Pubdate: Thu, 22 Mar 2007
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2007 Independent Media Institute
Author: Paul Armentano
Note: Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the 
NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Students for Sensible Drug Policy)


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 is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML 
Foundation in Washington, D.C.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman