50 Years After Nixon's Commission Said Cops Should Stop Busting Pot Users, the Federal Ban Remains Unchanged

But 37 states allow medical or recreational use, and arrests are falling.


Fifty years ago today, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse issued a report that was quite different from what President Richard Nixon probably was expecting when he appointed the blue-ribbon panel, which was chaired by former Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer. From the perspective of a president who the year before had declared drug abuse "America's public enemy number one," the report's title—Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding—was not promising. And it got worse from there.

"The criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession [of marijuana] even in the effort to discourage use," the Shafer Commission concluded. "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 which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance."

Based on that assessment, the report recommended that "possession of marihuana for personal use no longer be an offense" and that "casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration, no longer be an offense." That policy, which became known as marijuana "decriminalization," went nowhere with the Nixon administration. But that decade, nearly a dozen states, beginning with Oregon in 1973, took the commission's advice, typically changing low-level possession from a criminal offense to a civil violation punishable by a modest fine. President Jimmy Carter endorsed decriminalization in 1977, when he told Congress that "penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself."

The popularity of that sentiment peaked in the late 1970s, after which support for marijuana reform dipped in reaction to pot-smoking teenagers and a reinvigorated war on drugs during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. But today, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws notes, "32 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation either legalizing or decriminalizing the possession of marijuana for adults." Marijuana is recognized as a medicine in 37 states, 18 of which, accounting for more than two-fifths of the U.S. population, also allow recreational use.

Congress, meanwhile, still has not followed the Shafer Commission's recommendation. At the federal level, marijuana remains illegal for all purposes, and even low-level possession is still a crime. Even relatively modest attempts to address the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws have failed to make any headway in the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) insists his own legislation should take priority.

President Joe Biden, a longtime drug warrior who now portrays himself as a reformer, says he supports federal decriminalization of marijuana use and thinks states should be free to legalize. But unlike nearly all the other candidates he beat for the Democratic presidential nomination, he opposes repealing the federal ban on marijuana.

Biden promised that he would "broadly use his clemency power" to commute the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders and specifically said that anyone who had been convicted of marijuana offenses "should be let out of jail." But so far he has not used his clemency power at all.

Biden also talked about facilitating medical research by reclassifying marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, which can be done administratively, without new legislation. But he has not taken any steps in that direction either.

Since 1969, Gallup has been asking Americans whether "the use of marijuana should be legal." The share saying yes rose from 12 percent in 1969 to 28 percent in 1977, then fell to 23 percent by 1985 before beginning a gradual ascent in the mid-1990s. According to the latest poll, two-thirds of Americans think marijuana use should be legal. Biden apparently is unimpressed by that sea change in public opinion.

What about the arrests that the Shafer Commission deemed a disproportionate response to marijuana use? The year the report came out, police in the United States made about 292,000 marijuana arrests, up from about 226,000 the year before. That number had risen to about 446,000 by 1978. It went down and up during the next decade or so before beginning a steep ascent in the early 1990s, peaking at about 873,000 in 2007. In 2020, the total was about 350,000, down 36 percent from the year before and 60 percent lower than the 2007 peak.

U.S. Marijuana Arrests

The overwhelming majority of these cases (91 percent in 2020) involved low-level possession, which corresponds with the arrests that the Shafer Commission said should end half a century ago. In absolute terms, the 2020 total was still higher than the number in 1972. But adjusting for population growth, the marijuana arrest rate fell by about 24 percent, from 139 to 106 per 100,000 Americans.

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  1. intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.

    How... quaint.

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  2. Fifty years ago today, the National Commission on Marihuana

    Or Mary Juan, as the kids called it back then.

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  3. That’s ok, we will never get rid of masks either.

  4. The only way to retain our liberty is to prohibit government from initiating force.

    1. Doing this democratically has been working, but it won't happen overnight. Maine declared beer a crime before the Civil War and had financial crashes. Comstockery, like modern mystical bigotry, lumped together all enjoyment--beer, dope, titillation--and lit bonfires in Crash year 1873. Banning beer and wine again became mania in 1905, and the attendant legislation brought The Panic. In post-Volstead-Crash Republican year 1924, German heroin, cocaine & codeine replaced beer. Still the bigots insisted on "Increased Penalties"... GOP laws wreck entire economies!

  5. And give up the power to say "I smelled the strong odor of mar, marij, I mean marijuanda, fuck I mean mari... pot.... I smelled pot!" as a '4A Means Nothing' card?

  6. Get out of the UN drug treaty too.

    Heck, get out of the UN while you're at it.

  7. But 37 states allow medical or recreational use, and arrests are falling.

    Yet jail populations aren't.

    Hmmmmm... *strokes chin*

  8. Ehhhehehe. Hehehe... .hahaha... HAHAHAHA!

    Why does Seattle have more homeless people than Chicago? New book explains

    Homeless people will also tell you varying reasons for what caused their homelessness — loss of employment, drugs and alcohol, and mental health place high on past surveys. Housing issues tend to fall lower on the list of answers, and are complicated: people say eviction, rising rent, domestic violence, or a family member kicking them out.

    But when Colburn compared cities with high and low numbers of homelessness based on poverty, drug use and mental health treatment factors, there was a clear answer that housing plays an outsize role in homelessness — and most academics have agreed on it for a while. It just hasn’t been embraced by the general public yet.

    Right, because the alcoholic, meth-addicted guy from Jackson Tennessee where the median house price was $219.9K hitch-hiked to Seattle where the median housing price is $932.4k is homeless in Seattle... because it's expensive to live in Seattle.

    1. No, he hitch-hiked to Seattle because Seattle winters are slightly warmer than Jackson winters making long term survival as homeless easier in Seattle.

  9. Biden sucks
    Trump sucked
    Obama sucked
    W sucked
    Clinton sucked (but didn't inhale)
    Bush Sr. sucked
    Ronald Reagan really sucked
    Jimmy Carter kinda sucked
    Ford: ummm who is Ford? Well I'm guessing he sucked
    Nixon: oh man, this guy defines suck

    But really, given the time of their administration and history, top sucking honors go to Biden on this issue. Let's go Brandon!

    1. The looter Kleptocracy and its cruel laws get people killed while wrecking the economy. The ONLY language they get, besides their agents disappearing in foreign jungles, is the defeats they suffer at the hands of Libertarian spoiler votes. Two or 3% of the vote inflicted the 16th and 18th Amendments. The Liberal Party platform of 1931 shitcanned the GOP in the 1932 election. Beer was legal by spring 1933 and liquor by Christmas. So which will it be? LP votes or another huge Crash and Depression?

  10. What an odd coincidence. NORML's chart of arrests for violating laws against green production and trade peak at about the time asset-forfeiture confiscation of homes peaked. Mortgage-backed securities immediately tanked, collapsing the entire economy. Voters promptly increased their balloting for libertarians and democrats as the Gee-Oh-Pee was dragged further down by girl-bullying mystical bigot assassins-of-youth. In 1907 and 1929, crackdowns on beer wrecked the banking system. Is this a pattern?

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