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Cannabis in the United States: The War on Drugs

In our last post, we discussed the shift in society towards cannabis. While younger generations were open to experimentation and research was continuing to show little danger and no addictive qualities, the federal government continued its restrictive laws and policies facing drugs. In 1971, President Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs. Before this official declaration, the United States had a tumultuous history with Cannabis, which you can read about here

During the Nixon administration, several members claimed that he had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. These comments led to many people questioning his intentions in advocating for drug reform and whether or not racism played a role.

Cannabis was not the only drug that was used to create a public scare. The War on Drugs encompassed harder drugs like crack and powder cocaine. In the early 1980s crack cocaine was popularized because of its affordability, immediate high, and profitability for those who produced it. Crack cocaine was primarily used in lower-class neighborhoods with people of color, while powder cocaine was used primarily in middle-class white neighborhoods. 

Now it’s time to focus on the War on Drugs; the timeline, movements and campaigns that supported it, and what it did to the prison system.

A Timeline of the War on Drugs

As a result of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, cannabis was moved to a Schedule 1 drug. Drug Scheduling began to differentiate dangerous drugs and the legal uses for them. Schedule 1 drugs are classified as substances, drugs, or chemicals that do not have medical use and a high potential for abuse. The list includes heroin, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), cannabis, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote. The War on Drugs officially started in 1971, when President Nixon declared cannabis and narcotics “public enemy #1”. He along with Dr. Jerome Jaffe announced the creation of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention.

In 1972, Nixon rejected the Shafer Commission which showed research to prove cannabis should become decriminalized. While he rejected this, throughout the ‘70s, eleven states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon) decriminalized cannabis and others reduced penalties. In 1973, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNND) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) merged to create the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). At the start, the DEA was given about 1,400 agents and a budget of less than $75 million. Now, it has a budget of over $3 billion and employs more than 10,000 people, including nearly 5,000 agents. In 1976, parents’ movements against cannabis emerged. This group was founded by conservative parents who lobbied for stricter regulations and the prevention of drug use by teenagers. Some groups became very powerful and with the support of the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), they were instrumental in affecting the public attitudes and helped lead to the 1980s War on Drugs. In 1977, Jimmy Carter became president running on the campaign to end the War on Drugs. He saw Nixon’s War on Drugs as a failure and wanted to focus his efforts on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. During his first year in office, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize up to one ounce of cannabis.

In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed by Ronald Reagan. This act was put into place to promote international drug enforcement cooperation to help develop drug abuse prevention programs and expand drug treatment programs. As a part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, sentencing increased, known as the “100-to-1 sentencing ratio,” between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. If someone was arrested for possession of 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of coke, it would automatically trigger a five-year sentence.This act included cannabis, narcotics, trafficker’s deportation, Freedom of Information Act issues, transportation of drug paraphernalia, manufacturing operations, interstate sales, and more. This reinforced the mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 raised the federal penalties for marijuana possession and dealing. All penalties for drug-related offenses were based on the scheduling of the drug. Possession of 100 marijuana plants would receive the same penalty as possession of 100 grams of heroin. These policies included a “three strikes and you’re out” policy, which ended with a life sentence or death penalty for serious drug dealers and cultivators. During his first televised national address, President George H.W. Bush escalated the War on Drugs, promising to give more funding to the war on drugs.

During the Nixon administration, the discovery of the endocannabinoid system was discovered. This is the system that allows the body to feel the effects of cannabis. Because of the lack of publicity of the discovery, he was able to continue the narrative that cannabis was bad for our bodies, which contradicted the science that showed the plant provides medicinal benefits.

The “Just Say No” Campaign & D.A.R.E Program

During the Reagan administration, First Lady Nancy Reagan introduced the “Just Say No” movement which was an effort to revisit and expand the War on Drugs. When President Reagan was inaugurated, he made a promise to continue Nixon’s War on Drugs. Since the harder substance, crack (and powder) cocaine were being used more, he promised to establish mandatory minimum prison sentences for specific drug offenses.

While this movement was made to say “no” to drugs, surveys suggest that the campaign may have led to more concern over the country’s drug problem. In 1985, only two to six percent of Americans thought that drug abuse was the nation’s number one problem, but that increased to 64 percent by 1989.

As a part of the “Just Say No” movement, a nationwide school campaign called D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) emerged. This program was started in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department’s chief of police, Daryl Gates for the LA Unified School District. The program pairs students with local police officers to help reduce drug use, gang membership, and violence. While it’s implemented in about 75% of U.S. schools, it has been shown to lead to further drug use as students get older.

A 1994 study funded by the Department of Justice showed that the D.A.R.E. program wasn’t effective long-term and only had short-term reductions in the use of tobacco but had no impact on alcohol or cannabis use.

The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration 

The War on Drugs’ primary target was small-time drug dealers, which generally included poor, young, black males from rural and inner-city areas. The rates of arresting drug users and dealers led to the prison population doubling. One in four Black American males aged 20-29 was either incarcerated, on probation, or parole by 1989. By 1995, the statistic rose to one in three. This contributed to the United States having the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Between 1980 and 1997 the number of incarcerated people for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 to over 400,000.

John Ehrlichman, Former White House Counsel during the Nixon Administration, later admitted: “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

Since 1980, the number of Americans arrested for drug possession has tripled, reaching 1.3 million in 2015. Every 25 seconds someone in the United States is arrested for drug possession. Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated than their White counterparts for drug-related offenses, while usage rates are the same. Approximately 80 percent of people who are currently incarcerated at the federal level for drug-related offenses are Black or Latino. In state prisons, people of color make up 60 percent of the incarcerated.

It’s not uncommon for people who continue to push the dangerous War on Drugs to have used cannabis or other drugs in their past. Politicians, such as George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Sarah Palin, Kamala Harris, and more, have admitted to having used cannabis and even cocaine when they were younger.

The United States’ War on Drugs has had an estimated cost of $1 trillion since 1971 and in 2015 alone, the federal government spent about $9.2 million every day to arrest people for drug offenses. Federal cannabis legalization would save the United States $7.7 billion per year and yield an additional $6 billion in tax revenue ($13.7 billion net total) which could be used for rehabilitation programs, healthcare, education, or more.

The next part of our series will focus on cannabis activism and will highlight some key people that fought for legalized cannabis.