by Moshe Y Bernstein

US President Richard Nixon and Domestic Policy Advisor John Ehrlichman

Richard Nixon came into office in 1968, when the anti-war and black power movements dominated the news headlines. In 1970 Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which classified drugs by their purported level of harm. Cannabis, together with substances like heroin, LSD, and quaaludes, was placed on Schedule 1, the grouping for dangerous drugs with no medical use, no safety standards, and a high risk of abuse.

Some officials, like Assistant Secretary of Health Roger O. Egeberg, quietly believed the conclusions of previous reports that cannabis was relatively harmless with a long history in global pharmacopeia. Egeberg recommended the establishment of a commission that would conduct a comprehensive study to “…aid in determining the appropriate disposition of this question in the future.” It was his expectation that the findings of this new commission might result in a rescheduling of cannabis to a less restrictive, more appropriate classification.

In response to Egeberg’s recommendation, President Nixon appointed Gov. Raymond P. Shafer of Pennsylvania, a Republican and former prosecutor with a “law-and-order” reputation, to run the commission. According to oval office tapes declassified in 2002, in May 1971, Nixon had described to his aide H. R. (“Bob”) Haldeman his anticipation of a strong anti-cannabis statement from Shafer’s commission:

I want a goddamn strong statement about marijuana. Can I get that out of this sonofa-bitching, uh, domestic council? I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them.”

Two weeks later, Nixon articulated his concerns to Haldeman regarding the movement to legalise cannabis:

Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists, you know, there’s so many, all the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish. By God, we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss. I want to find a way of putting more on that.”

In the end, Nixon was both disappointed and infuriated by the report of the Shafer Commission, which, like the reliable studies that preceded it, found no significant dangers in the use of cannabis, and recommended its decriminalization. Douglas McVay, of Common Sense for Drug Policy, summarises the Shafer Commission’s conclusions:

No significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to their marihuana smoking… No valid stereotype of a marihuana user or non-user can be drawn… Young people who choose to experiment with marihuana are fundamentally the same people, socially and psychologically, as those who use alcohol and tobacco… No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use…. Most users, young and old, demonstrate an average or above-average degree of social functioning, academic achievement, and job performance…"
The weight of the evidence is that marihuana does not cause violent or aggressive behavior; if anything, marihuana serves to inhibit the expression of such behavior… Marihuana is not generally viewed by participants in the criminal justice community as a major contributing influence in the commission of delinquent or criminal acts… Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety… Research has not yet proven that marihuana use significantly impairs driving ability or performance…"
No reliable evidence exists indicating that marihuana causes genetic defects in man… Marihuana’s relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.”

Prior to the publication of the Shafer Commission report, Richard Nixon had already proclaimed what he coined the “War on Drugs”, arguably one of the federal government’s most disastrous failures in US policy history which has cost the nation more than US $1 trillion. As Harry Anslinger did with the La Guardia Commission Report, Nixon refused to acknowledge the conclusions of the Shafer Commission and instead ramped up his anti-drug rhetoric along with a rash of prosecutions aimed at his political adversaries.


In a 1994 interview with Dan Baum for a piece in Harper’s Magazine (“Legalise It All”), John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, admitted that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ was a political fiction, a ‘war’ targeting particular groups of people rather than drugs:

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."

During his five-year period in office, largely due to Nixon’s federal criminalisation of cannabis, the US prison population rose from about 200,000 to 300,000, with drug convictions disproportionately affecting African Americans. That number, however, would soar exponentially during and after the presidency of Ronald Reagan (Part 3- Just Say No), which witnessed the development of a mega penal industry and an era of mass incarcerations with cannabis consumers at the unfortunate forefront. 

Antiwar activist John Sinclair arrested in 1969 for possession of two joints and sentenced to ten years in prison.