Drugs and the “Law and Order” Presidency

Elected to the presidency in 1968 on a promise to restore “law and order” to a nation jolted by riots, protests, and assassinations, Richard Nixon aggressively recruited journalists and media executives to participate in what he declared would be a War Against Drug Abuse.

The public relations push included attempts to strong-arm radio broadcasters to cease playing drug-themed music and recruiting television personality Art Linkletter and (oddly) the pill-popping Elvis Presley as anti-drug spokesmen. (Presley never actually did any work on behalf of the anti-drug campaign but did request that Nixon give him a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The photo of their meeting has become the most requested item from the National Archives.)

At a White House event for television executives in 1970, Nixon obtained pledges that anti-drug themes would be inserted in twenty prime-time shows, ranging from “Hawaii Five-O” to “Marcus Welby M.D.” (Prior to this time, television programing, like studio films, avoided drug themes.) By applying pressure to television stations and sponsors, the Nixon administration collected $37 million worth of commercial airtime for anti-drug messages by 1971.

Changes in federal drug policy during the Nixon administration loosened penalties for some kinds of drug violations, while expanding the powers of law enforcement (including the creation of no-knock and late-night search warrants) and reshaping the federal anti-drug agencies to be more directly responsive to White House control.

In 1970, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which placed marijuana in the most restrictive category of drugs having no permissible use in medical practice. The scheduling of marijuana was suggested by an Assistant Secretary of Health pending the report from a Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, headed by a former governor of Pennsylvania Raymond Shafer with members appointed by the president, speaker of the House, and the president pro tem of the Senate.

The report, which was released in its final form in 1973, called for an end to criminal penalties for marijuana possession and also an end to the government’s anti-drug education efforts, which the report decried as wasted money. White House tapes recorded Nixon pressuring Shafer to reject the committee’s findings, and the president refused to receive the report in public.

Nixon’s director of the Narcotics Treatment Administration recalled to Frontline documentarians that when he joined the administration the president told him, “You’re the drug expert, not me, on every issue but one, and that’s decriminalization of marijuana. If you make any hint of supporting decriminalization, you are history. Everything else, you figure it out. But that one, I’m telling you, that’s the deal.”

There was a tautological aspect to Nixon’s opposition to marijuana. The president, whose preferences ran toward mixed drinks, detested marijuana precisely because the drug was illegal, and to smoke pot was to embrace the lawlessness that he saw as sweeping the country.

“Believe me, it is true, the thing about the drug [marijuana], once people cross that line from [unintelligible] straight society to the drug society, it’s a very great possibility they are going to go further,” Nixon told Linkletter in a private conversation preserved by the White House’s secret taping system. “You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general. These are the enemies of a strong society. That’s why the communists and left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they are trying to destroy us.”

As the particular fears that motivated anti-marijuana legislation dissipated, attitudes toward marijuana prohibition became a litmus test for attitudes about the relationship between law and personal judgment. The laws gave the drug an extra attraction for youth experimenting with rebellion, but within the logic of “law and order,” disrespect for the law seemed to be the root of many problems. The anti-war protesters, Nixon believed, were “all on drugs.”

An Easing of Attitudes in the 1970s

Despite Nixon’s unyielding anti-marijuana stance, during the early and middle 1970s, there was a growing consensus that criminal punishments for pot were contrary to the public interest; and medical and legal authorities were disputing the logic of harsh anti-marijuana laws.

The National Parent Teacher Association Congress, American Medical Association, American Bar, American Public Health Association, National Education Association, and the National Council of Churches all passed resolutions endorsing decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. The Committee for Economic Development and the Consumers Union agreed.

The New York Times, Washington Post, and the conservative National Review all editorialized in favor of decriminalization. The film Reefer Madness—which had been made to scare the nation about the dangers of marijuana—was now being released by pro-marijuana campaigners as a comedy on the midnight movie circuit.

By 1977, the use of the drug seemed so commonplace and the fears so archaic that President Jimmy Carter called for the decriminalization of marijuana. As Carter pointed out in a message to Congress in 1977, anti-marijuana laws cause more harm to marijuana users than the drug itself.

Drugs and the Media in the Age of “Just Say No”

Still, not everyone had grown comfortable with drugs’ increasing prevalence and the loosening of attitudes about them.

In 1976, Marsha “Keith” Schuchard and her husband, Ronald, were appalled when confronted with evidence that their 13-year-old daughter was smoking pot. With a neighbor in their suburban Atlanta neighborhood, Sue Rusche, Schuchard formed Families in Action, a parents’ group that promoted anti-drug education and zero-tolerance policies.

Within a few years, they had formed organizations that offered support to thousands of similar groups around the country. Under commission from the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse, Schuchard wrote a handbook for parent organizations, Parents, Peers, and Pot. More than a million copies were distributed and more than 4,000 parents’ groups formed by 1983.

Schuchard stated in the book that her goal was to protect psychologically vulnerable children from a popular culture that pushed them toward drugs, not to advocate prohibition for adults. However, the fine distinction was lost by politicians who built on the movement’s support.

Ronald Reagan had opposed decriminalization of marijuana as governor of California and, as president, showed no sympathy for drug use or users.

Prompted largely by fear over crack cocaine, Congress passed three major pieces of anti-drug legislation during the 1980s, each more punitive than the last. In 1986, Reagan called for the implementation of drug testing to ensure that schools and workplaces remained “drug-free.”

As in the past, the generalized fear of “drugs” distinguished only between teetotalers and criminals. Drugs were drugs, albeit federal sentencing guidelines made some drugs much worse.

During the Reagan administration, the White House spearheaded an extensive anti-drug media campaign that was soon joined by nonprofit and independent groups. Soon after the election of her husband, First Lady Nancy Reagan took on the mission of spreading an anti-drug message, unveiling her “Just Say No” slogan at an elementary school in 1982.

In the years that followed, Nancy Reagan recited the slogan at rallies and public appearances across the country, in public service announcements designed by the Ad Council, in thousands of billboards, and on dozens of talk shows.

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, which brought police into schools to lecture against drugs, was also founded during this period, as were clubs in many schools that enticed pupils to sign anti-drug pledges.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, founded by a group of advertising executives in 1985, introduced its “This is your brain on drugs” public service advertisements a few years later.

Highlights in the media barrage must also include the White House-sponsored “Stop the Madness” music video starring, among many others, New Edition, LaToya Jackson, and Whitney Houston, with a brief appearance by Nancy Reagan.

Government surveys showed that drug use declined during the 1980s, but ending “the scourge of drugs” was still a successful campaign issue for George H. W. Bush when he pursued the presidency in 1988.

Concern over drug use appeared to peak in September the following year, when 64 percent of respondents in a New York Times/CBS News poll identified drugs as the single most pressing issue facing the nation, not long after Bush gave an Oval Office speech on the subject.

The media campaign against drugs persisted well into the 1990s, in every medium imaginable, from television to t-shirts to milk cartons, as a cause ostensibly absent of political overtones.

Evidence is mixed on whether anti-drug media campaigns served their purpose of reducing drug use. A study of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign from 1998 to 2004 found that the $1.2 billion federal initiative was not effective in reducing drug use, and may even had the reverse effect on some youth, by sparking teens’ curiosity.

The DARE program was curtailed in many parts of the country after a number of studies found no evidence that it resulted in decreased drug use among children.

These programs certainly seem to have been effective in raising the profile of the drug issue and maintaining public concern. Even for a president such as Bill Clinton, who admitted smoking (but not inhaling) marijuana, continuing to warn the public against the threat while pledging an undying effort to fight it must have seemed better politics than suggesting a compromise.

In 1998 and 1999, Clinton’s drug czar, Barry McCaffery, paid out $25 million to five major television networks for writing anti-drug messages into specific prime-time shows, with the White House reviewing and signing off on scripts in advance.

The Road to Legalization?

Over the past few decades, it was possible to joke about weed in the media—there were of course still Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, and Cheech and Chong—but decades of intense anti-drug propaganda have made it awfully hard for anyone to credibly support something called “drugs.”

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, there have been persistent links between political decisions about drug policy and efforts to influence public opinion.

Following the anti-drug campaigns of recent years, it is fascinating to note that today’s liberalization efforts have largely succeeded not by trying to shift attitudes about drugs, but by redefining marijuana as medicine and by focusing on the economic and social costs of the incarceration that has resulted from drug laws.

About 800,000 Americans are arrested annually for marijuana offenses, mostly simple possession. Few wind up in prison as a result of a first offense, but this encounter with the criminal justice system can have serious consequences, including the loss of eligibility for federal student financial aid and subsidized housing.

And the “three-strikes laws,” which 22 states and the federal government passed between 1993 and 1995 and which mandated stiff prison sentences for a person convicted of a third felony, ensure that marijuana offenses can lead to dire results.

Although black Americans smoke pot at a nearly identical rate as whites, they are nearly four times more likely to be arrested because of it.

“It’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished,” President Barak Obama said in a January interview with the New Yorker.

And all taxpayers contribute to the billions of dollars a year required to enforce anti-marijuana laws and punish the offenders. Pot often inspires giggles, but marijuana prohibition has serious implications.

To the extent that these arguments to end the illegalization of marijuana have been persuasive it has largely been the result of voter initiatives, rather than the efforts of politicians.

Further liberalization seems likely. According to Gallup, 58 percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana. This has been the first time the firm has recorded a pro-legalization majority since it began asking the question in 1969.

It seems unlikely that “doing drugs” will become acceptable any time soon. But smoking a joint? Maybe.

Depending in which state you pose the question, it might be just fine already.

Stephen Siff received his Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication from Ohio University in 2008. He is an assistant professor at Miami University of Ohio in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film. He is the author ofAcid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience, forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.  

Read Origins for more on American current events and history: NSA and Surveillance, “Class Warfare” in American Politics, Detroit and America’s Urban Woes, Mass Unemployment, Populism and American Politics, Immigration Policy, American Political Redistricting, and the anniversary of Prohibition.

For more on the global trade in drugs, read The Shifting Terrain of Latin American Drug Trafficking.