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Let’s Get The Facts About Marijuana And Move On From There

Tuesday, 20 Apr 2010 | 12:02 AM ET


I was one of the early supporters of decriminalizing the personal use and possession of marijuana. When I was first elected to Congress in 1968 and took office in 1969, I promptly introduced legislation to have a commission formed to examine the subject of decriminalization. I read a column by Bill Buckley at the time which supported having such an analysis done. I called Buckley to ask if he would come to the Congressional hearings I had arranged to support the proposal. He agreed to come and he did.

Bill Buckley’s appearance created a sensation. Every member of the committee, those on the right and on the left, came over to him wanting a photograph of themselves with him. The highlight of his testimony was, “I once took a trip three miles outside the continental limits of the U.S. and I lit up and I didn’t blow up.”

With the support of other members of Congress of similar mind, we got the bill passed. A commission was appointed, which became known as the Shafer Commission, after its chairman, Raymond P. Shafer, governor of Pennsylvaniafrom 1967 to 1971.

In my testimony before the Congressional committee, I recall a Republican member from Tennessee asking, “Well, who are all these people who are smoking marijuana?” I recited the statistics which were something like 8 million smoked it regularly, meaning several times a week, and 35 million had smoked it sometime during their lives. I said, “You can’t put all of these people in jail. If you did, the cost would be $79 billion a year.” I don’t recall how I got that figure.

He replied, “Well, who are all these people?” I responded, “Based on the statistics available, 18 percent are Republicans.” That was the proportion of registered Republicans in the country at the time.

As a result of the Shafer Commission’s report to Congress in 1972, at least ten states—Alaska, California, Colorado, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Maine, Minnesota, Ohioand Oregon— decriminalized the personal possession and use of marijuana.

The Penal Law in New York provides that an individual who possesses a small amount of marijuana in public, as a first time offender, may be subject to a civil fine of $100. Those using it in the privacy of their home, would continue to be protected by the general requirement that a law enforcement official must secure a search warrant by applying to a court demonstrating that probable cause exists that a crime is being committed before entering the home.

Prosecution of sellers of marijuana or those possessing more than a small amount for personal use could receive a higher fine ranging from $200 to $5,000, and a jail sentence from five days to seven years incarceration, depending on what offense the person is found guilty of.

Sometime after I became Mayor of New York City in 1978, I visited Holland where a restricted form of legalization of marijuana was then the law and still is. Coffee shops in Holland were and continue to be permitted to sell marijuana. A major use was the making of marijuana cookies referred to, as I recall, as Alice B. Toklas cookies. She was the lover of the famed author, Gertrude Stein. One journal currently reports, “The regulations governing coffee shops are very rigorous. No alcohol or hard drugs may be sold or consumed there, and they are not allowed to advertise. Cannabis may only be sold to people who are aged 18 and over.”

My feelings concerning the use of marijuana as a recreational drug have gone back and forth over the years. I have read that marijuana is more harmful than cigarettes with respect to its effects upon the human body and brain. I don’t know if that is true. I do know that we have not been able to eradicate the use of hard drugs—cocaine, heroin, meth, etc.—and it would be ridiculous and a waste of public monies to pursue criminally those using marijuana for recreational purposes.

My current opinion is that we should follow the Dutch example and legalize its use under rigorous conditions. However, before doing that, we should reexamine the question with a new commission—so much has happened since the last commission reported on March 22, 1972. Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, has introduced legislation to create a commission to examine drug policy and problems in the criminal justice system. I would have the commission specifically address the issue of legalization of marijuana.

Let’s get the facts about marijuana and move on from there.

(Editor's note: On a purely technical basis, cannabis is an illegal substance in The Netherlands, but the government permits the limited sale and consumption of the drug in licensed coffee houses.)