Recreational marijuana use became legal in Colorado on January 1, which activists hailed as a landmark event in the movement to end the drug war. Most media stories on the change have either made light of it or taken a mildly disapproving tone. Few have focused on the issue looming behind the drug policy debate: mass incarceration.
As the Drug Policy Alliance points out in “A Brief History of the Drug War,” in the 1970s, there was recognition on the part of the public and the government that pot is not a particularly dangerous drug, even as President Nixon had had it classified as a Schedule I substance. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, the drug war intensified, with the primary result being an astronomical increase in the number of Americans imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. Between 1970 and 2005, the U.S. prison population grew by 700 percent during a time when violent crime was stable or declining. Today there are more than 2 million Americans behind bars, and about 3 percent of the population is under correctional supervision. In 2011, nearly half of federal prisoners were serving time for drug offenses, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.
Politicians knew 40 years ago that marijuana was not very dangerous: Nixon’s own commission recommended decriminalization. Treatment is known to be a more effective approach to drug abuse than incarceration. But the drug war was never about protecting the population from danger.
“Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue for the Nixon White House that we couldn’t resist it.”
-John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s White House counsel
“[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”