Cannabis and the CSA

By David Jenison

Cannabis and the CSA

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) originally made cannabis a Schedule I drug, but Congress (which set the original classifications) meant it as a temporary placement while the newly formed National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse investigated cannabis. More commonly referred to as the Shafer Commission after its chairman, the group included former Republican Governor Raymond Shafer, Republican Congressman Tim Lee Carter of Kentucky, Republican Senator Jacob Javits, Democratic Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa and others including medical doctors, college presidents, attorneys and psychiatrists.

In early 1972, Chairman Shafer delivered its findings to Congress in a report titled "Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding" calling for an end to cannabis prohibition. “[The CSA] implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate,” said the report about cannabis. “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.... 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 Commission attacked the “lurid accounts” of unsubstantiated cannabis-related atrocities and the constitutionality of prohibition in general for private consumption. "The use of drugs for pleasure or other non-medical purposes is not inherently irresponsible,” noted the Commission in support of recreational use. “Alcohol is widely used as an acceptable part of social activities."

This was not the report President Nixon wanted or expected. Publically released Oval Office transcripts show that Governor Shafer visited Nixon before the release of the report to warn him. In addition to saying people who fight cannabis prohibition are “not good people,” Nixon delivered a warning to the Chairman, saying, “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.”

The Commission, to its credit, delivered the report and called for an end to prohibition. Despite the report, cannabis remained a Schedule I drug, and a congressional subcommittee in 1974 formed to counter the original. Mississippi Senator James Eastland led the subcommittee. The rich plantation owner, who viciously supported racial segregation, said the Supreme Court decision desegregating schools destroyed the Constitution, even stating, “You are not obliged to obey the decisions of any court which are plainly fraudulent sociological considerations." Eastland, who denied the Klu Klux Klan presence in his state, even claimed the famous 1964 disappearance of three civil rights workers in his state was merely a hoax. Public perception largely saw cannabis a drug used by hippies, Latinos and African-Americans, which some might say played a role in Senator Eastland’s claims that cannabis was actually more dangerous than the Shafer Commission suggested.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Gabriel12.

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