David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 3/22/02
One of my favorite items in druglibrary.org's Schaffer Library is "The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States," a speech delivered in 1995 to the California Judges Association conference by Prof. Charles Whitebread of the University of Southern California School of Law (http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/whiteb1.htm). Prof. Whitebread, formerly of the University of Virginia, and another UVA law professor, Richard Bonnie, authored a several hundred page history of the marijuana laws, "The Forbidden Fruit And The Tree Of Knowledge: An Inquiry Into The Legal History Of American Marijuana Prohibition," published in the Virginia Law Review in 1970.
My favorite anecdote from the speech is what happened when Bonnie and Whitebread, more than three decades later, went to the Library of Congress in Washington to look at the transcript of the Tax Act's hearings. As Prof. Whitebread explains in his speech, Congressional hearings are lengthy affairs with copious testimony that take up many pages when written down. So Bonnie and Whitebread, and the librarians, were shocked when they couldn't find anything!
The transcript, as it turns out, was there. A few weeks later a librarian contacted our professor friends and explained what had happened: The bound document was so short that it had slipped out behind the books on its shelf and fallen down in back. But that wasn't the end of it either: The thin booklet had somehow gotten wedged in between the bottom and the back of the bookshelf, and so tightly that the librarians were unable to pull it out. They had to empty the bookshelf and smash it into pieces in order to liberate the transcript.
Tapes from the Nixon Oval Office released this week reveal a similarly stupid manner of policymaking when that administration escalated marijuana enforcement, and the drug war as a whole, 30 years ago. It was 30 years ago today that the president's National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse released its lengthy, comprehensive report. "Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding" -- also available in the Schaffer Library (http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/nc/ncmenu.htm) called for decriminalization, a recommendation the administration obviously ignored.
But Nixon's rejection of decrim was no more thoroughly reasoned than Congress's decision 35 years before to prohibit marijuana in the first place. The Nixon tapes show that the president's decision to escalate the drug war was based not only on fundamental misconceptions about the nature of drugs, but on prejudices toward various groups of people -- specifically, gays, jews and radical political protesters -- whom he disliked or mistrusted and with whom he rightly or wrongly believed marijuana and marijuana activism were associated. Whitebread as well as other researchers have found that it is common, in fact, for anti-drug legislation to be driven by racial or cultural tension.
Ignorance and thoughtlessness has continued to pervade the drug war. In the mid-1980s, for example, Congress passed extraordinarily harsh mandatory minimum drug sentences. But unlike when Congress enacted marijuana prohibition with extremely minimal hearings in 1937, this time they didn't hold any hearings. Large numbers of low-level, nonviolent offenders are serving years or even decades in prison, many of them very decent people and many of them innocent by any meaningful definition of guilt.
And this week, as the US Sentencing Commission prepares to reexamine powder and crack cocaine sentencing -- possessing a mere five grams of crack gets you a mandatory five years, the same as 500 grams of powder -- the Department of Justice has come out and stated it thinks crack sentencing is just fine. The Sentencing Commission examined this issue in great depth several years ago and decided crack sentences should be lowered to the same level as powder, but were blocked from making that change by Congress. But despite all evidence as well as the hideous immorality of these sentences, DOJ thinks that maybe powder sentences should go higher! Call it the Department of Injustice instead.
Congress's bad joke isn't funny anymore. The lost transcript and smashed bookshelf in the Library of Congress make a nice metaphor for the forgotten origins of bad drug laws. It is important to drug out these little known historical memories -- both the humorous and the tragic -- and tell those stories again and again until the nation and the people in power see the truth.