Controlled Substances Act: 39 years of drug war tyranny.

Richard Nixon resigns in disgrace.

Richard Nixon resigns in disgrace, August 1974.

Thirty nine years ago this week an evil befell the USA.

President Richard Nixon, in cahoots with his fellow Watergate criminal (and Attorney General), John Mitchell, ramped up the war on drugs by prodding the misbegotten legislation, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This act crafted the schedule system for classifying the illegality of (some) drugs. In 1973 Nixon created the DEA to act as overseers of federal drug policy and enforcement.

Cannabis had actually been legal since a 1969 Supreme Court decision. Instigated by no less than Timothy Leary, the high court declared as unconstitutional the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 ended this short period of freedom, instituting a repressive, punishment-oriented approach. Because of Nixon’s direct actions, cannabis was classified as a Schedule I drug, the most restricted, illegal and penalized.

This draconian schedule for cannabis was purported to be just temporary, until a commission studied the question. This became the famous Shafer Commission. Kevin Zeese reported on the commission and Nixon’s attempts to declare marijuana dangerous. As Zeese reported, the commission took its task seriously and ended up having to conclude that marijuana is not very dangerous and does not justify harsh legal treatment of its users.

Nixon blew up, ranting (on tape) instead for laws that “tears the ass” out of marijuana users. He got his way. Even though Nixon had to resign in disgrace, the drug war he promoted has lived on. In the intervening 40 years, 20 million Americans have had their lives torn asunder in the form of needless and wasteful arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations for victimless cannabis “crimes.”

The CSA is is unconstitutional. An amendment to the US Constitution was required to prohibit alcohol. The same is true for marijuana and other drugs. Richard Nixon and the US congress ignored his requirement in passing the CSA. The courts, of course, should have quickly flagged this flagrant unconstitutionality. Instead the judiciary gave it a free pass under the “drug war exemption” to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Subsequent generations of congressional drug warriors such as Joe Biden found even this legislation too timid and schemed at “enhanced penalties” and evils such as asset forfeiture.  Mandatory minimums were reinstated again in the drug war-crazed 1980s. See Why 1984 WAS like 1984. Member of both political parties fought to out-do each other with ever more repressive legislation, including the Controlled Substance Penalties Amendment Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

International legislation, the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances soon codified schedules and penalties world wide.

Under the 39 year-old CSA the DEA is given authority to classify substances. It can at will, stubbornly stick to obviously incorrect schedules, e.g. Schedule I for cannabis. The classification of various drugs by the DEA is not based whatsoever upon the actual dangers of the drugs, but is based on bureaucratic and turf reasons.

  • The most dangerous drug, cigarettes, for example is not even under DEA enforcement. Nor was it regulated even by FDA, until a few months ago. But cannabis, a far safer drug, is degraded by the most draconian Schedule I classification and brutally enforced by the DEA.

Constitutionally the  US government has no business in the prohibition business. Practically such prohibitions have become an incarceration nightmare. We need to drug war collateral damage. Harsh penalties conceived to “tear the ass out” of hippies 40 years ago should not be mandating continuation of prison state and police state policies.

Drug war idiocy: 40 years of Operation Intercept

Forty years ago today, and 5 years before he resigned in disgrace, President Richard Nixon launched Operation Intercept. The operation, planned in part by future Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, involved the intensification of searches at border crossing points from Mexico. The goals were stopping the smuggling of marijuana into the USA and reducing drug distribution channels in Mexico.

  • Four decades later, a half dozen powerful criminal cartels challenge even the Mexican government. They employ armies of paramilitary hit men and cause great carnage in Mexico. It is estimated that over half the financing of the powerful and violent cartels is from smuggling marijuana into the USA. The removal of this cartel gravy train would be but one of the benefits of ending marijuana prohibition.

In 1968, 80,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana possession, only 10% of last year’s total. In the intervening 40 years, nearly 20 million Americans have been arrested for cannabis “crimes”. America’s prison population has exploded to the world’s most bloated, with 2.3 million prisoners.

Cannabis is misplaced on Schedule I of the Controlled Substance Act in good part due to the animosity nursed by Nixon towards the counterculture. He hated hippies. Nixon loathed the anti-war activists who protested his raining down death upon Vietnam.

Kevin Zeese in 2002 covered the events by which Nixon secured Schedule I draconian status in the CSA, despite the Shafer Commission he appointed to study the issue recommending just the opposite. Check out Zeese’s AlterNet article that discloses the content of Nixon’s famous tapes on the issue. Stunningly, Nixon compares the threat from marijuana, to that of “homosexuals, Jews and communists.”

The Shafer commission, after actually investigating marijuana, could not come up with a recommendation matching Nixon’s prejudices. Instead they concluded,

  • “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 tapes show this science-based conclusion drove Nixon wild with anger. What he desired, in his own words, was a “goddamn strong statement about marijuana … that just tears the ass out of them.” Tragically, Nixon got his way. Marijuana was classified Schedule I, a draconian classification triggering major felony penalties and mandatory minimums. Tens of millions of Americans have had their ass torn from them by these laws and their zealous enforcement.

Cannabis remains Schedule I today, a cruel and wasteful fiction. This artifact of one of America’s worst presidents could be and should be easily reduced (say to Schedule V) by command from President Obama.