"The War on Drugs" & Cannabis

March 1, 2021

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

 - George Santayana


Here at NACB, we believe that social equity is crucial in order to create and maintain a fair legal cannabis market in the United States, for all citizens. The purpose of our organization, and blogs such as this one, is to provide context and information in hopes of furthering the conversation- and eventually making real progress within our communities and our world at large.


As we move further into this new decade of the 21st century, the issue of social equity in regards to cannabis is still a hot topic - especially due to the increasing number of U.S. states that have either already legalized cannabis or are in the process of passing legislature to do so. 


While there certainly has been some progress to address inequality within legal states, there’s a tremendous amount of work still necessary in order to level the playing field. Effective progress can’t happen without knowing how we got here in the first place. Keep reading as we discuss the cannabis policies of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and their subsequent repercussions.


The 1970s & The War on Drugs


In 1971, in response to the youth-led political and social movements — President Richard M. Nixon declared a “war on drugs” meant to curb the influence of groups deemed dangerous to the establishment. While at first glance this seemed directed at the substances themselves, as top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman later admitted, the reasons were much more sinister: 


You want to know what this 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.


Speculation regarding whether or not Nixon and others saw the future implications of their policies becomes moot when reading such statements. It’s clear, many years later, that this systemic racism and political paranoia paved the way for the tragic circumstances that followed. 


Cannabis Regulation Leading Into the 1980s


From the beginning, the 20th century saw cannabis enter into a new era of restriction and prohibition. Its status and stigma permeated various countries throughout the world (and especially in America, where the term ‘Marijuana’ was implemented) and created this powerful myth of the societal dangers of the plant. 


Decades of strict federal prohibition that followed drove cannabis further underground, and it wasn’t until the consciousness revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that cannabis was able to resurface amidst an era of widespread liberalization and personal exploration. It seemed as though the tides were turning favorably for decreased regulation, however the policies and sentiment of the late 70s and early 80s unfortunately brought all of this momentum to a screeching halt


Indeed, the clear momentum for marijuana liberalization in the 1960s and 1970s was promptly turned back during the early 1980s. The rollback itself was led by a nationwide parents movement that pushed Congress to enact a new series of mandatory minimum sentences. Under the "Just Say No" campaign and the Anti-drug Abuse Act of 1986, President Ronald Reagan responded with a wide net that swept up all drugs, including marijuana.


Where there was a spark of hope, it was ultimately extinguished in the form of more unfair legislation - eventually leading to the turmoil of 1990s cannabis policy in regards to mass incarceration.


Cannabis Incarceration in the 1990s


Yet another in a series of disappointing letdowns came after years of Republican drug policies. As Bill Clinton campaigned for his first presidential term in the early 1990s, he struck a more compassionate tone than that of the Reagan and Bush eras that came before. Stressing “treatment over incarceration,"- it appeared as though the new decade would usher in a change when it came to cannabis law.


But, as is the American political tradition of abandoning campaign promises when in office — this was too good to be true. After his inauguration in 1992, President Clinton shifted his policies away from compassion and once again towards Draconian drug policy and unfair arrest and incarceration, primarily for cannabis:


Law enforcement agencies arrested fewer people for cocaine and heroin offenses and began to arrest more people for marijuana possession and sale. By 1996, marijuana had once again surpassed heroin and cocaine as the primary drug of arrest, a gap which has widened since then. Early pursuit of the "war on drugs" targeted heroin and cocaine (drugs deemed to be hard, costly, or dangerous), but the current manifestation of the drug war, from the law enforcement perspective, is targeted disproportionately at marijuana use.


Despite these efforts and the high number of arrests, ironically the data shows that the ease of obtaining marijuana for teens actually rose substantially. Thirty years of aggressive pursuit by law enforcement was unsuccessful in curbing the plant's availability at the street level -- another piece of evidence in the abject failure of "the war on drugs" and its offshoots.  


Cannabis Social Equity in 2021 & Beyond


2020 is a year that begs to be forgotten, however there were some positive things that happened within the legal cannabis sphere — including four new states that enacted legislation legalizing cannabis for adult use.


We hope that we’ll see those states (and many more!) expedite their cannabis programs, making it easily accessible for those in need while carefully addressing social equity issues as they relate to expungement programs and other initiatives to level the playing field. 


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Stay tuned to our blog page for more cannabis and social equity information, and other pertinent educational content intended to remove the stigma of cannabis.