Federal Decisions and the War on Drugs
Despite federal attitudes that discouraged cannabis use, medical studies published in 1944 informed the American public that cannabis was only a mild intoxicant. It was refuted by the U.S. Treasury Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner, Harry Anslinger, a staunch opponent in the war on marijuana.
Legislation like the Boggs Act of 1952 increased sentences for cannabis possession, treating it as harshly as the possession of heroin. There was no distinction made between consumers and traffickers, let alone those who were using cannabis for its therapeutic benefits. The Narcotics Control Act of 1956 enforced the first federal minimums for marijuana possession.
President Richard Nixon replaced the Marijuana Tax Act with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. A well-known Nixon aide reported that the administration made conscious decisions to crack down on drugs as a response to liberal anti-war sentiment. The Nixon administration associated anti-war “hippies” and non-white communities with rampant, dangerous drug use – not unlike the associations made between Mexican-Americans and the terrible locoweed in the earlier part of the century. Nixon declared marijuana a Schedule 1 drug with no accepted medical use under federal law. Not coincidentally, The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded in the same year.
The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, also known as the Shafer Commission, recommended lowering the penalties for possession of marijuana in the 1974 publication of “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding,” but the administration did not change their stance. Federal lawsuits and petitions to the FDA only resulted in medical marijuana access for 13 people.
Though President Jimmy Carter supported the decriminalization of marijuana in his presidency from 1977 to 1981, federal legalization did not occur due to pervasive negative attitudes in Congress and amongst the parents of teenagers. He was criticized by his efforts to decriminalize by opponent Ronald Reagan, who was elected president after Carter served four years in the White House.
President Ronald Reagan revived anti-cannabis policymaking in the White House when he signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act based on New York State legislation called the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Even though the Rockefeller Drug Laws were created to reduce the damage of narcotics like heroin, Reagan adopted the harsh criminal sentencing for marijuana crimes too. His wife, Nancy, coined the phrase “Just Say No” and continued to equate marijuana use to the use of lethal street drugs like crack cocaine. The next President, George H.W. Bush, declared a New War on Drugs and launched several anti-marijuana campaigns in 1989 further demonizing cannabis in American culture and medicine.
Between 1990 and 2002, under the administration Bush and Bill Clinton, drug arrests in America increased by 41%, from 1,089,500 to 1,538,800. The total number of marijuana arrests increased by 113%, from 327,000 to 697,000, an increase of 113% while non-marijuana drug arrests only increased by 10%.