Forty Years Ago This Week: National Commission On Marihuana Recommends Decriminalizing Cannabis

First And Only Federal Commission On Pot Policy Determined, "The Criminal Law Is Too Harsh A Tool" To Apply To Possession Offenses:
Commission’s Recommendations Still, If Not More, Applicable Today

Marihuana: A Signal of MisunderstandingWashington, DC: Forty years ago tomorrow, on March 22, 1972, the first and to date only Congressional Commission ever to assess marijuana policy called on Congress to amend federal law so that the possession and use of small quantities of cannabis by adults would no longer be a criminal offense.

The Commission, known as the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (aka the Shafer Commission), chaired by former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer, determined that minor marijuana possession offenses — including those involving the not-for-profit transfer of cannabis by adults — should be ‘decriminalized’ under federal law. The Commission recommended that states should similarly eliminate criminal penalties for minor pot offenses.

"[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use," concluded the 13-member Commission, which included nine hand-picked 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 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."

Members of the Commission further acknowledged that marijuana did not meet the criteria of a schedule I controlled substance under federal law, a classification that places cannabis along side heroin as a prohibited substance without any therapeutic value. In July 2011, the Obama administration upheld cannabis’ schedule I classification, stating, "At this time, the known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy."

In the four decades since the Nixon administration and Congress rejected the recommendations of the Shafer Commission, an estimated 22 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana-related offenses, according to annual data compiled by the FBI. Upwards of 80 percent of those arrested were charged with possession only offenses, not sales or trafficking.

"Failing to implement the recommendations issued by the Shafer Commission to decriminalize minor marijuana offenses has costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars and unnecessarily ruined the lives of millions of otherwise law abiding American citizens," said NORML’s Executive Director Allen St. Pierre.

He adds: "Despite the federal government’s 40-year ‘war on pot,’ today an estimated 45 percent of US adults acknowledge having consumed cannabis at some point in their lives, with nearly 12 percent admitting having done so in the past year. A majority of Americans now say that the plant should be legalized and regulated for adults."

St. Pierre concludes, "Forty years ago tomorrow the Nixon administration had an unprecedented opportunity to enact a rational pot policy. They were provided with the truth about cannabis, but they refused to listen. It is time for the Obama administration to listen — and to act. It is time to make peace with pot."

For more information, please contact Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director or Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel, at (202) 483-5500.