Comes Now the Ghost of "Decrim"
Along with the man who pardoned Nixon, a man who disappointed Nixon left us this month: Raymond Shafer, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania appointed in 1971 to lead a bipartisan "Presidential Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse." (Such a commission had been mandated by Congress in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.) Nixon told Shafer he wanted a report that would blur the distinction between marijuana and hard drugs, according to declassified oval office tapes. Instead, the Shafer commission would call for decriminalization of the personal use of marijuana.
Nixon’s public rationale for rejecting decriminalization made good sense: "I do not believe you can have effective criminal justice based on the philosophy that something is half legal and half illegal." The oval office tapes reveal Nixon’s more nuanced views on marijuana. On May, 12, 1971, as the commission was beginning its investigation, Nixon told his aide Bob Haldeman, "I want a goddamn strong statement about marijuana. Can I get that out of this sonofabitching, uh, domestic council? I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them."
Two weeks later Nixon saw something in his news summary that inspired him to tell Haldeman, "Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists, you know, there’s so many, all the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish. By god, we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss. I want to find a way of putting more on that."
On September 9, 1971, Nixon had Shafer in for a meeting at which he advised, "I think there’s a need to come out with a report that is totally oblivious to some obvious differences between marijuana and other drugs, other dangerous drugs … And also that you don’t go into the matter of penalties and that sort of thing, as to whether there should be uniformity in penalties, whether in courts, I’d much rather have uniformity than diversity … You’re enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels and ITAL what we’re planning to do END ITAL would make your commission just look bad as hell… Keep your commission in line."
Nixon’s aide Egil (Bud) Krogh asked at the Sept. 9 meeting if the commission was contemplating "endorsement of legalization of marijuana." Shafer replied, "Absolutely, absolutely… At least one of the opposition would like to take over. We’ve prevented that. I think that we’ve got the commission moving in the right direction. We’re seeking unanimity. I think we’re going to have that. And we’re staying away from that quote legalization endquote syndrome." Shafer brought his commission’s report to the White House March 21, 1972. The findings did not justify ongoing prohibition. As culled by Doug McVay of Common Sense for Drug Policy, they included:
"No significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to their marihuana smoking."
"No valid stereotype of a marihuana user or non-user can be drawn."
"Young people who choose to experiment with marihuana are fundamentally the same people, socially and psychologically, as those who use alcohol and tobacco."
"No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use."
"Most users, young and old, demonstrate an average or above-average degree of social functioning, academic achievement, and job performance."
"In sum, the weight of the evidence is that marihuana does not cause violent or aggressive behavior; if anything marihuana serves to inhibit the expression of such behavior."
"In short marihuana is not generally viewed by participants in the criminal justice community as a major contributing influence in the commission of delinquent or criminal acts."
"Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety."
"Recent research has not yet proven that marihuana use significantly impairs driving ability or performance."
"No reliable evidence exists indicating that marihuana causes genetic defects in man."
"Marihuana’s relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it."
The executive director of the Shafer Commission, Michael Sonnenreich, was a Democrat who’d been kept on at the Justice Department after Nixon was elected in 1968. Sonnenreich helped draft the Controlled Substances Act, which transferred control over drug policy from the Surgeon General to the Attorney General (John Mitchell), and gave the AG the power to create the drug "schedules." Congressional opponents of the Controlled Substances Act questioned marijuana’s placement on Schedule I as a dangerous drug with no medical use, but were mollified by the creation of a commission that would review its status.
The Shafer report ignored the scheduling question, but reformers did not protest, choosing instead to trumpet the demand for decriminalization. As recounted in a Washington Post profile of Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML, "Nixon rejected the report, but Stroup used it as a lobbying tool in his increasingly successful campaign to reduce penalties for pot. In 1975, five states -Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine and Ohio- removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of the weed."
"Decriminalization" is a one-word lie. It means that the citizen caught by the cop with a small amount of marijuana will get a ticket and pay a fine instead of getting booked. He or she can be arrested and face criminal charges if caught again, or even on the first encounter if the cop doesn’t like the cut of his or her jib. The basic relationship between citizen and cop is unchanged. The citizen remains fearful and illegitimate. No right to consumption has been established and the penalties generally become stiffer for growers and dealers.
It’s no coincidence that "decriminalization" entered the lexicon at the end of the about the same time as "affirmative action," with which it has much else in common. Both strategies were devised in response to movements involving millions of people asserting their rights. Both serve the interests of only a small fraction of the large population that supposedly benefits. Both get sold to the rank-and-file as necessary steps forward, but actually represent the end-point of the political movement(s). Both are jargon.
Liberal reforms like "decrim" are sops that our rulers provide when the natives get seriously restless; then, when the restlessness subsides, the reforms are curtailed or even withdrawn entirely. In response to the medical marijuana movement, we can expect another push in Congress for decrim, accompanied by fundraising pitches from Washington-based reform groups. What we need instead is a complete revision of the Controlled Substances Act. I recently asked Dale Gieringer of California NORML what measures the national reform groups would be promoting now that the Democrats controlled Congress. Dale said he was very favorably impressed by Nancy Pelosi, whom he’d met at a fundraiser, and advised not to expect much in the way of legislation because "nobody wants to vote for a dead bill and everybody knows that this president is not going to sign any meaningful reforms." There was something weary and paternalistic in his tone, as if he was reminding me and others at the meeting not to do or say anything that would embarrass his lovely new acquaintance. Afterwards I thought, "Why shouldn’t the Democratic Congress pass a bill the president has to veto? Why not make him stand naked as a prohibitionist? Don’t they want to win in 2008?"
From the oval office tapes, May 26, 1971, President Richard Nixon in conversation with Art Linkletter, a radio and TV "personality."
Nixon: Radical demonstrators that were here the last, oh, two weeks ago. [unintelligible] They’re all on drugs. Oh yeah, horrible
Linkletter: They sit down with a marijuana cigarette to get high-
Nixon: A person does not drink to get drunk.
Linkletter: That’s right.
Nixon: A person drinks to have fun. Do you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags. The last six. Nero had a public wedding to a boy. Yeah. And they’d [unintelligible]. You know that. You know what happened to the Popes? It’s all right that, po-po-Popes were laying the nuns, that’s been going on for years, centuries, but, when the popes, when the Catholic Church went to hell, in, I don’t know, three or four centuries ago, it was homosexual. And finally it had to be cleaned out. Now, that’s what’s happened to Britain, it happened earlier to France. And let’s look at the strong societies. The Russians. God damn it, they root them out, they don’t let them around at all. You know what I mean? I don’t know what they do with them. Now, we are allowing this in this country when we show [unintelligible]. Dope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no. Not if they can allow, not if they can catch it, they send them up. You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they’re trying to destroy us.
Nixon: I have seen the countries of Asia and the Middle East, portions of Latin America, and I have seen what drugs have done to those countries. Uh, everybody knows what it’s done to the Chinese, the Indians are hopeless anyway, the Burmese. They have different forms of drugs [unintelligible] China and the rest of them, they’ve all gone down Why the hell are those Communists so hard on drugs? Well why they’re so hard on drugs is because, uh, they love to booze. I mean, the Russians, they drink pretty good."
Linkletter: That’s right. Nixon: But they don’t allow any drugs. Like that. And look at the north countries. The Swedes drink too much, the Finns drink too much, the British have always been heavy boozers and the rest, but uh, and the Irish of course the most, uh, but uh, on the other hand, they survive as strong races. There’s another, it’s a very significant difference.
Linkletter: That’s right.
Nixon: And your drug societies, uh, are, are, inevitably come apart. They-
Linkletter: They lose motivation. No discipline.
Linkletter: You know I did a show-
Nixon: At least with liquor I don’t lose motivation [unintelligible]
FRED GARDNER is a former Public Information Officer for the District Attorney of San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com