In the late ‘70s, decriminalization of marijuana seemed to be a natural next step in the liberalization of laws in the West.
On August 2, 1977, US President Jimmy Carter addressed the issue in Congress:
Marijuana continues to be an emotional and controversial issue. After four decades, efforts to discourage its use with stringent laws have still not been successful. More than 45 million Americans have tried marijuana and an estimated 11 million are regular users.
Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use. We can, and should, continue to discourage the use of marijuana, but this can be done without defining the smoker as a criminal. States which have already removed criminal penalties for marijuana use, like Oregon and California, have not noted any significant increase in marijuana smoking. The National Commission on
Marijuana and Drug Abuse concluded five years ago that marijuana use should be decriminalized, and I believe it is time to implement those basic recommendations.
Therefore, I support legislation amending Federal law to eliminate all Federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. This decriminalization is not legalization. It means only that the Federal penalty for possession would be reduced and a person would received a fine rather than a criminal penalty. Federal penalties for trafficking would remain in force and the states would remain free to adopt whatever laws they wish concerning the marijuana smoker.
I am especially concerned about the increasing levels of marijuana use, which may be particularly destructive to our youth. While there is certain evidence to date showing that the medical damage from marijuana use may be limited, we should be concerned that chronic intoxication with marijuana or any other drug may deplete productivity, causing people to lose interest in their social environment, their future, and other more constructive ways of filling their free time. In addition, driving while under the influence of marijuana can be very hazardous. I am, therefore, directing the Department of Transportation to expedite its study of the effects of marijuana use on the coordination and reflexes needed for safe driving.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, was quick to take advantage of the new atmosphere, presenting President Carter’s words in an advocacy campaign.
We all know what happened next. The United States experienced a conservative renaissance as Ronald Reagan ousted President Carter, and the Nixon-era “War On Drugs” reversed any gains the legalization lobby had made.
Interestingly, 30+ years later, some American states have embraced total legalization of marijuana. But President Carter, now a well-respected elder statesman, has changed his mind on the issue. In 2012, he stated ” I’m in favor of it. I think it’s OK.” In 2013, he modified his position to:
“I do not favor legalization. We must do everything we can to discourage marijuana use, as we do now with tobacco and excessive drinking. We have to prevent making marijuana smoking from becoming attractive to young people, which is, I’m sure, what the producers of marijuana … are going to try and do.”