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Dear Pot Lawyer,

Where did the drug war madness come from?

It seems appropriate to use our second-to-last Ask a Pot Lawyer column to look at how America’s wasteful and harmful drug war came about, and the lessons its origin can tell us about the current generation of drug warriors currently (and hopefully temporarily) occupying the highest levels of our federal government. Our disastrous drug war started in earnest with President Nixon. To get a sense of the moral justification for the drug war, I’d like you to consider a quote from Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, as reported by Harper’s magazine. It is long, but worth reading in its entirety.

“You want to know what [the drug war] was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

This is, of course, outrageous. The Nixon campaign and administration were more than happy to destroy lives for political power. In this pursuit, Nixon went so far as to create a commission to study federal cannabis policy with the expectation that the commission would rubber-stamp his drug war policies. Instead, the Shafer Commission report said, in part, “We have concluded that society should seek to discourage [cannabis] use, while concentrating its attention on the prevention and treatment of heavy and very heavy use. The Commission feels that the criminalization of possession of marihuana for personal use is socially self-defeating as a means of achieving this objective... Considering the range of social concerns in contemporary America, marihuana does not, in our considered judgment, rank very high. We would de-emphasize marihuana as a problem. The existing social and legal policy is out of proportion to the individual and social harm engendered by the use of the drug.”

The Nixon administration ignored the findings of its own commission and stayed the course. Drug warriors have been in and out of power since, but one thing has remained unchanged: Political inertia and misinformation have firmly entrenched our illogical cannabis policy. This won’t change while drug zealots like Attorney General Jeff “Cannabis Is Only Slightly Less Awful Than Heroin” Sessions remain in power. In time, I’m confident that truth and common sense will eventually win out, but in the meantime, these zealots will continue to wage their disingenuous war at the cost of innocent American lives.