The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, 1971-1972 by (3 Stories)

Prompted By Drugs and Alcohol

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[Preliminary note. At one time, the spelling of marijuana with an “h” was as acceptable as spelling it with a “j”. Although that spelling has fallen out of favor in recent decades, I will abide its use when referring to documents that use the “h” version.]

The 1960s were a time of political and social turmoil in the US, caused mainly by our involvement in an unpopular war in Vietnam. But there were other reasons, too, among them the rise in marijuana use by high-school and college students. At the time, marijuana was classified under the law as a drug equal in danger to heroin, with penalties to match. Consequently, being convicted on a marijuana charge could be ruinous to a student’s future—hardly an an acceptable outcome to most parents. Indeed, it could disrupt anyone’s life, and so there was a growing concern that there must a way to deal with marijuana better than the criminal law. This sentiment, however, was not universal. Some people identified marijuana use with hippies, whom they viewed as unproductive deviants and thus unwelcome in their communities.

The situation demanded an answer, but none was obvious. Richard Nixon was the president at the time, and he did what other leaders have often done when confronted with such a situation: he established a commission to examine the problem and recommend a way (or ways) to deal with it. Thus was created, in March 1971, a two-year commission, The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, under the leadership of Raymond P. Shafer, the former governor of Pennsylvania. Its mandate, during its first year, was to examine the health, social, and legal aspects of marijuana, and make recommendations for its control. (During the second year, it would deal with the more general phenomenon of drug abuse.)

The Commission was not the first such entity. It had two historical predecessors: the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1893-94, and the New York City LaGuardia Commission of 1944. The Hemp Commission was created by the British government to investigate cannabis use in the province of Bengal. and among its conclusions was the following: “Moderate use is the rule and produces practically no ill effects.” The LaGuardia Commission was created by New York City’s mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, to investigate the veracity of claims made by Harry J. Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, whose views of marijuana’s evils were mirrored in the notorious 1936 movie “Reefer Madness.” LaGuardia turned to the New York Academy of Medicine to conduct the study. Two of its conclusions were: “The use of marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word,” and “The use of marihuana does not lead to to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction…” In other words, despite Anslinger’s attempt to stoke fear of the presumed horrors of marijuana, the evidence did not support him. In fact, use did not appear to be widespread, and marijuana was viewed by relatively few people as a serious problem.

But all that changed in the next twenty-five years, and the stage was set for the National Commission. Its first task was to hire staff, including associate and assistant directors who would lead research in the various areas within the Commission’s purview. The next task was to create a common knowledge base about marijuana for the thirteen commissioners. For that it turned to the organization for which I worked: the Center for Comprehensive Health Practice of New York Medical College’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science. The last part of the Department’s name is significant, for it meant that, in addition to actual psychiatrists, staff included a number of people trained in sociology (like me), or psychology, or one of the other behavioral sciences. My boss (the Center’s director), was a man named Richard Brotman, whose background was in social psychology. Dr. Brotman came to the medical school from the City College of New York, where one of his students was Ralph Susman (later Dr. Susman), who eventually became the National Commission’s director in the area of sociology.

Dr. Susman contacted Dr. Brotman and asked if he would prepare, for the commissioners, a summary report on previous research on marijuana. The latter accepted the request, and turned to me for assistance. Once we had discussed what was required, he allowed me to set aside my usual work, whereupon I set off for the library of the New York Academy of Medicine, where I spent nearly every day for the net three months. After I had collected what was, I hoped, a sufficient amount of information, the next next task was to write it all up

Dr. Brotman, in addition to being the Center’s director, was an associate dean of the medical school, and his work schedule left little time for an intense writing project, even if we shared the load. Moreover, the Commission had set a strict deadline for submission of the report, and time was passing. So the task fell solely to me. The first personal computers did not appear until the late 1970s, so the report was produced the old-fashioned way. I wrote in longhand on a yellow pad, and after I did some preliminary editing, I turned the draft over to a typist. As each section was finished, I reviewed it with Dr. Brotman, incorporated whatever suggestions he may have had, and did some final editing.

And so it went, until the report, eighty-nine pages in all, was completed in November 1971. I sent it to Dr. Susman, who, thankfully, accepted it without revision. It was called “Marijuana Use: Values, Behavioral Definitions, and Social Control,” and was published in late 1972 as part of a large volume titled “The Technical Papers of the First Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse,” which included all the studies sponsored by the Commission during its first year.

The Commission’s first report was published in March 1972, under the name “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” A key aspect of the report was its analysis of the social control of marijuana, for which it set out an analytic scheme that included four potential approaches: approval of use, neutrality toward use, discouragement of use, and elimination of use. After a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of each, it settled on discouragement as the best option. It also recommended that marijuana should no longer be classified under the law as a narcotic, but rather should become a separate category of its own. (The full report is available online, so I’ll forego any further discussion of it.)

Our own report also reviewed approaches to marijuana control. We mentioned that legalization was now being seriously discussed, although it had not yet advanced very far in terms of actual change. One reason was that legalization took a number of forms, and which was best was only beginning to be debated. The debate was informed by the work of Stanford law professor John Kaplan, who discussed four possible models for legalization: the “sugar candy” model, the vice model, the medical model, and the licensing model. Immediately below, I quote the first sentence or two of his description of each model, so you can get a sense of his thinking.

    “Under the sugar candy model, the the law would withdraw from control, except to guarantee purity of the manufactured product, as it does with candy and other foods….

    “Under the vice model, consumers of marijuana would not be prosecuted, but traffickers would be….

    “The third model, the medical, would make marijuana available through physicians’ prescriptions, basically in the way other psychoactive drugs are available….

    “The fourth model, the licensing model, is probably what most people have in mind when they think of legalization. Under this model, the manufacture and distribution of of marijuana would be regulated by the government, and sale would be taxed as it is with alcohol and tobacco.”

Sound familiar? It should. Much of what Kaplan said amounts to a preview of what is now being discussed and tried in the US—fifty years later.

After describing Kaplan’s four models, our report ended—as will this discussion—with the following prediction. (As you’ll see, we under-estimated the time frame for potential change.)

    “Whatever else may be disputed about marijuana, one thing is unmistakably clear: marijuana is now a fact of American life. So firm is the place of marijuana in certain parts of society, that nothing short of terror tactics or totalitarian methods will dislodge it.

    “Whether we like it or not, our nation is moving, however hesitantly, toward a social and, possibly, legal accommodation of marijuana. The issue before policy-makers, it seems to us, is no longer whether marijuana should be accommodated, but rather how it may be accommodated with the least social cost.

    “In his discussion of the marijuana laws, Professor Herbert Packer warned that there is something we must not forget: that the law is made for people, not the other way around. A law which is widely discredited and disobeyed is not only unenforceable; it is doomed. Twenty-five years from now, when the present younger generation reaches its maturity, many may look back in uncomprehending wonder at the fact that, at one time in our nation’s history, citizens were put in prison for the act of rolling a bit of dried leaf into a cigarette and smoking it.”

The 1960s were a time of political and social turmoil in the US, caused mainly by our involvement in an unpopular war in Vietnam. But there were other reasons, too, among them the rise in marijuana use by high-school and college students.
Profile photo of Fred Suffet Fred Suffet

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Bravo Fred, thanks for this education on your’s and the Commission’s scholarly findings on that little bit of dried leaf – a part of your background I didn’t know!

    Here’s some serendipity – during my graduate library school studies in the late 60s I once volunteered at the NY Academy of Medicine library.

    • Fred Suffet says:

      Thank you, Dana. Serendipity, indeed! In the late ’60s, the Center for which I worked was located right around the corner from the Academy library, and even before our work for the National Commission, I occasionally went there to dig up journal articles. I wouldn’t be surprised if our paths crossed back then.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is very interesting, Fred. Too bad grass got lumped in with dangerous and addictive drugs. It clearly shouldn’t have criminalized, but that was its fate. I saw “Reefer Madness” at Brandeis in 1970, high as a kite. It was hilarious.

    • Fred Suffet says:

      Thank you, Betsy. I’m glad that you found it interesting, and I certainly agree with you. By the way, I had the same experience with Reefer Madness. I saw it with a friend at the Thalia movie house on Broadway, in Manhattan. The Thalia was one of the safe zones I mentioned in the piece — places where the cops took a hands-off approach as long as nothing bad happened. I guess they could see that a movie house full of people laughing themselves silly didn’t present a danger to anyone.

  3. Thank you for this informative and well written piece of historical discourse. So much fun to hear about this from someone who was on the inside, since I can remember this commission from my perspective as a member of the lay public (and of the youth generation of the time). Congrats on being so prophetic, if a bit early in your prognostication.
    A book that greatly influenced me around that same time was LICIT AND ILLICIT DRUGS, by Edward Brecher. Do you recall being familiar with that book, which probably came out a couple years after your report, and most likely drew on your report? I will look forward to any further thoughts.

    • Fred Suffet says:

      Thank you, Dale, that’s very nice of you to say. Not only am I familiar with Brecher’s book, I just now located my copy on the bookshelf amidst a zillion other books on pot and other drugs that came out around the time (1972). It was published by the Consumers Union, which I thought was slightly ironic. Next to it on the shelf is another book that was one of the very best on pot. It’s called “The Marijuana Smokers,” by Erich Goode, published by Basic Books in 1970. Despite the date, it’s probably still worth reading. Goode was a sociologist at Stony Brook, and we got to know each other when we occasionally wound up speaking about pot at the same conference.

  4. Suzy says:

    Fascinating story, Fred, thanks for giving us the “inside dope” 🙂 . Amazing that it took 50 years, rather than 25 as your group expected, for marijuana to be generally acceptable, and even legal in over half of the states.

  5. Marian says:

    Very enlightening story, Fred. Gives an excellent perspective. I well recall the hysteria about marijuana among many adults while I was a teenager, but I don’t recall the same level of it when my niece was a teenager in the early 2000s. We finally have some sensible policies.

    • Fred Suffet says:

      Thank you, Marian. I appreciate your saying that. It’s always interesting to get the perspective of the various parties involved in those phenomena we define as social problems. My perspective, so to speak, on the marijuana problem was to provide information to those — the commissioners — who were charged with offering a solution to the problem. And each of them brought their own perspective to the task, coming as they did from a variety of backgrounds: law, education, medicine, politics, and so on. As I think about it now, it would have been interesting to have interviewed them, but that wasn’t the job we were given. Maybe in another lifetime…

      • Khati Hendry says:

        Very interesting inside story—it seems that the assessment of marijuana danger didn’t really change from the nineteenth century, but of course the laws did, drastically. It is infuriating to think of the destroyed lives of people who were in the wrong place and time, and the professionals knew better. Of course that is not limited to marijuana. Thanks for this story.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Thank you for sharing this history. It is very interesting that we have known the truth about marijuana for a long time.

    • Fred Suffet says:

      You’re very welcome, Laurie. I’m pleased you found the history interesting. I doubt if many members of the public at large know the history, and, indeed, why should they? I doubt if I would have known it either if my boss hadn’t been asked to prepare for the National Commission a summary of prior research on pot. But once I got started in the library, I was surprised how far back the research went.

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