03.09.12

Pat Robertson Is Latest Supporter as Drive to Legalize Marijuana Heats Up

The weed lobby is rejoicing as evangelist Pat Robertson becomes the latest big gun to call for legalizing cannabis. But we’ve been here before. Why the marijuana reform movement failed in its greatest push—and may fail again.

Of all the quotable moments in the life of evangelist Pat Robertson—Haiti is in a “pact with the devil;” gays “bring about terrorist bombs;” feminists “practice witchcraft”—few have set off a firestorm quite like his stance on marijuana. “I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” he told The New York Times this week, in a wide-ranging interview that also seemed to portray Jesus as history’s most happening dealer-man. (He “made water into wine,” Robertson explained, “I don’t think he was a teetotaler.”)

Naturally, the weed lobby rejoiced at the remarks—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they continued to rejoice, because in recent months reform has taken on the aura of near-inevitability. An unprecedented one in two Americans supports legalization, according to a Gallup Poll in October. Colorado and Washington State will vote on legalization this November. And there is consolidating international support, beginning with last summer’s Global Commission on Drug Policy, led by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, which called the current drug laws a failure. In recent weeks alone, the presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, and Mexico—marijuana producers all—have said legalization deserves to be considered. “The issue is popping up in ways that haven’t been seen in decades—if ever,” declared Tony Newman of the pro-reform Drug Policy Alliance.

Well, sort of. As loud as reform talk may seem today, it’s a whisper compared with the 1970s, when support for decriminalization (if not outright legalization) rose as high as President Jimmy Carter and his drug czar, and spread across a political and social spectrum that encompassed the editorial boards of both The New York Times and The National Review—as well as President Nixon’s National Commission on Marijuana, the American Bar Association, and bong shops nationwide. We know how the story ends: the rise of Reagan, the war on drugs, billions spent, millions jailed, no end to illegal drug use. But in the swing from the edge of decriminalization into a three-decade Ice Age, there is at least one lesson for today’s reformers: the door to reform is never so near as when it is slammed in your face.

Serious calls for the mainstreaming of pot go back at least as far as 1967, when Life Magazine—the periodical of Norman Rockwell paintings and presidential memoirs—endorsed decriminalization. Pot is “a mild euphoric drug” the magazine wrote in its Fourth of July Issue. It is “not physically addictive, nor need it lead to crime, immorality or stronger drugs.” Life repeated these points in a 12-page cover story two years later. And in that package, the outgoing head of the Food and Drug Administration argued that America’s marijuana laws are “unenforceable, excessively severe, scientifically incorrect, and revealing of our ignorance of human behavior.”

For the next decade—even as Nixon declared war on drugs—the reform movement continued to win. America suddenly had more pot smokers in the country than there had been Truman voters a generation earlier. And when Nixon resigned in scandal, bongs lined mantels like championship trophies. A dozen states made possessing weed, as everyone liked to say, “the equivalent of a parking violation.” Echoing Nixon’s own marijuana commission, the Alaska Supreme Court flatly declared that weed “does not constitute a public health problem of any significant dimension.” And New York State debated a Marijuana Control Board, so liquor stores could sell dope.

Jimmy Carter took the movement even higher, into the Oval Office. He campaigned in favor of dropping all federal criminal penalties against pot for personal use. Then, in an address to Congress on August 2, 1977, he defended his position, saying that “penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.” By 1978 the drug war was over. “Drugs cannot be forced out of existence,” read the White House’s mid-term drug control policy. “They will be with us as long as people find in them the relief or satisfaction they desire.”

Clear-eyed and honest, this position was also utterly doomed. Carter dry-swallowed the policy six months later, and, in preparation for the 1980 election, his administration announced a new “war on marijuana.” It’s hard to blame him. Before presidential candidate Ronald Reagan branded marijuana, “probably the most dangerous drug in America,” he took aim at everything the reform movement had accomplished in the previous decade. “Everyone who had the urge to light up,” he said on his weekly radio commentary on August 1979, can recite a positive report on marijuana, “exhaling smoke on every line.” “Strange to say however, or maybe not so strange,” he continued, “that those who have no axe to grind except to report the scientific facts they have uncovered say that marijuana has a far greater potential for harm than previously believed.”

And so marijuana assumed a new position as the explanation for everything that worries the average American. Why is your teenager refusing to cut the lawn? Marijuana after school. Why is your industry falling behind Japan’s? Marijuana at work. Why do you have to lock your door at night? Hard drugs—which start with marijuana in the community. When he declared the second war on drugs, in June 1982, Reagan promised “to brand drugs such as marijuana exactly for what they are—dangerous, and particularly for school-aged kids.”

Obama knows what Jimmy Carter apparently did not: that when the reform movement gains steam, so does its opposition.

Three decades later, the White House position is essentially unchanged. “Marijuana potency has tripled in the past 20 years and teens are using the drug at earlier ages,” the Office of National Drug Control Policy said in a statement last year. “The earlier a person begins to use drugs, the more likely they are to progress to more serious abuse and addiction—reflecting the harmful, long-lasting effects drugs can have on the developing brain.” So decriminalization, let alone legalization, “remains a nonstarter in the Obama administration because research shows that marijuana use is associated with voluntary treatment admissions, fatal drugged driving accidents and emergency room admissions.” As a policy document, it might as well have been taken from a drawer marked 1983.

So it was no surprise when President Obama ducked marijuana questions at his Google Plus hangout in January, just as he has during previous online forums. He knows what Jimmy Carter apparently did not: that when the reform movement gains steam, so does its opposition.

Pat Robertson said, “I just want to be on the right side of the issue.” He may be. But he will most likely have to wait a while for others to join him.