50 years ago, Congress was advised to amend cannabis laws: What’s the delay?

AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

Fifty years ago today, a Congressionally-appointed commission on U.S. drug policy did something extraordinary. They called for the repeal of the federal prohibition of marijuana. 

On March 22, 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse — the first, and to date, the only blue-ribbon committee ever appointed to make recommendations on federal cannabis policy — advised Congress to amend federal law so that the personal use and possession of the plant would no longer be treated as a criminal offense. State legislatures, the commission added, should do likewise. 

After conducting a comprehensive two-year study of cannabis’ health and safety effects, members of the 13-member commission — which included nine hand-picked appointees of then-President Richard Nixon — determined: “[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. 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.” 

The commission, therefore, recommended that the “possession of marijuana for personal use no longer be an offense, [and that the] casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration, no longer be an offense.” 

This policy recommendation, now commonly referred to as ‘decriminalization,’ acknowledged that the use of cannabis was not altogether harmless, but wisely recognized that its potential risks to both the individual and to society were not so great as to warrant the criminal prosecution and incarceration of those who consumed it. 

Nonetheless, despite having commissioned the report, Congress and the Nixon administration summarily rejected its findings. Since then, an estimated 30 million Americans have been arrested for violating state and federal marijuana laws. Over 80 percent of those arrested over these past three decades were prosecuted for offenses related to the personal possession of cannabis — the very offense that the commission urged Congress and state lawmakers to repeal. 

Fast forward to today and much of the narrative surrounding federal cannabis policy has evolved. In the U.S. House and Senate, members of both parties have publicly introduced legislation, such as The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act or The States Reform Act, to repeal the federal laws criminalizing cannabis. In the months prior to his election, even President Joe Biden promised support for loosening federal marijuana restrictions and for expunging the records of those with past convictions. Most recently, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) promised to introduce legislation to deschedule marijuana, thereby providing states with the power to set their own cannabis policies free from federal interference. Yet despite lawmakers’ lip service, marijuana still remains classified federally as a Schedule I controlled substance — in the same category as heroin — and hundreds of thousands of Americans are still being arrested annually for possessing it. 

Fifty years ago, the Nixon administration had an unprecedented opportunity to enact a rational marijuana policy. They were provided with the truth about cannabis, but they refused to listen.  

Today, the case for legalizing marijuana is stronger than ever. Nearly 7 in 10 voters believe that cannabis ought to be legal and the overwhelming majority of state governments have legalized and regulated its use and retail sale for either medical or recreational purposes. 

Five decades following the release of the National Commission’s historic report, the time is well overdue for the Biden administration and the 117th Congress to finally listen — and to act. After almost a century of drug warring, it’s time for federal lawmakers to declare a ceasefire on cannabis.  

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington, D.C. and is the coauthor of the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013). 

Tags Cannabis Chuck Schumer Drug control law Drug policy of the United States Drugs in the United States Joe Biden Legal history of cannabis in the United States Legality of cannabis Legalization of non-medical cannabis in the United States Marijuana Medical cannabis

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