By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The original drug warrior himself, President Richard Nixon, must have felt betrayed after he impaneled a hard-line commission to study marijuana and what he supposed were its tendencies to make college kids rabidly anti-establishment. What the 1972 Shafer Commission reported instead was that marijuana smoking was less harmful than alcohol and its personal use should no longer be a crime. Although Nixon rejected the report, 11 states would reduce the punishment for marijuana possession to traffic-ticket status; in the mid-'70s, even Texas had decriminalized possession of less than 4 ounces from a felony to a misdemeanor. Carter himself did nothing to change the law, in part, because prominent members of his administration became ensnared in their own drug scandals.
Day, like many of the millions of Americans who smoked pot by the late '70s, didn't care about marijuana politics. What he cared about was the high. "At that point, marijuana was just the thing to do. I got up, smoked a joint so I could put up with my day. I thought life was just more enjoyable on pot."
The Mesquite police couldn't have disagreed with him more. In 1978, a loud party brought the cops to his door. They searched his home, his guests, his person--and charged him with felony possession: over 4 ounces. But the police didn't have a warrant, and the case was thrown out of court.
By the time the case was over, so was his marriage. He began a downward spiral, entering the "gray world of the black market," he says, which took him to cocaine, speed, prescription drug abuse. However, he didn't like the way they made him feel, "So I always came back to pot."
When it became Ronald Reagan's turn to set drug policy, he launched a full-scale frontal assault against drugs. He enlisted the army for interdiction, Congress to stiffen drug penalties with mandatory-minimum sentences, and law enforcement with cash incentives to forfeit the assets of those who had, even unwittingly, allowed their property--cars, planes, houses, farms--to be involved in drug trafficking or possession. A burgeoning parents' movement gained political muscle with Congress. The War on Drugs took on a moral crusade as the nation's youth were encouraged to turn to their drug-peddling peers and "Just Say No."
"I guess I have Nancy Reagan to thank for getting me started," Day says. "The government cranked up its propaganda machine telling us any use was abuse, that marijuana was addictive, that you will never meet your potential on pot. The more lies I heard, the more I realized I needed to be part of the solution."
The federal government tried to prove that it was pot smokers like Day who were wrong. "The National Institute on Drug Abuse funds 80 percent of the studies on marijuana, and it is only interested in funding those that show the harm of the drug," says Dr. John P. Morgan, professor of pharmacology at the City of New York Medical School and co-author of Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts. "It doesn't like to fund studies that seek to demonstrate the drug's benefits." Beginning in the late '70s, government reports claimed that marijuana, among other things, killed brain cells, damaged chromosomes, caused infertility, destroyed motivation, and caused men to grow breasts--though these conclusions were often based on "bad science or animal studies that had never been replicated with humans," Morgan says. Not surprisingly, use among teen-agers declined during the Reagan-Bush years.
At the same time, marijuana was gaining at least a modicum of legitimacy in legal circles. In the mid-'70s, Bob Randall, a former Washington, D.C., cab driver was diagnosed with glaucoma and was going blind from the disease. None of the traditional glaucoma drugs reduced the tremendous pressure within his eyes. He noticed, however, that by smoking marijuana almost daily, his eye pain was alleviated and his eyesight stopped deteriorating. When he was busted for marijuana cultivation, his lawyers pleaded that his use was a necessary choice between evils: violating the law or going blind. Although this may have been the first time the defense of medical necessity was pleaded in a marijuana case, Randall was acquitted anyway. The result forced the federal government to provide him with marijuana, and it set up the compassionate use program, with Randall as its first patient (McMahon was the fifth).
NORML filed a lawsuit in 1972, hoping to convince the DEA to reclassify marijuana under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Cannabis had been placed in Schedule I (drugs having no currently acceptable medical use, a high potential for abuse, unsafe: heroin, LSD). NORML fought to make it a Schedule II drug (available by prescription only: morphine, cocaine). The argument seemed to have merit: If marijuana were made legal for medical purposes, it would simply be elevated to the status of morphine and cocaine. It took 16 years of court battles, but in 1988, Francis Young, the DEA's chief administrative law judge, held the following: "Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest, therapeutically active substances known to man." Although he ordered the DEA to reschedule the drug, the agency refused, and NORML lost a subsequent lawsuit to force the DEA to abide by Young's decision.