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A Forgotten Chapter

Written by Jim Hinckley

August 21, 2021

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Bill Minutaglio, the author of several books, including Dallas 1963, and Steven L. Davis whose work has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, and Esquire recently wrote an interesting story about Richard Nixon’s war on drugs. This story and other recently published materials detail another bizarre chapter in the long and winding road that eventually led to the establishment of cannabis dispensaries such as The Bud Farmacy in Needles, California.

By the early 1970s the presidency of Richard Nixon was in dire straights. Polls were indicating that Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie could win the election in 1972. Publication of the “Pentagon Papers” by The New York Times’ was damning. An anemic economy was another issue of concern. Likewise with increasing public anger over the war in Vietnam.

Seizing on a recently released public opinion poll that indicated 23 percent of Americans viewed drugs as growing problem in America, in the summer of 1971, Nixon declared a war on drugs. This would set the stage for conflicted federal drug policy for decades.

Years later in an interview John Ehrlichman, one of President Nixon’s top advisors, said, “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. 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?

The face for Nixon’s war on drugs was former Harvard professor Timothy Leary, a leading advocate for psychedelic drugs and the decriminalization of marijuana. Leary had won a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1969 against the Nixon administrations federal marijuana laws. After the ruling was announced Leary launched a brazen attack on Nixon’s highly publicized drug interdiction program, Operation Intercept.

Still, for a brief period of time, there was a concerted effort to decriminalize marijuana. Between 1973 and 1977 eleven states decriminalized possession of marijuana in small amounts. possession. A key component in President Jimmy Carter’s campaign was marijuana decriminalization. And in October 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Still, public perception formed with almost a century of organized campaigns to paint marijuana as dangerous as heroin was not easily overcome. Especially in a era of dramatic societal upheaval. And so beginning in the 1980s, Richard Nixon’s war on drugs was taken to a new level. As a result the incarceration of people for nonviolent drug offenses skyrocketed.

It would take until the turn of the century before laws pertaining to marijuana usage and sale took a more balanced approach. And in the 21st century, Nixon’s war on drugs is an almost forgotten footnote to history.

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