Thirty-five years ago this month, a congressionally mandated commission on U.S. drug policy did something extraordinary: They told the truth about marijuana.
On March 22, 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana (sic) and Drug Abuse -- chaired by former Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond P. Shafer -- recommended Congress amend federal law so that the use and possession of pot would no longer be a criminal offense. State legislatures, the commission added, should do likewise.
"[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use," concluded the commission, which included several conservative appointees of then-President Richard Nixon. "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.
"... Therefore, the commission recommends ... [that the] possession of marihuana 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."
Nixon, true to his "law-and-order" roots, shelved the report -- announcing instead that when it came to weed, "We need, and I use the word 'all out war' on all fronts." For the last 35 years, that's what we've had.
Consider this: Since the Shafer Commission issued its recommendations:
Approximately 16.5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana violations -- more than 80 percent of them on minor possession charges.
U.S. taxpayers have spent well over $20 billion enforcing criminal marijuana laws, yet marijuana availability and use among the public remains virtually unchanged.
Nearly one-quarter of a million Americans have been denied federal financial aid for secondary education because of anti-drug provisions to the Higher Education Act. Most of these applicants were convicted of minor marijuana possession offenses.
Total U.S. marijuana arrests increased 165 percent during the 1990s, from 287,850 in 1991 to well over 700,000 in 2000, before reaching an all-time high of nearly 800,000 in 2005. However, according to the government's own data, this dramatic increase in the number of persons arrested for pot was not associated with any reduction in the number of new users, any reduction in marijuana potency, or any increases in the black market price of marijuana.
Currently, one in eight inmates incarcerated for drug crimes is behind bars for pot, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 billion per year.
Perhaps most troubling, the factor most likely to determine whether or not these citizens serve jail time or not isn't the severity of their "crime," but rather where they live. Today there are growing regional disparities in marijuana penalties and marijuana law enforcement -- ranging from no penalty in Alaska to potential life in prison in Oklahoma. In fact, if one were to drive from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., he or she would traverse more than a dozen jurisdictions, all with varying degrees of penalties and/or tolerance toward the possession and use of pot.
Does this sound like a successful national policy?
There is another approach, of course. The Shafer Commission showed the way more than three decades ago.
Marijuana isn't a harmless substance, and those who argue for a change in the drug's legal status do not claim it to be. However, as noted by the commission, pot's relative risks to the user and society are arguably fewer than those of alcohol and tobacco, and they do not warrant the expenses associated with targeting, arresting and prosecuting hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.
According to federal statistics, about 94 million Americans -- that's 40 percent of the U.S. population age 12 or older -- self-identify as having used cannabis at some point in their lives, and relatively few acknowledge having suffered significant deleterious health effects due to their use. America's public policies should reflect this reality, not deny it. It makes no sense to continue to treat nearly half of all Americans as criminals.
Paul Armentano the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C.