearing, Nixon would resign from the presidency in disgrace. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Nixon painting by Andy Warhol

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