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In 1970, President Richard Nixon set out to destroy his domestic enemies. Marijuana prohibition was his weapon of choice. It was aimed at left leaning U.S. citizens. Above all, Nixon wanted to disrupt the influence of pot-smoking hippies.

In the 45 years since Nixon launched the “War on Drugs,” the name proved to be an adequate description. Millions of otherwise law abiding citizens had their lives ruined. The incarceration machine marginalized the counter culture, and continues to target poor people and minorities.

John Erhlichman was Nixon’s top advisor for domestic policy.

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” he said. “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."

Politics of Prohibition

When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, many members were not convinced that cannabis should be classified Schedule 1 - a drug with no approved medical benefits.

A presidential commission was created to investigate the drug. It is commonly known as the “Shafer Commission,” after its chairman, Raymond Shafer. He was former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and a former prosecutor. Nixon also appointed most of the other members.

When the president learned that the commission was leaning toward a recommendation to legalize marijuana, he intervened. He met with Shafer. He warned him. Do not be a “bunch of do-gooders.” Do not be “soft on marijuana.”

The commission members reported that marijuana did not lead to aggression or crime. It did not lead to harder drug use. And it did not appear to adversely affect physical or mental health. They recommended decriminalizing marijuana.

The Shafer Commission’s conclusion: “Marijuana’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.”