Did Jimmy Carter End the War on Drugs?


Today is the 40th anniversary of the war on drugs—if we say it was started by Richard Nixon (ignoring the fact that the federal government had been using force to suppress the use of politically incorrect intoxicants since 1914) and focus on one of several plausible milestones during his administration. Former President Jimmy Carter marks the occasion with a New York Times op-ed piece endorsing the recommendations of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which urges governments to ease up on low-level, nonviolent drug offenders (including users) while cracking down on major traffickers. Unlike some members of the commission, Carter is not a recent convert to the cause of drug policy reform; as he mentions, he advocated decriminalizing marijuana possession when he was president. "Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself," he told Congress in 1977. But Carter's praise for the commission's report illustrates the mismatch between its bold criticism of the status quo and its timid suggestions for reform.

Carter claims the commission's recommendations "are compatible with United States drug policy from three decades ago." In his telling, everything was fine until Ronald Reagan came along and relaunched Nixon's war on drugs. Never mind that the one example he cites of his supposedly enlightened drug policies—eliminating federal criminal penalties for possessing up to an ounce of pot—was never actually implemented, or that his proposal was less ambitious than the recommendation of the Nixon-appointed National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, which in 1972 said possession of cannabis for personal use and nonprofit transfers of the drug should "no longer be an offense" (not that Nixon was keen to follow this advice). Let's also forget that penny-ante marijuana cases are almost never handled by the federal government anyway. Let's even give Carter a pass on that whole paraquat thing, which pot smokers were pretty upset about at the time. The main problem with his reform agenda is that it leaves the prohibitionist legal regime essentially unchanged, except that penalties would be less severe and the government would spend more money on treatment. This amounts to de-escalating the war on drugs rather than ending it.

That goal is arguably consistent with the report Carter is endorsing, although the Global Commission on Drug Policy also suggests that some governments may choose to go further:

[We should] encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens. This recommendation applies especially to cannabis, but we also encourage other experiments in decriminalization and legal regulation that can accomplish these objectives and provide models for others.

This cautious-sounding suggestion may be the most radical passage in the report, which never directly mentions "legalization" or "repeal." Perhaps this reticence is a deliberate strategy, or perhaps it simply resulted from the need to build consensus among the commission's 19 members. Either way, the report is open to multiple interpretations, which is both its strength and its weakness.

I discussed the report in my column this week. More on the 40th anniversary of Nixon's war on drugs here and here. Last year in Reason, I noted that public support for legalizing pot is substantially stronger today than it was during the Carter administration.

[Thanks to Tom Angell and Richard Cowan for the tip.]