Governor Shafer Evolved on Cannabis, PA Has Not
It was in late January that the Pennsylvania Drug, Devise and Cosmetic Board held a meeting with 16 college administrators, students and state officials about the subject of illegal drugs. The college officials had been invited to testify by Doctor Thomas W. Georges Jr., the chairman of the board who also served as the secretary of health and welfare.
A curious incident had prompted the meeting. There had been a report that later turned out to be a complete lie. A story had been circulating that six students from a western Pennsylvania college had taken LSD and proceeded to stare into the sun for so long that they went blind.
State Senator Benjamin Donolow of Philadelphia released a statement charging that the Shafer administration was covering up the incident and hiding information. He had also heard of a story of five students at a Delaware Valley college who had taken a “dangerous drug” in their dormitory and had to be taken to the hospital. He claimed that because the students all came from prominent families the incident had been hushed up.
The subject of drugs was becoming prominent although it certainly was nothing new in Pennsylvania. The reefer madness campaign began in earnest in the state by 1932. In fact, propaganda against cannabis, hashish and “marihuana” had been circulating in the state since the late 1800’s.
“Marihuana” was made illegal in Pennsylvania four years before it was banned on a national level in 1937. Legislation to ban cannabis was introduced by a freshman legislator from Berks County named Chester A. Mohn in March of 1933. It passed on May 22 and went into effect on September 1st of 1933. One week later the first two arrests occurred in Harrisburg followed immediately by arrests in Philadelphia. Soon the big crack down came and by 1938 Pennsylvania and the entire nation had declared “War on Marihuana”.
Representative Mohn was hated at home. His conservative agenda was at odds with the progressives of Berks County and was defeated handily in his bid for re-election in 1934, serving just one two year term. The damage was done however and we are still living with it.
Also of note, it was a Pennsylvania native who rose up from Altoona who led the national campaign against cannabis. That man is known to all cannabis activists. His name of course, is Harry J. Anslinger.
Pennsylvania was not the first state to make cannabis illegal. We waited until over 30 other states made it illegal first. While they were all in a hysteria over “marihuana” out in California and Texas and the border states we still had massive fields of highly potent cannabis being grown for medicine as well as fields of hemp in all parts of the state. We adopted the reefer madness mentality much later than most but when it hit it really took hold here and tightly gripped the mindset of the state.
By 1968 though, because of the cultural revolution of the 60’s there were many signs of dissent starting to show. A minority of voices were starting to openly question the wisdom of throwing people in jail for a relatively harmless plant that had always been with us.
It was at the meeting in Harrisburg that Professor Donald K. Cheek made his opposition to the state’s harsh laws known to the public. He said that cannabis was no more harmful than alcohol and the very fact that it was illegal made it attractive to young people. Cheek was quoted as saying “No doubt, there should be some government control over marijuana, just as there is with alcoholic beverages, but marijuana is not an addictive drug and should not be classified as such”.
Professor Cheek was the vice president of Lincoln College, a historically black university founded in 1854 near the town of Oxford in Chester County. In the first 100 years of its founding Lincoln College produced 20% of all black physicians and 10% of all black lawyers in the country. Cheek was well aware of institutional racism and no doubt his observations of the inherent unfairness in the way the war unfairly targeted minorities informed his opinion on the subject.
Word was spread in newspapers throughout the state and even reached the highest levels. Immediately after the reports circulated in the media Governor Raymond Shafer was asked to comment. Shafer, known as a “law and order” Republican said that he was unequivocally opposed to the legalization of marijuana in Pennsylvania.
On the monthly television panel show called Conversations with The Governor, Shafer said that Professor Cheek’s assertion that cannabis was not a dangerous drug and no worse than alcohol was “an old cliché, make it legal and then no one will use it”. He was quoted further as saying, “This is ridiculous. Should we make stealing legal and then no one will steal? I think we should prevent young people from using these drugs and educate them… to the dangers of it. Any illegal use will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”.
It is almost shocking to hear Governor Shafer’s remarks. He said all use would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. In 1968 do you know what the “fullest extent of the law” was? Possession of ANY amount of cannabis carried a maximum fine of $2,000 and five years of solitary confinement. That was how brutal the system treated people who preferred an herb over alcohol!
Governor Shafer served another three years, until January 19 of 1971. He left the state with the same punitive policies that were in place when he became governor. However, within that time period the nation was changing. In 1969 Pennsylvania youths flocked to Woodstock for the most famous festival of the generation. Cannabis use became a fact of life in every little town and hamlet in the state and across the nation.
Another thing happened in 1969. Psychedelic guru Timothy Leary had challenged the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court and the law was declared unconstitutional! This created a bit of chaos. What to do? In 1970 the Controlled Substance Act was passed and cannabis was placed in Schedule 1, along with LSD and heroin. It was meant to be a temporary classification while the drug was studied further in order to determine its proper classification.
President Nixon was a hawk on “marijuana” and declared drugs as public enemy number one. He created a committee to study cannabis and to make recommendations. Nixon had heard of Governor Shafer and was thoroughly impressed with the man. He admired his law and order mentality and thought that Shafer would be the man he could count on to produce the results that he wanted.
Nixon was mistaken. Shafer, for all his law and order and conservative credentials was a practical and common sense man. He and his team poured through tons of data and studied the situation from all angles. A 1971 article in the Hanover Sun said “The 54 year old former Pennsylvania governor has gone from the marijuana fields of Afghanistan to the urban ghettoes of the east coast; from morphine parlors in Singapore to drug houses in Holland”.
When the commission came back with its findings Nixon was shocked. The Shafer commission recommended that cannabis be taken off the schedule and decriminalized and even possibly legalized.
The Shafer commission made headlines all across the nation and Shafer was in high demand as a speaker. He took his message to Pennsylvania and New York and wherever people would hear him. He talked to police organizations and others, making the case for decriminalization at every stop.
In 1972 Shafer told a group at Chautauqua Institute in New York that it was time for those concerned about drug abuse to “redefine the goals and refine the issues”. He said, “We need a sense of balance. It will not be solved by misinformation, not banished by appeals to the flag”.
It was in 1972 that the state legislature lowered the penalty for possession of cannabis from $2,000 fine and five years in prison to a max fine of $500 and 30 days in jail, basically what we still have in effect to this day.
In 1973, speaking to a conference of the Pennsylvania Law and Justice Institute in Mount Pocono, Pa., Shafer said that the commission was having an effect in the country and predicted that it would have long term effects on the way the nation views the use of drugs.
In 1974 Shafer spoke to over 400 law enforcement officers at Gannon College in Erie, Pennsylvania for the fifth annual crime symposium. He said “Victims and villains should not be lumped under the same statutes… People should not be punished for mere possession”.
Although the penalty for the possession of cannabis was lessened from a felony to misdemeanor in 1972, Pennsylvania has not evolved much in the last 44 years. Decriminalization was hotly debated in the general assembly of Pa. for the entirety of the 1970’s and almost succeeded. By the end of the decade the tide had turned backwards and all hope for decriminalization vanished for the next forty years.
In 2014 Philadelphia passed a cannabis decriminalization ordinance making possession of up to an ounce a summary offense and a mere $25 fine. It was followed this year by Pittsburgh passing a similar ordinance. The conversation is finally beginning throughout the rest of the state. Harrisburg City Council may vote on decriminalization as early as May 24.
Governor Shafer died in 2009. He never got to see the recommendations that his commission made put into effect. Professor Cheek is still alive. He has had a long career and is currently a part time lecturer for the Africana Studies program at Fresno State University in California. He has authored numerous books and articles. Soon, he will see cannabis legalized in the state he resides in, nearly fifty years after he first recommended it in 1968.