The Truth Has Been Out There: How the LaGuardia and Shafer Reports Painted Cannabis

We have endured the bureaucratic rulings against cannabis for far too long. Although committees were formed to investigate whether cannabis really was a scourge on the planet, the research, science, and resultant advice that resulted from these evaluations has been ignored or obscured by a barrage of countering propaganda. These investigations are nothing new, but in fact, go back nearly 80 years to the LaGuardia Committee Report, The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York, of 1944, as well as the Shafer Commission Report commissioned by Richard Nixon in 1972.


The LaGuardia Report

In 1944, the mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia formed a committee to evaluate the status of cannabis use in New York. Says LaGuardia: “it is my duty to foresee and take steps to prevent the development of hazards to the health, safety, and welfare of our citizens. When rumors were recently circulated concerning the smoking of marihuana by large segments of our population and even by school children, I sought advice from The New York Academy of Medicine, as is my custom when confronted with problems of medical import.”

LaGuardia first became interested in cannabis when he heard reports of its use in Panama by US soldiers, saying “I was impressed… with the report of an Army Board of Inquiry which emphasized the relative harmlessness of the drug and the fact that it played a very little role, if any, in problems of delinquency and crime in the Canal Zone.” Hardly not the drug that causes men to become beasts!

The report contained studies bisected into sociological and clinical examinations. The sociological studies included the extent of cannabis smoking and how people obtained the products; where they were getting it and a breakdown of cannabis utilizer demographics; if there were specific “social conditions” that factored in when the products were consumed; and if there was any correlation between cannabis use and “criminal or antisocial acts.”

The clinical studies sought to determine any physiological and psychological effects of cannabis; how those effects may vary across different people; whether it causes physical or mental deterioration; and potential “therapeutic effects in the treatment of disease or of other drug addictions.”

So, 78 years ago, before there ever was an opioid epidemic, clinicians wanted to evaluate whether cannabis might curb deleterious habits. Dr. Walter Bromberg, Psychiatrist-in-Charge, Psychiatric Clinic, Court of General Sessions in New York, pointed out that when someone was incarcerated for cannabis, they never requested cannabis to help them ween off of the substance, indicating a lack of withdrawal symptoms unlike morphine and heroin. Doctor Bromberg had interviewed “several hundred” cannabis utilizers and concluded that “true addiction was absent.”

Of course, this was a different product back then, and in retrospect, some might say “Sure, but what about these contemporary higher potency products?” Perhaps that’s valid, but that’s a moot point here, because the same product that clinicians like Dr. Bromberg pointed to as non-addictive were implicated as causing feverish dependence. “Women cry for it, men die for it,” the Reefer Madness movie advertised.

Interestingly, the LaGuardia report chronicles a trial at Riker’s Island Penitentiary that explored using tetrahydrocannabinol for alleviating the symptoms of morphine and heroin withdrawal. “[T]hose who received tetrahydrocannabinol had less severe withdrawal symptoms and left the hospital at the end of the treatment period in better condition than those who received no treatment or who were treated with Magendie’s solution”, a morphine sulfate solution.

The clinicians involved in the report evaluated other aspects of cannabis’s medicinal merit, pointing to two main qualities of interest. “The first is the typical euphoria-producing action which might be applicable in the treatment of various types of mental depression- the second is the rather unique property which results in the stimulation of appetite.”

That’s not a typo. Doctors back then thought cannabis might alleviate the symptoms of depression. Just imagine if this line of research had been permitted to continue. Where might we be as a society? Would we be happier? Would there have been some butterfly effect, the ripples of which may have changed our evolutionary course for the better, all the faster?

Interviews with law enforcement officers at the federal, state, and local levels highlighted their belief that “there is no proof that major crimes are associated with the practice of smoking marihuana.” These reports were apparently snubbed.

Ultimately, LaGuardia reported that he was happy that the “sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated insofar as the City of New York is concerned.” Despite this, LaGuardia indicated that he still intended to enforce the laws prohibiting cannabis.


The Shafer Report

Fast forward 26 years. In 1970, President Richard Nixon and the United States Congress created the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Cannabis was put into Schedule I, however, a committee was formed to “aid in determining the appropriate disposition of this question in the future.”

Nixon appointed Gov. Raymond P. Shafer of Pennsylvania to head the commission, and many congresspeople felt that cannabis would ultimately be rescheduled based on the findings of the commission. The commission conducted an investigation very similar to that of the LaGuardia Commission, seeking to evaluate the social impact of cannabis,

The committee consulted and got contributions from university professors including psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists, medical doctors, attorneys, research groups, governmental professionals such as the commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and also representatives of pharmaceutical companies such as SmithKline and Eli Lilly.

Nixon, however, had a different agenda, and wanted the report to blur the line between cannabis and hard drugs. His preconceived bias regarding cannabis was quite clear when he said “I want a goddamn strong statement about marijuana… I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them.”

So, he wasn’t after the truth, but rather wanted the committee to validate his personal vendetta against cannabis. He told Shafer “I think there’s a need to come out with a report that is totally oblivious to some obvious differences between marijuana and other drugs, other dangerous drugs.” He cautioned Shafer from coming out with a report that countered how Congress already felt regarding the cannabis question. But given that many thought cannabis would be rescheduled after the report came out, it certainly points to a divided Congress regarding cannabis.

Ultimately, the Shafer Commission suggested a policy akin to decriminalization that would not bring charges against those possessing small amounts of the plant or if distributing small amounts in a not-for-profit fashion.

The report’s conclusions included:

  • “No significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to their marihuana smoking.”
  • “Young people who choose to experiment with marihuana are fundamentally the same people, socially and psychologically, as those who use alcohol and tobacco.”
  • “No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use.”
  • “Most users, young and old, demonstrate an average or above-average degree of social functioning, academic achievement, and job performance.”
  • “[M]arihuana does not cause violent or aggressive behavior; if anything, marihuana serves to inhibit the expression of such behavior.”
  • “Marihuana is not generally viewed by participants in the criminal justice community as a major contributing influence in the commission of delinquent or criminal acts.”
  • “Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety.”
  • “Research has not yet proven that marihuana use significantly impairs driving ability or performance.”
  • “No reliable evidence exists indicating that marihuana causes genetic defects in man.”
  • “Marihuana’s relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.”

As you already sadly know, these findings were ignored, and at the silver anniversary of this commission’s investigation, cannabis is still Schedule I.


About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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