National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse

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The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse was created by the Controlled Substances Act to study marijuana abuse in the United States. While the Controlled Substances Act was being drafted in a House committee in 1970, Assistant Secretary of Health Roger O. Egeberg had recommended that marijuana temporarily be placed in Schedule I, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending the Commission's report. On March 22, 1972, the Commission's chairman, Raymond P. Shafer, presented a report to Congress and the public entitled "Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding," which favored ending marijuana prohibition and adopting other methods to discourage use.

The Commission's report acknowledged that, decades earlier, “the absence of adequate understanding of the effects of the drug” combined with “lurid accounts of [largely unsubstantiated] ‘marijuana atrocities” greatly affected public opinion and labeled the stereotypical user as “physically aggressive, lacking in self-control, irresponsible, mentally ill and, perhaps most alarming, criminally inclined and dangerous.” However, the Commission found that the drug typically inhibited aggression “by pacifying the user… and generally produc[ed] states of drowsiness, lethargy, timidity and passivity.”

After the Commission's widespread study and analysis, it concluded that "Looking only at the effects on the individual, there, is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of the natural preparations of cannabis."

Specifically, the Commission recommended "a social control policy seeking to discourage marijuana use, while concentrating primarily on the prevention of heavy and very heavy use." The report noted that society can provide incentives for certain behavior without prosecuting the unwilling, citing the example that "the family unit and the institution of marriage are preferred means of group-living and child-rearing in our society. As a society, we are not neutral. We officially encourage matrimony by giving married couples favorable tax treatment; but we do not compel people to get married."

The Commission recommended decriminalization of simple possession, finding:

[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. 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.

The Commission found that the constitutionality of marijuana prohibition was suspect, and that the executive and legislative branches had a responsibility to obey the Constitution, even in the absence of a court ruling to do so:

While the judiciary is the governmental institution most directly concerned with the protection of individual liberties, all policy-makers have a responsibility to consider our constitutional heritage when framing public policy. Regardless of whether or not the courts would overturn a prohibition of possession of marijuana for personal use in the home, we are necessarily influenced by the high place traditionally occupied by the value of privacy in our constitutional scheme. The Commission also found that "the use of drugs for pleasure or other non-medical purposes is not inherently irresponsible; alcohol is widely used as an acceptable part of social activities".

The Commission recommended the implementation of a discouragement policy against marijuana use, “while concentrating primarily on the prevention of heavy and very heavy use.” Essentially, the recommendation entailed that private possession of marijuana would no longer be criminalized, while public possession of small amounts “would be contraband subject to summary seizure and forfeiture.” Public possession and distribution of larger amounts would be punishable by a fine, and disorderly conduct or driving under the influence would be punishable by jail time and a fine, similar to modern policies regarding alcohol use (and misuse). Under such a system, the report notes that, in the great deal of personal possession cases, the criminal justice system would be removed from the process, and “The individual [would receive] no record of any kind; he [would] simply lose the value of the marijuana.”

The conclusions from the Shafer commission met resistance. There were hearings in the congress in 1974 in a subcommittee led by senator James O. Eastland with a number of expertise on cannabis from different countries. The subcommittees report concluded:

...five years of research has provided strong evidence that, if corroborated, would suggest that marijuana in various forms is far more hazardous than originally suspected.

The Nixon administration did not implement the recommendations from The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse; and in fact, while the study was pending, Nixon attempted to influence the result by telling Shafer, "You're enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we're planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell." However, the report has frequently been cited by individuals supporting removal of cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

Members of the Shafer Commission

Raymond P. Shafer, former Governor of Pennsylvania (Chairman)

Dana L. Farnsworth, MD, chairman of the University of Michigan department of pharmacology (Vice Chairman)

Henry Brill, MD, psychiatrist

Tim Lee Carter, U.S. Representative (R–KY)

Joan Ganz Cooney, television producer

Charles O. Galvin, SJD, Dean of SMU Law School

John A. Howard, PhD, President of Rockford College

Harold E. Hughes, U.S. Senator (D–IA)

Jacob K. Javits, U.S. Senator (R–NY)

Paul G. Rogers, U.S. Representative (D–FL)

Maurice H. Seevers, MD, PhD

J. Thomas Ungerleider, MD, psychiatrist

Mitchell Ware, JD, attorney

Michael R. Sonnenreich served as Executive Director of the Commission.