The Presidential War on Drugs and the Path to Cannabis Legalization
09.23.21 - 4 min read
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In our earlier article, “A History of the Criminalization of Cannabis: Early America to the 1970s,” we looked at the political factors that led to the criminalization of cannabis throughout the 20th century.
We noted that although cannabis once had a strong place in American life, it became prohibited with The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The plant became racialized as Mexican immigrants and Black people were used as scapegoats for the ills on society purportedly caused by drugs like cannabis. By this time, the botanical word “cannabis” had been replaced by the Mexican word “marijuana,” which had a negative connotation until cannabis legalization emerged, dropping this word and its racialized history.
Here, we’ll pick up on our examination of the history of the criminalization of cannabis, the War on Drugs, and the implications these have had on the cannabis industry today. Additionally, we’ll highlight social equity and some of the initiatives happening in the cannabis industry in the U.S. as the legal industry grows. These programs are crucial to ensuring that BIPOC individuals, entrepreneurs, and businesses have representation in the cannabis industry, while seeking to undo the damage that the War on Drugs has caused.
It’s easy to demonize political players like Harry Anslinger, who planted the early seeds for cannabis prohibition. However, despite growing proof of cannabis’ potential benefits and a lack of evidence tying it to crime and violence, American presidents—starting with Richard Nixon—furthered the anti-cannabis agenda.
Elected in 1968, Nixon pushed strong anti-drug messaging right out of the gates of his presidency. In 1969 he declared drug abuse as “a serious national threat” to Congress. He used growing drug arrests in the years leading up to his presidency as evidence of this problem and called for federal and state-level interventions.
In 1970, in one positive move, Congress repealed the minimum sentences that had been instated in the 1950s, as they were able to see that the arrests and mandatory sentences did little or nothing to eliminate the drug culture that had been embraced in the 1960s.
That same year, however, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act placed cannabis in the same category as other harsh drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, and it was deemed to have no beneficial medical application. This act was what officially classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug, deeming it “not safe for use, even under medical supervision.”
During this time, even Elvis Presley was dedicated to joining Nixon’s drug offensive, famously meeting him in the White House to discuss how he can be of help. He even asked for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and to be named a “Federal Agent at Large.”
At the same time, what was known as the Shafer Commission, or the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, was tasked with studying drug abuse in America. As part of their findings, they called into question why cannabis had been classified as Schedule I and called for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, a call that Nixon ignored, keeping cannabis at Schedule I. Despite this, 11 states decriminalized small amounts of cannabis.
In June 1971, Nixon officially declared the “War on Drugs,” calling drugs “public enemy number one.” He increased federal funding for drug-control agencies to support his initiative and again proposed mandatory prison sentencing for drug crimes.
In 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a special police force focusing specifically on targeting illegal drugs and smuggling drugs into the country. At the time, their budget was $75 million. Now, it’s over $2 billion.
In the years following Nixon’s presidency, his motives were called into question, with some stating that the War on Drugs was to further Nixon’s own political career and his own negative biases towards the anti-war left and Black people.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter became President, running on a platform that proposed to decriminalize marijuana. During this time, however, anti-cannabis campaigns were fuelled by conservative parents taking up the charge against drugs, which became known as The Parent Movement.
In 1979, the DEA created the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program with the goal to eradicate cannabis from America completely. It was under this program that the DEA could justify criminalizing people for growing cannabis.
It should be noted that this was the time that the Colombian Medellin cartel was rising to power, including drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, with the U.S. government determined more than ever to stop the smuggling of drugs, namely, cocaine into the U.S.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan took the presidency after declaring cannabis “probably the most dangerous drug in the United States today,” which again added fuel to the fire of Nixon’s original War on Drugs. He expanded upon and reinforced many of Nixon’s policies.
Anyone who grew up in 1980s America will remember the “Just Say No” campaign launched by Nancy Reagan in 1984 to support her husband’s anti-drug efforts. Reagan got her messaging in several popular TV shows like Diff’rent Strokes and Punky Brewster as part of her campaign. Analysts of the First Lady’s campaign said that while it did raise awareness about drugs in America’s youth, it did little to eradicate drug use, and the criminalization of cannabis and other drugs continued.
In 1983, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting was first instituted over Northern California, which involved U-2 spy planes flying over the area, known as the “Emerald Triangle” to catch anyone in the act of cultivation.
In 1986, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created a goal for a “drug free America,” created the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and again reinstated minimum sentences for drugs, including cannabis. This Act was amended two years later to make crack-cocaine the only drug for which there was a minimum sentence, yet cannabis arrests continued. This Act was also monumental in changing the system of federal supervised release from a rehabilitative system to a punitive system. Under this system, drug users were punished harshly for their crimes rather than provided with the tools to properly reintegrate into society; a decision that would go on to impact thousands upon thousands of families for decades to come.
Reagan’s moves to perpetuate the War on Drugs did exactly what he wanted it to do. It’s estimated that the number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.
The increased push by the federal government against drugs, and the increasing media coverage of the War on Drugs overseas with the Medellin cartel led to a public hysteria about drugs in America during the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 1980s, only 2-6% of Americans polled agreed that drugs were the country’s number one problem. By the end of the 1980s, 64% identified drugs as the biggest ill on American society. The increased anti-drug messaging created an intense fixation by the American public to eradicate drug use.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush became President and made it his goal to further the War on Drugs. His solution to drugs was “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors,” and he increased the federal drug budget for drug busting to $1.5 billion. He focused on policing the public housing projects, mostly inhabited by low-income Black families, in a move that would contribute to the disproportionate arrests of Black people for cannabis and other drug-related crimes. Some analysts say that the way George H.W. Bush handled the War on Drugs was his biggest failure as President.
When Bill Clinton succeeded Bush in 1993, there was no sign that the targeting of BIPOC for drug-related crimes was going to come to an end. Under the Clinton administration, the country saw larger incarceration rates than under any other president. After championing the “three strikes, you’re out” law that would put drug criminals behind bars for life after three offenses, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was signed in 1994, authored by now-President Joe Biden. This bill put the “three strikes, you’re out” concept into law, created dozens of new federal crimes for people to be punished under, and dedicated $30 billion to fighting crime.
By the end of Clinton’s presidency, the United States had the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. Human Rights Watch reported that Black people made up 80-90% of people incarcerated for drugs in seven states. The report cited another report that was made to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, claiming the “Clinton Administration’s recognition that despite decades of civil rights legislation and public and private efforts, the inequalities faced by minorities remained one of the country’s most crucial and unresolved human rights challenges.”
By this time, 800,000 people were being arrested for cannabis-related crimes, most notably possession.
During the War on Drugs, countless reports and studies were emerging that proved the medical efficacy of cannabis; by this point, the fact that cannabis held valuable medicinal properties could not be denied.
1996 was the year that the country first heard hints of cannabis legalization when California passed Proposition 215, legalizing medical marijuana in the state for people with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. State by state, and year after year, certain states followed suit.
Despite this, in June 2001 under President George W. Bush, the Supreme Court ruled that federal authorities could begin cracking down on medical cannabis, even in states that had legalized it. This wouldn’t be overturned until 2009 when President Barack Obama issued a memo to federal prosecutors, urging them to refrain from penalizing anyone who was using or distributing medical cannabis in accordance with state law. He later followed up with the Cole Memo, limiting federal intervention in legal medical cannabis states.
Finally, in the second decade of the 21st century, cannabis started to become part of more state and national conversations. In 2012, Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational cannabis with Amendment 64. By 2014, Alaska, Washington D.C., and Oregon followed suit. California passed Proposition 64 in 2016, creating the largest legal cannabis market in the entire world.
With legalization beginning to sweep the country, one would think that the ills brought on by the War on Drugs would be fixed. On the contrary.
In 2019, the FBI’s Uniform Drug Report stated that more people were arrested for cannabis crimes that year than all other drug crimes combined; 92% of all cannabis crimes were for possession. This amounted to 545,602 cannabis arrests for that year. While this was a significantly lesser number of cannabis arrests than under Clinton, it signifies that policy reform is still very much needed across legalized states and at the federal level.
In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report entitled, “The Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” stating that despite having the same prevalence of use, Black people were 3.46 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people.
It’s estimated by The Last Prisoner Project that there are still 40,000 people incarcerated to this day for cannabis. Through their advocacy, this non-profit is fighting for the end to cannabis incarceration, criminal record expungement and policy change to facilitate retroactive relief for people with federal cannabis convictions.
Fortunately, several moves at the federal level are showing that there could be a brighter future for cannabis. In 2019, The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (better known as The MORE Act) was introduced. It is a piece of legislation that would enact various criminal and social justice reforms pertaining to cannabis, including the expungement of criminal records for cannabis-related crimes. It would also remove cannabis as a controlled substance. While it has gained support in House of Representatives in 2021, it is yet to be voted into law.
In March 2021, Senator Chuck Schumer announced that he would be sponsoring the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, which would have Congress recognizing the legality of cannabis in the individual states.
The cannabis industry as it exists today is determined to make up for the disparities BIPOC has had to face due to the War on Drugs. In 2017 it was estimated that only 17% of executive positions within cannabis were held by minorities, while only 5% of cannabis businesses are Black-owned, with criminal records and financial barriers to entry being among some of the issues for such low representation.
While they are relatively new and certainly not yet perfect, social equity programs are seeking to increase the representation of BIPOC individuals, entrepreneurs and businesses in the cannabis industry by removing systemic barriers to entry and participation. While they differ across states, social equity programs use outreach to historically impacted populations, hold several licenses for social equity applicants and remove financial barriers within the application process.
Though there is still more work to do, social equity programs in cannabis are seeking to rebuild the dreams of those who once had theirs dashed by the ongoing War on Drugs. The goal of these organizations is to provide opportunities for BIPOC and historically disenfranchised individuals to enter the cannabis industry.
At RISE, it’s important to us that while we promote our belief that cannabis is a freedom, we acknowledge that it wasn’t always and still isn’t for many across our country.
We encourage our customers to familiarize themselves with the programs around us that seek to fix the damage that the almost-100 year criminalization of cannabis has caused. Look into movements that are helping get people out of prison and their records expunged to see how you can become involved. Get to know the policymakers in your area and ask them to vote for upcoming cannabis bills that could free the over 40,000 prisoners across the U.S. suffering penalties for cannabis.
Cannabis isn’t totally free until everyone is free to enjoy what the plant has to offer us all.
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