Forty years ago on March 22, 1973, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse* said in its final report:
"A coherent social policy requires a fundamental alteration of social attitudes toward drug use, and a willingness to embark on new courses when previous actions have failed."
Social attitudes toward marijuana use seem to be fundamentally altered from the 1970s and 1980s with substantial majorities voting last fall to legalize marijuana in Washington and Colorado, and with state legislatures passing medical marijuana and marijuana decriminalization laws almost routinely.
But the controversial but foresighted recommendation of the Commission in 1972 to decriminalize marijuana overshadowed the later, more comprehensive, 480-page final report, Drug Use in America: Problem in Perspective, issued 40 years ago today. That final report, which addressed broader drug issues was called "a sound battle plan for a more intelligent attack on this nation's drug scourge" by the editors of the New York Times. Looking at policy changes in Europe and Latin America, it is clear that many other countries have had a greater willingness to abandon failed policies than we have.
With the perspective of forty years, the final report was remarkably wise, balanced and should be widely-read today. It even predicted the failure of drug policy that has afflicted the nation since President Nixon declared a "war on drugs" in 1971.
The Commission warned in 1973 that with
the emotionalism surrounding the topic of drugs, all levels of government have been pressured into action with little time for planning. The political pressures involved in this governmental effort have resulted in a concentration ...on the most immediate aspects of drug use and a reaction along the paths of least political resistance ... the creation of ever larger bureaucracies, ever increasing expenditures of monies, and an outpouring of publicity so that the public will know that 'something' is being done. (Emphasis added)
This is an almost perfect description of how I saw Congress behave during the nine years I was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, especially in the summer of 1986 after Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose. It is a behavior regularly repeated by Congress since. That hasty legislation has led to hundreds of thousands of long mandatory minimum drug sentences, a swelling of the federal prison population from 36,000 then to over 218,000 now, and a shocking racial disparity in federal drug enforcement.
The Commission's critical observation that,
Perhaps the major consequence [of anti-drug legislating]...has been the creation, at the federal, state and community levels, of a vested interest in the perpetuation of the problem among those dispensing and receiving funds,
is true today. Dominant among the opponents of change who testify before legislative panels are the recipients of public funds - police chiefs, prosecutors, and drug abuse experts funded by government contracts and grants.
The Commission saw that a key flaw in our policy was that it defines the problem singularly as "drug use," and not the specific behaviors resulting from certain kinds of drug use. For generations, federal and state policy makers have ignored the important distinctions among different kinds of drug use and insisted, contrary to logic and the evidence, that all use of drugs is "drug abuse."
Another key observation of the Commission is that many of the risks of drug use are the result of drug policy rather than from the drugs themselves.
The Commission believes that the contemporary American drug problem has emerged in part from our institutional response to drug use...We have failed to weave policy into the fabric of social institutions.
We see this failure play out most clearly in families and schools. Consider that for almost forty years, roughly half of America's high school graduates have tried marijuana at least once. Yet this drug use takes place outside honest conversation between young people and their parents, teachers, coaches, etc. (many of whom probably used marijuana in high school or college). Drug policy has prevented the creation of a vocabulary for honest, non-emotional conversations with teenagers about use of marijuana and other drugs.
The "institutional response" prevents teachers and counselors from listening to students discuss their drug use, or speaking to them in balanced terms about the scientific, medical or social aspects of drug use without being accused of "condoning" drug use. Young people are denied accurate information from the authorities they otherwise trust. No wonder teenage drug use remains widespread and their behavior so often seems stupid and based on ignorance. Teenagers want to know the facts, but they know they won't get them at school and rarely at home.
The Commission presciently warned,
Unless present policy is redirected, we will perpetuate the same problems, tolerate the same social costs, and find ourselves as we do now, no further along the road to a more rational legal and social approach than we were in 1914.
We didn't redirect policy, but the problem is hardly the same - it is much worse! Drug overdose death rates are more than three times greater than they were when President Reagan kicked off his war on drugs in 1982. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in prohibition-related violence in the U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Jamaica, Central America, Africa and Asia. Hundreds of thousands of people have died worldwide from HIV/AIDS from needle sharing due to their inability to get sterile syringes as a result of the "institutional response."
Reviewing the institutional responses to the serial popularity of cocaine, crack, ecstasy, methamphetamine, Oxycontin, Salvia, synthetic cannabinoids, bath salts, etc., the agencies with vested political and budgetary interests have focused on each drug in turn and its terrible consequences. They have never sought to understand those who use these drugs and why, or how to best meet their needs for accurate information and the services to protect themselves. The laws they enacted were never designed to protect the health and safety of drug users, but instead to "crack down" on them. They never analyzed the economics of the criminal drug trade to understand how to control those markets but always adopted policies that made dangerous drugs more profitable to the criminals who sold them. These have been the emotional and political responses of "the vested interests" the Commission foresaw as doomed to fail.
The Commission noted the high cost of crimes committed and criminal justice costs from heroin, and an even greater cost from alcoholism. But they never contemplated how enormous the cost might be if the nation failed to follow its recommendations. The expenditures for punishment and imprisonment have staggered state budgets around the nation. No one foresaw how profound the impact of seven million drug felony convictions would be upon the workforce, family stability and structure, and the national and local economies. When millions of men can't work because of their drug conviction their families break up. And the impact on our consumer driven economy of this lost productivity and earning capacity is almost incalculable. Whether you invest in Wal-Mart, Amazon.com or General Motors, you can be sure your stocks are less profitable than they could be because customers whose earnings are slashed after their drug conviction can't buy what their families need, from shoes to cars to groceries. The impact on the development and opportunities of their children will depress profits ten and twenty years from now, and further weaken our economy.
Given forty years of escalation of the war on drugs in the U.S. and around the world, the global consensus that the policy is a deadly and costly failure, and that policies that hurt our fragile economies must be fixed, we need a new Shafer Commission to develop and recommend a drug policy that saves lives, rebuilds families and society, and will strengthen the whole economy, not just the criminal justice system and its contractors.
*Also known as the Shafer Commission, after its chair, Raymond P. Shafer, former Republican Governor of Pennsylvania. Gov. Shafer and eight other members of the Commission were appointed by President Richard Nixon. The other four members of the Commission were Senators and Members of Congress appointed by the Congressional leadership, for a total of 13 members. It employed a staff of 76. It commissioned numerous reports and technical papers, totaling over 3700 pages, published in four volumes of appendices.