Ex-pot user lights up at memory of Shafer

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State police are still looking for the vandals who desecrated the late Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer's grave in Meadville in November.

I can't help them, but I got an email from a man who's rooting for the investigators. He remembers Mr. Shafer as a straight-shooter who might have saved millions of Americans trouble (and the rest of us millions of dollars in prison costs) had we listened to him.

Forty years ago, Mr. Shafer headed a commission that concluded we should decriminalize marijuana and find other ways to discourage its use -- only to see President Richard Nixon put the kibosh on his fellow Republican's recommendation.

Marijuana isn't among my vices. I sampled it in college in the 1970s when joints were passed around like mints, but I never much liked smoking of any kind. So my drug of choice came in cans and kegs. Still, had you asked me then, I'd have thought we'd be long past the point of throwing stoners in jail. It seems way too stiff a penalty, even considering the Grateful Dead music.

Some states are experimenting with decriminalization, but the general law of the land could have been written by Joe Friday. Even if you dodge jail time, the rap might dog you for 40 years, as it has for my emailer.

A commercial pilot, he asked me to keep his name out of this.

"I don't need any attention from the authorities," he said. "As far as they're concerned, the drug wars are as hot as they were 40 years ago."

Back in the early 1970s our man was a callow 19-year-old at Penn State, living on the fourth floor "of one of these anthills" that was your typical dorm before college campuses reshaped themselves as resorts. He got home in the wee hours one morning to find another guy lying in an elevator with the doors opening and closing on his chest. He didn't know the inebriate, but he helped him to his room. The next day, the guy was over at my emailer's room trying to buy drugs.

He didn't sell him any, but -- at the time -- our man was growing a pot plant in a closet lined with tin foil. It was too scrawny even for a Charlie Brown Christmas, but it was plenty big enough for outsized trouble.

That elevator dozer must have been a narc. Our man was charged with possession and use, the first being a felony and the second a misdemeanor. He pled guilty to the latter and paid a $500 fine and $500 in court costs. That grand total would be nearly $5,700 in today's dollars.

A student court threw him out of Penn State, and his father didn't talk to him for five years. He couldn't even get a job as a deckhand on an ore carrier hauling iron down from Minnesota because he honestly answered on his application that he'd been convicted of a misdemeanor.

Still, he figures, "I got off easy. Other people did time." There might have been thousands of pot smokers at Penn State then, but "they just pick you out of the herd and slaughter you as an example to the rest."

Our man has stayed out of trouble since, as have most people who smoked pot in their youth, including two or three presidents. But the laws have remained harsh despite what the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Use, chaired by Mr. Shafer, concluded in 1972:

"Looking only at the effects on the individual, there is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of the natural preparation of cannabis. ... Criminal law is too harsh ... The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior ... "

That conclusion never got a fair hearing. The infamous White House tapes later revealed that months before the commission released its findings, Mr. Nixon told Mr. Shafer, "You're enough of a pro to know that for you to come out with something that would run counter to what the Congress feels and what the country feels, and what we're planning to do, would make your commission just look bad as hell."

Mr. Shafer -- a pastor's son, an Eagle Scout, a PT boat commander, a Purple Heart awardee and a former prosecutor -- offered the unpopular truth nonetheless.

"That's why I miss old Ray," our man said. "Ray told it like it was. Everybody says they want an honest politician, but when they get one they hang him out to dry."


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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