The Hidden History of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970

gavel and legislation

In today’s society, when people hear the Controlled Substances Act, they immediately relate it to marijuana. Yes, it had significant effects on the use of marijuana and hemp in the United States, but the impact goes far beyond cannabis reform.

Drugs are not a new item in our world. Many of them come from the earth itself and live synergistically with nature. Even the addictive opiates, which originate from the opium plant, date as far back as the 7th century. It’s intriguing how many of the leading controlled substances in our nation have quite the history in the evolution of our society. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was not the beginning of drug enforcement in our country, but it indeed marked a drastic turning point in our nation’s war on drugs.

Table of Contents

The War on Drugs Before the Controlled Substances Act Of 1970

extreme close up of marijuana bud

Where did all the buzz behind drug use and reform begin? The United States is undoubtedly familiar with the manufacturing and distribution of drugs for both medical and recreational applications. Not only was hemp a major agricultural crop in the past, but it has quite the history of medicinal use in our society. Before our nation began to hone-in on drug regulation and criminalization, many of these controlled substances played a vital role in the economy.

Go ahead and find an old Sears and Roebuck catalog from the 1890s. Thanks to the Sears catalog, the public had direct access to purchase a syringe and a low dose of cocaine for as little as $1.50.

Around the same time, there was a congressional act to input taxes on both morphine and opium.

It was not until 1909 that the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act came into law, which banned the possession, use, and importation of opium for recreational purposes. The medical use of opium is still legal to this day. The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 was the first federal law regarding the non-medical use of a substance.

Political and Social Unrest

hemp bags of marijuana

Aside from the 1914 Harrison Act, which regulated opiates and cocaine, the main focus turned to alcohol prohibition from 1919 to 1933.

The year of 1937 was the first year the federal government passed any sort of cannabis reform. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, input a tax on the sale of cannabis and hemp in the United States. While there was no criminalization of marijuana, it did include prison sentences and hefty fines for tax evasion.

From the 1940s to 1960, drugs were not a significant focus in our nation. As societal tensions began to arise in the ’60s, the government began pulling away from medical drug research for a variety of reasons. At the time, our nation was facing significant racial, political, and societal challenges. Activist groups against war, government control, civil rights, and more began to form large followings in the ’60s.

Social groups labeled as hippies were widely using marijuana as a symbol of the rebellion, which made marijuana a public enemy of the state – in turn, leading our nation into what we know as the war on drugs.

What is the Controlled Substances Act of 1970?

lawyer signing paperwork

After the social uproar of the 1960s, President Nixon looked to regain control of the nation. The first step was the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is the Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The CSA is a federal drug policy which bunches all controlled substance laws into one. Its purpose is to regulate the manufacturing and distribution of controlled substances.

Within the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, it breaks the substances into five classifications. Schedule 1 drugs are the most regulated and illegal substances while any substance classified as a schedule 5 is far less dangerous and legal to the public.

Schedule 1

  • High Potential for Abuse
  • No Accepted Medical Uses
  • Lack of Accepted Safety for Use Under Medical Supervision

Schedule 2

  • High Potential for Abuse
  • Currently Accepted Medical Uses with Extreme Restrictions and Supervision
  • Abuse May Lead to Physical Dependency

Schedule 3

  • Less Potential for Abuse
  • Currently Accepted Medical uses with Minor Restrictions
  • Abuse May Lead to Moderate Dependency

Schedule 4

  • Low Potential for Abuse
  • Currently Accepted Medical Uses

Schedule 5

  • Lowest Potential for Abuse
  • Currently Accepted Medical Uses
  • Requires Minimal Regulation

Every drug must undergo a classification that looks into the overall abuse potential, the accepted medical application in the United States, and the drug’s safety and potential for addiction.

Quickly after the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, President Nixon declared War on Drugs in 1971.

Theories Behind the Purpose of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970

OG Kush Marijuana Strain California
Photo by: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock
While many merely believe the motives behind the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and the War on Drugs come to down to an increase in drug use, there’s more to it. Sure, the polls may have shown nearly half of Americans thought drugs were a problem in 1969 but is that because it was an actual problem or because drugs were the talk of the nation at the time of the poll?

With the power of hindsight, we can theorize there were quite a few hidden motives behind the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. With the federal government in control of the criminalization and regulation of “drugs” it opened the door for further political and social control. From racial tensions to rebellions, the government was up against strong opposition.

As drugs became embedded in our society, especially in minority communities, they became a way for the government to disrupt its opposition.

Coincident or not? As the government gained power over controlled substances, incarcerations of minority races skyrocketed. Drugs became a way for the government to maintain a balance of power within uncooperative societies.

Activists who spoke out against the government could be hushed with drug charges. Not only does it stall peaceful rebellions, but it slowly diminishes the credibility of social activists and their mission. Hence, the label of hippies as people who are mindless stoners without a logical mind. It’s all a matter of perception.

Don’t believe it? Take it from Nixon’s top aide, John Ehrlichman:

“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

There’s nothing left to say, your honor.

The War on Drugs After the Controlled Substances Act of 1970

president reagan waving
Editorial credit: mark reinstein /
By declaring war on drugs, President Nixon was able to funnel government funding into producing drug enforcement agencies to enforce the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The first agency Nixon formed was the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention.

In 1973, Nixon formed the Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA. The agency’s sole purpose is to enforce the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 as well as organize the fight against drug-trafficking and smuggling. The DEA may also suggest or request an addition, deletion, or change of schedule to the Controlled Substances Act.

It was during this time, that marijuana was listed as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. At first, the scheduling of marijuana was temporary until the Schafer Commission could determine its real classification. The commission concluded that marijuana should be removed from the Schedule 1 category. Nixon ignored the recommendation, which led marijuana down the path it is on today.

Oddly enough, even though the federal government was making drastic changes to drug enforcement at the time, marijuana reform was on the rise between 1973 and 1977. During that time, eleven states decriminalized marijuana. President Jimmy Carter ran on a platform in favor of marijuana decriminalization.

The Senate Judiciary Committee of 1977 even voted to allow the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. It was later deemed unconstitutional and removed from law. The momentum quickly faded after 1977, and then the ’80s dropped a bomb on marijuana reform.

Between 1985 and 1989, the percentage of American’s who though drug abuse was the “number one problem” grew from 4 percent to a whopping 64 percent. The Reagan Administration played quite the roll in hyping up the war on drugs.

Significant Moments in the Reagan Presidency:

    • In 1984, Nancy Reagan went on a campaign to fight drug abuse in the nation coining the phrase “Just Say No.”
    • Police Chief Daryl Gates founded the DARE drug education program which was widely adopted in the education system without much of a backing.
  • There was major media propaganda against drug use which later became known as Reefer Madness.
  • The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established mandatory minimum prison sentences for specific drug charges.
  • Incarceration rates skyrocket in the ’80s due to strict drug enforcement. Especially, amongst the African American communities.

These drug enforcement regulations created significant political, social, and racial divides that carry on to this day. While the public focus on drugs diminished quickly, the public perception of drugs remains implanted into our society.

The Tides Begin to Turn

marijuana drying on a sheet pan

Speakng out against wrongdoings and injustices are the principles that built our great nation. In 1987, the American people began to unite in the fight against the war on drugs. With the help of Arnold Trebach and Kevin Zeese, the Drug Policy Foundation formed. It did not take long for other leaders, scholars, and politicians to get on board.

Throughout the ’90s the approach toward drug enforcement began to change. The Clinton administration advocated for reforming the nation’s approach to incarceration; however, the administration was full of false promises, and Clinton did little to make positive reform to drug enforcement. Many blame Clinton for turning an eye when he received a recommendation to eliminate the difference between crack and powdered cocaine sentences.

The Approach Towards Drugs in the 20th Century

woman holding a marijuana plant

Since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, many states have followed the path to statewide drug reform. The battle against the war on drugs has come down to the states.

Even with the Bush Administrations continuing to fund the war on drugs, the public opinion of drug use and abuse was adapting. Incarcerations were no longer the go-to method, and rehabilitation programs were taking hold. Granted, it is still something we still struggle with to this day.

It was not until 2010 that Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which balanced out the differences between crack and powder cocaine offenses. At the same time, marijuana reform was gearing up for a major push which still has momentum in 2019.

Where Do We Stand in 2019?

marijuana flag at rally in washington

The American people have spoken, and marijuana reform, as well as other drug reform, is the top discussion in our society today. There are ten states including the District of Columbia with fully legalized marijuana programs. Over half of U.S. states at least have a medical marijuana program, as well as decriminalization laws. Marijuana reform is spreading throughout the United States, and it’s only a matter of time before federal legalization becomes a reality, which would be the first crucial adjustment to the Controlled Substances Act in quite some time.

Just recently, the H.R. 420 bill was introduced to the House. The bill aims to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Drug reform to this extent is remarkable to even to see at the federal level.

Aside from marijuana, more and more drug research is occurring to establish the true medicinal value of the controlled substances in our society. In fact, even Psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, are quickly moving for legalization in many states. Our nation is finally sifting through the lies and misrepresentation of the war on drugs, but it is an uphill climb from here.

Stay tuned on all marijuana reform, here!