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Then and now: Who supports pot legalization? It might surprise you

It bears an aura of inevitability, the state-by-state fall of marijuana prohibition, starting with January’s debut of commercial sales in Colorado and Washington state.

Even as the legalization trend has spread, however, gathering momentum in at least 11 other states and setting up a prolonged clash with federal law, the issue has drowsed in the shadows of establishment conversation. It’s been officially ignored by major editorial boards, legal and medical societies, blue-chip companies and religious groups.

But the last time the reform movement was putting this much pressure on Congress — back in the 1970s — many of the staid institutions that are remaining silent now, noisily sallied forth and grooved to the issue of legal or near-legal weed.

The National Review, Washington Post and New York Times each urged “decriminalization,” an interim step involving the removal of all criminal penalties for the holding, using or passing of small quantities of marijuana.

Ann Landers, Dan Quayle and the corporate warriors of the Committee for Economic Development threw down for the same.

Ditto the doctors, lawyers and PhDs of the American Medical Association, American Bar and American Public Health Association.

Even teachers, rabbis and priests stood for looser marijuana laws in the 70s, bringing along the National Education Association, the Reform Rabbinate of America and the nation’s largest ecumenical organization, the National Council of Churches — all of which endorsed decriminalization.

The Consumers Union and the editors of Consumer Reports went furthest, calling for full legalization, the creation of a regulatory model (a la Colorado and Washington), and the immediate release of everyone in prison for marijuana possession. Such charges, they added, should be expunged from people's records.

“It is much too late to debate the issue,” argued the great defender of American wallets. “Marijuana is here to stay.” 

This was after the pot-friendly findings of a Nixon commission on marijuana in 1972, and President Carter’s midterm attempt to roll back criminal penalties. But marijuana’s status remains unchanged under federal law.

Even as parts of America have launched the most liberal pot laws in the world, Congress and the White House have done nothing to revise the Controlled Substances Act or similarly phrased international treaties, and pot arrests continue at a pace of about one a minute in America.

But now, on the eve of the nation's first free-market experiment in marijuana, NBC contacted some of pot’s most important old friends, inviting them to repeal, revise or reaffirm their last public statements on the drug.

Here’s where they were then — and where they are today.

THE CONSUMERS UNION

In 1972 the Consumers Union and the editors of Consumer Reports — two of the most trusted bodies in America — called for the immediate repeal of all federal and state laws against marijuana. It was immediate front-page news and Little, Brown published the 632-page report as a book, “Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Although it also called for bans on cigarette and alcohol advertising, its marijuana recommendations dominated the coverage for days, raising what are by now familiar points about the costs and benefits of legalization.

The authors declined to call marijuana safe or harmless, but they felt a system of legal distribution like alcohol (sound familiar?) would take marijuana out of the black market and away from other hard drugs, protecting an estimated 24 million users in the process. It would “end the criminalization and alienation of young people,” they added, in a line that could be used verbatim in state campaigns today.

The authors got specific, too, urging laws to regulate the “cultivation, processing and orderly marketing of marijuana” and the creation of a national commission to track state progress and build “the best features” into a national plan.

None of that came to pass, of course, but today’s Consumers Union stands by the recommendation, albeit passively. “It's not a core issue for the organization,” deputy director David Butler tells NBC. It is, however, a position that still stands.

THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION

The ABA, standard-bearer for the legal industry, took years to warm to marijuana. In 1972 its House of Delegates approved a vague resolution urging Congress and the states to relax “excessive laws” against marijuana.

In 1973, however, the organization went further. The San Francisco chapter concluded that “criminalization has failed” and helped lobby the national House of Delegates to agree.

At the organization’s annual meeting in Washington decriminalization was endorsed by a landslide, 122 to 70, prompting TIME magazine to wonder, “Can the rest of the nation be far behind?”

In 1977, the ABA went further still, caving to delegates who believed the ABA was still being “wishy-washy” on pot, encouraging more jail time for smokers in the process. In a joint press conference with the American Medical Association, the ABA released a statement, arguing “the time has come to liberal laws regarding the possession of marijuana for personal use.”

That statement survived the Reagan-era, but in a sign of shifting winds, it was rescinded midway through the first Bush presidency — a removal sponsored by the ABA's law student division, no less, which was trying to make the war on drugs a priority.

Today the ABA’s stance on marijuana legalization is defined by its absence. “We do not have a position,” says ABA spokesperson Rob Boisseau. In 1984, however, ABA endorsed the legalization of medical marijuana, according to Boisseau, and that remains in effect.

THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION

It was President Jimmy Carter who pulled the AMA into the pot debates. “Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself,” Carter told Congress in 1977. “Therefore,” he continued, “I support legislation amending Federal law to eliminate all Federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.”

“We agree with President Carter,” the AMA announced that same year. “The possession of insignificant amounts [of marijuana] for personal use should not subject the user to criminal charges.”

Last week the 527-member policy arm of American medicine voted to repeal that position after 35 years. In its place, the AMA called for laws that “emphasize public health based strategies to address and reduce cannabis use.” It also reaffirmed its opposition to state-level legalization, deeming marijuana “a dangerous drug” and “a public health concern.”

THE REFORM RABBINATE OF AMERICA

In the summer of 1973, the Reform Rabbinate of America called on state and federal officials to redraw marijuana laws to match a recent presidential report on the marijuana problem. The conclusion: there was no problem. “Neither the marijuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety," concluded the report's authors, led by then-Gov. Raymond Shafer of Pennsylvania.

Today, the reform rabbinate tells NBC that it still supports that position. “Our resolutions stand until and unless they are modified or repealed,” says Rabbi Rick Block, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, governing body of the reform movement.

“I have no doubt that if the matter were to be reconsidered, the CCAR would reaffirm the position articulated in the 1973 resolution.”

THE NATIONAL COUNCIL OF CHURCHES

The National Council of Churches endorsed the findings of the same Nixon commission on marijuana. Its basic argument, according to a contemporary New York Times report, “is that marijuana is a victimless crime”; that “there is no medical evidence to suggest that significant harm is caused” by occasional use; and that “the overwhelming majority of marijuana users do not progress to dangerous drugs.”

Today, the NCC reaffirms their earlier position. “Certainly such decriminalization is implicit in the NCC's 1979 ‘Challenges to the Injustices of the Criminal Justice System,’ which remains in effect,” says Philip Jenks, president of the NCC.

Notably, none of the organizations which spoke in favor of more relaxed marijuana laws in the 1970s appears ready to support full legalization. The National Education Association actually went the other direction, back in 1984, dropping a policy of decriminalization in favor of renewed support for criminal penalties for possession of marijuana.

Still, polls show that most Americans are bending toward legalization — and many believe that their institutions are likely to follow.

“They’re tip-toeing,” says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, and one of legalization’s most successful advocates. “They’re getting closer and closer.” 

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