The War on Drugs has been a failure on multiple levels. Cannabis Prohibition has failed by the simple measure of how much unregulated cannabis is still available almost 50 years after President Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one.” Cannabis is currently a Schedule I drug, meaning it is supposed to have no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), “Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote.” For context, cocaine and methamphetamine are Schedule II drugs.
THE FIRST PROHIBITIONISTS
This was not always the case. During the 19th century, cannabis was commonly used as medicine in the United States and Western Europe. Queen Victoria’s doctor prescribed it to treat Her Majesty’s migraines from menstruation. The U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the foremost authority on medicine, listed it as an official type of medicine in its editions published from 1851-1942.
However, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act required cannabis to be labeled on medicine bottles, and it slowly fell out of use. The problem was that many began to think it was as harmful as cocaine or heroin. Before the passage of the 1906 Act, drugs were largely unregulated in the United States. This led to the recognition that “snake oil,” which included various chemicals in a bottle sold as medicine, could be harmful.
More Mexicans began immigrating to the United States in the 1910s and were enthusiastic users of cannabis (which they called marihuana) for recreational purposes. Mexican-American immigrants brought it to New Orleans, a center of jazz music, and many famous jazz musicians subsequently became cannabis enthusiasts.
Cannabis was included when the cry came from prohibitionists to regulate opium. Moreover, Mexican immigrants faced a backlash against their arrival in the United States which made many oppose them and decry their “marijuana.” The cry for prohibition became louder, and states started making cannabis illegal in the 1910s.
In 1930, Harry Anslinger was appointed the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) during the Hoover administration. Initially his job was to stamp out illegal heroin and cocaine, but this was a minor problem at the time. After alcohol became legal again in 1933, it seemed his already small bureau would shrink even further. So Anslinger seized on prevailing anti-cannabis sentiment, and fanned the flames.
The prohibitionist campaign smeared cannabis as something African-American musicians and Mexican immigrants used. They preferred the term “marihuana” to associate with the foreign Mexicans. Thus, the passage of 1937 Marihuana Tax Act instituted taxes and regulations — and some penalties for possession — on cannabis. Prior to the prohibitionist campaign, no one was using the term marijuana. It is unclear why the federal government chose the spelling “Marihuana” and not “Marijuana.” Because marijuana has such a racially charged history, the preferred nomenclature in the culture is cannabis.
The marijuana prohibitionist campaign faced almost no organized opposition. The only group that fought them was the American Medical Association (AMA) because of its history of medical uses. Ironically, the AMA now opposes all uses of cannabis. Two people were quickly arrested after the passage of the law to make an example, neither of whom were even aware that cannabis prohibition had been passed.
THE WAR ON DRUGS
The 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA) made cannabis possession and distribution a serious crime. President Richard Nixon advocated for enforcement to include arresting hippies and leftist radicals for possession to hamper their movements. It was verified that this was his intention by his former senior domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman when he said,
“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.”
But Nixon’s decision to clamp down on drugs did not achieve the outcome he sought. During his administration, former President Jimmy Carter called on Congress to decriminalize cannabis federally. However, a backlash to the liberalization of society, including decriminalization, occurred. It coincided with the rise of the conservative movement.
Ronald Reagan led this movement against the liberalization of society, and rode it into the White House in 1980. While President, he was a great proponent of the War on Drugs and escalated it by creating harsher penalties and arresting far more people. The number of people in prison for cannabis crimes rose from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. Concurrent with the escalation, First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign became popular all over the country.
Michelle Alexander goes into detail on the negative effect of cannabis prohibition. She argues it has created a class of second-class citizens in her book The New Jim Crow. She says that America’s criminal justice system makes second class citizens out of felons – most of whom are African American and Hispanic – and uses their criminal history to justify denying benefits that are key to climbing the economic ladder. Being arrested for possession and a subsequent felony can negatively affect one’s ability to pay for college, get good-paying jobs, receive federal housing benefits, obtain a professional license, and even enter the military. Many individuals with felony records have been unable to find decent employment. Thus, in many ways, the new system resembles the old ways of Jim Crow segregation. Some estimate that one-third of African American men will go to prison within their lifetime.
BLACK GEORGIANS PAY THE HIGHEST COST
Being “tough on crime” – including support for the War on Drugs – was popular for politicians in both parties as crime rose steadily for decades from the 1960s to the 1990s. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (aka the 1994 crime bill) passed with the bi-partisan support of 296 Members of Congress; providing more than $23 billion to increase local law enforcement budgets and build more prisons. Many believe that those federal dollars gave rise to the Prison Industrial Complex, leading to an explosion in the number of incarcerated individuals in the United States.
The injustice of legacy prisoners serving sentences for cannabis-related crimes while investors are getting rich is on display all over the country – particularly in Georgia, which the ACLU reports having the fifth highest arrest rate in the U.S. for cannabis possession. Black Georgians, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), are more than “three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.” Cities including Savannah, Atlanta, and Clarkson have all decriminalized possession of certain amounts of the plant, yet “more than 40,000 Georgians are arrested every year for marijuana possession,” finds MPP.
Disparities are much higher in places like Pickens County, Georgia. The ACLU finds Pickens County to have the highest racial disparities in cannabis arrests in the U.S. There, Blacks are nearly 100 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession. As a result, more than half of the prison population in Georgia is Black. According to data compiled by the Drug Policy Alliance, “nearly 73% of all people admitted [in Georgia] on marijuana charges in 2017 were Black despite making up only 32% of the total population.”
Despite the fact that cannabis arrests are at their lowest nationally, disproportionate cannabis arrest rates continue to rise in places like Catoosa County, Georgia. For instance, between 2010-2018, Catoosa County ranked among the “top 20” for growing disparities in these rates, according to the ACLU.
These figures in mind, it’s no wonder that the state of Georgia is home to some of the world’s largest prison populations – most of them jailed for simple drug possession.
Written by Daniel Ulloa, with additional reporting by Melissa Hutsell
Photographs by Michael Scott Milner