Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Useful reminder of a prior era of marijuana decriminalization

Time magazine has this notable new article authored by Emily Dufton about an underappreciated bit of marijuana history. The piece is headlined "U.S. States Tried Decriminalizing Pot Before. Here's Why It Didn't Work," and here are excerpts:

Between 1973 and 1978, a dozen states decriminalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.  Pro-pot activists, many of them young veterans of the anti-war and civil-rights movements, argued that marijuana wasn’t as harmful as the government said it was, and that laws against it were unjust.  In the era of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, they built on America’s growing distrust of the government to pass less restrictive marijuana laws at the state level.  It worked: by 1978, a third of the country lived in states where marijuana possession warranted little more than a fine.

But a multi-million dollar paraphernalia industry followed in decriminalization’s wake.  By 1977, sales of pipes, bongs, rolling papers and drug-oriented magazines and toys were generating $250 million a year (equivalent to $1 billion today).  There was little to no regulation or oversight on this booming new industry, however.  Products that seemed directly targeted to kids — including Frisbees with pipes on them and bongs shaped like spaceships — were sold openly, often in corner shops and music stores.

Before long, a counterrevolution unfolded, as an army of concerned parents tied paraphernalia’s availability to rising rates of adolescent marijuana use.  By 1978, nine percent of high school seniors reported smoking pot every day, and children as young as 13 reported that the drug was easy to get.  The “parent movement” sought to close “head shops” and rescind decriminalization laws, while organizing local groups to prevent adolescent drug use in their communities.

By 1981, the parent movement had effectively overturned many state decriminalization laws, and soon it was guiding the new First Lady in her battle against pot. Unpopular when her husband first took office, Nancy Reagan was encouraged by parent activists to adopt adolescent drug-abuse prevention as her platform, and her approval ratings skyrocketed in response.  Despite decreasing rates of adolescent use, Reagan and parent activists continued to declare that adolescent marijuana use was nothing less than a “national emergency.”  This emphasis on the danger of adolescent drug use helped fuel the administration’s punitive drug war, especially when new laws were passed in the wake of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1986.

With the White House behind them, it took less than a decade for parent activists to demonize marijuana nationwide.  These activists were powerful because of how effectively they shifted the debate.  Whereas pro-marijuana advocates supported decriminalization on the basis of an adult’s right to privacy and freedom, parent activists said that children had a more important right to grow up drug-free.  And though many Americans supported decriminalization in the 1970s, once rates of adolescent use started to rise, and when paraphernalia manufacturers sold items to kids, the country’s attitude toward marijuana experienced a swift reversal.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2017/12/useful-reminder-of-a-prior-era-of-marijuana-decriminalization.html

Campaigns, elections and public officials concerning reforms, Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States | Permalink

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