U.S. Federal decriminalisation of marijuana in the 1970s : policy window or pipedream?
Thesis DisciplinePolitical Science
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
The history of US marijuana policy is predominantly that of prohibition and strict enforcement. There was however a period under Presidents Ford and Carter where this policy came under a great deal of scrutiny and criticism. Two influential reports in the Marijuana Commission(Commission and others, 1972), and the White Paper on Drug Abuse(Force, 1975) came out in favour of decriminalization, a number of states decriminalized, and the American Bar Association and The National council of churches also supported decriminalization of Marijuana. The country was tired of a war on drugs and as Ford tried to distance himself from Nixon’s trademark policies, those advocating strictly enforced prohibitionist policy found themselves, for the first time since marijuana was made illegal, with adversaries that could wield real political power. While a number of factors converged to bring the decriminalization of marijuana to the government’s agenda, having a sitting President in Jimmy Carter and Drug Czar in Peter Bourne publicly and actively endorsing such a policy was, and still is, unprecedented. This coincided with the pro legalization group NORML being led by a particularly savvy entrepreneur in Keith Stroup, while those on the side of prohibition were struggling to find a unifying voice as the Customs and the newly formed DEA fought bitterly. As marijuana consumption had moved from the fringes of immigrants groups into mainstream white American culture, societal attitudes toward the drug were also changing. Policy makers were coming to terms with their own children’s experimentation with the drug and the narrative of marijuana as a killer drug was loosing credibility with the general population. In order to better understand the forces that pushed federal decriminalization of marijuana to the governments agenda, the agenda setting theory of policy windows is applied. This theory contends that, in order for legislative change to occur, an issue must gain prominence as a problem over and above other competing issues. The policy community must have the technicalities of a solution for this problem worked out, and the solution must be politically viable. As a theory, policy windows is criticized for not taking into account the historical trajectory of an issue. In order to allow for this, the first section looks at the history of marijuana prohibition and its architect Harry J. Anslinger, as well as the rise of the counter culture and the impact of the huge increase in drug use during the 1960s and early 70s. The bulk of the writing centers around the application of policy windows to marijuana law under the Ford and Carter administrations and the final section compares and contrasts the forces that pushed but ultimately prevented federal marijuana law reform under Carter with the forces that are at play today. During Jimmy Carters presidency it would seem that while forces in the policy and problem streams were strong enough to allow for federal decriminalization of marijuana, the political realities and level of conviction of those that opposed it, both within government and in the general population, were far more powerful than those proposing decriminalization had anticipated. In the current climate however, those advocating the liberalization of drug policies can point to the racial inequalities that are exacerbated by the drug war, as well as the destabilization of supplier countries such as Mexico in order to bolster the moral force of their argument. This in conjunction with the data from aboard and domestically that decriminalisation of marijuana is a policy that can work in the long term, and the economic benefit of legalizing states, mean that the current political climate is probably more susceptible to legislative change than was the case under the Carter administration.