Selling Pot

The Pitfalls of Marijuana Reform

"Whatever the cultural conditions that have made it possible, there is no doubt that the discussion about marihuana has become much more sensible," Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon wrote in 1977. "If the trend continues, it is likely that within a decade marihuana will be sold in the United States as a legal intoxicant."

This was not a silly prediction. At the time, there was good reason to believe it would come true. Six years before, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, appointed by Congress and the Nixon administration, had recommended that the federal government and the states legalize both private possession of marijuana for personal use and casual, nonprofit transfers of the drug in small amounts.

In 1973 Oregon became the first state to "decriminalize" marijuana, making possession of less than an ounce a civil offense punishable by a maximum fine of $100. In 1975 Alaska removed all state penalties for private cultivation and possession of up to four ounces. By the end of the decade, 11 states had decriminalized marijuana possession, a policy endorsed by President Carter, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the National Council of Churches. Every other state had reduced the penalty for simple possession, nearly all of them changing the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor. Most allowed conditional discharge, without acriminal record.

So Grinspoon’s optimism was justified. Yet the year after his prediction, things started to turn around: In 1978 the federal government’s policy of spraying Mexican marijuana crops with the herbicide paraquat, which can cause lung fibrosis and death when swallowed in small doses, prompted a nationwide panic among pot smokers. That same year, Carter drug adviser Dr. Peter Bourne, who was sympathetic to reform, was forced to resign after press reports that he had used cocaine at a party sponsored by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. His replacement, Lee Dogoloff, took a hard line on illegal drugs, including pot. And the percentage of Americans favoring marijuana legalization in the Gallup poll dropped for the first time in a decade, from 28 percent in 1977 to 25 percent in 1978. (By the late ‘80s, the figure was down to about 16 percent.)

The ‘80s and early ‘90s saw a series of further setbacks:

• In 1983, the Drug Enforcement Administration began spraying paraquat on marijuana crops in the United States. Throughout the decade, the federal government pursued an aggressive domestic eradication policy, especially in California.

• The Reagan administration announced a "zero tolerance" program, imposing draconian seizure penalties for marijuan possession, even in tiny amounts.

• In 1987 Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg withdrew under pressure from his erstwhile supporters after admitting that he had smoked pot as a law professor.

• In 1989 the federal government launched Operation Green Merchant, raiding the homes of people suspected of growing marijuana because they had purchased gardening equipment.

• In 1990 Alaska voters passed a referendum, pushed vigorously by Bush administration drug czar William Bennett, that recriminalized marijuana possession.

• That same year, Congress approved a transportation appropriations bill that threatens to withhold funding from states that do not suspend the driver’s licenses of drug offenders, including marijuana users, for at least six months.

•: In 1992 the Department of Health and Human Services canceled a federal program that was supposed to supply patients with medical marijuana.

Under the Clinton administration, there’s reason to hope that the pendulum may begin to swing in the other direction again. Both President Clinton and Vice President Gore have used marijuana, and both recall more with nostalgia than with hostility the counterculture of the ‘60s that many older Republicans still associate with the drug. Clinton has slashed the staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he has sought advice from scholarly critics of the Bush war on drugs, at least one of whom supports marijuana legalization. Perhaps most significantly, the woman Clinton plans to appoint as surgeon general, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, has said patients who can benefit from medical marijuana should be able to receive it.

But before reformers try to take advantage of what promises to be a more tolerant policy environment, they need to understand what went wrong the first time around. Since marijuana is both the most widely used and the least harmful of the major illegal drugs, the lessons of the anti-pot backlash have broad implications. If reformers cannot succeed in the case of marijuana, where the arguments for legalization seem to be strongest, it’s not likely they will succeed elsewhere.

Several factors contributed to the reversals that began in the late ‘70s, but the most important was a persistent misperception: Both opponents of reform and the general public seemed to believe that the argument for legalization was based on the premise that "marijuana is harmless." So far as I can tell, no serious scholar or prominent activist who favored changing the marijuana laws ever made this claim. Rather, the reformers argued that pot was less harmful than other drugs and less harmful than the government had led people to believe. But by the time the policy debate filtered into local newspapers, college campuses, and suburban living rooms, these nuances were lost–partly because, in the experience of most users, marijuana was harmless.

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