How the original war on drugs went down in Boulder

Clippings from the Daily Camera's drug arrest articles from 1965-1975
Sarah Haas

The uncertainty of the legal landscape of marijuana is dizzying. Especially lately, as the war-on-drugs rhetoric ramps up in Washington under the guidance of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the growing legal cannabis industry prepares for battle. This scene has played out before, beginning in 1970 with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act and Nixon’s later declaration that drugs are America’s “public enemy number one.”

Below is a timeline of drug-related events occurring in Boulder between 1965 and 1975 as reported by the Daily Camera, offered in hopes of providing a moment of reflection.

1965: Twelve people are arrested for “dope” in Boulder County.

1967: Police estimate there are 500 drug users in the City of Boulder.

In August, an article titled “Boulder, a Home for Drug Users and Displaced Hippies?” opens with: “Boulder, once a sleepy little town where a Saturday night hayride was the ‘cat’s meow,’ is fast becoming a home for displaced hippies and a crossroads of the nation’s drug traffic, according to Boulder’s police.”

1969: More than 400 people are arrested for “dope” in Boulder County.

On Sept. 29, Boulder County District Attorney Stanley Johnson says at a U.S. Senate hearing in Denver that drug activity is the single biggest criminal problem in Boulder.

On Nov. 2, it is reported that Boulder has become the main heroin, cocaine and dope supplier for three major U.S. cities: St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago. But as illegal activity rises, citizens rally to call for alternative approaches to criminalization.

1970: On Feb. 25, more than 200 people gather in the Boulder Public Library for a panel discussion on drugs. The event, sponsored by Boulder Human Relations as an effort to create dialogue between “hip” and “straight” communities, showcases spokespeople arguing both for and against prohibition. Notably, the conversation is rife with the lexicon of the war on drugs even though it is still six months before the campaign officially launches.

Speaking on behalf of criminalization, District Attorney Johnson, says: “We can debate all night whether marijuana is evil or good and still not be sure. I’m not interested in creating a crime record for anyone, but when I took this job I said I’d uphold the law and I know the majority of the people in this County expect me to do it,” adding, “the police department doesn’t make the laws, it enforces them.”

Against the issue is “guru” John Link, among others, who says: “I am not interested in talking about whether or not marijuana is harmful, there’s enough literature available to prove that it isn’t.” After his remarks, the room erupts into cheers before entering into a two-and-a-half-hour “freewheeling discussion” during which both a Kiwani and an “old woman” say they’d like to try pot.

On Nov. 13, an article about heroin use quotes Gordon Black as saying, “Smack (heroin) is a destroyer and killer, and dealers of smack are not brothers. These people are killers, and their drugs kill and turn people into vegetables. Dealing smack is human exploitation.”

In response, Dr. Robert McFarland, who ran the city’s methadone clinic, says: “I don’t believe prison helps anyone,” and suggests abuse could be better understood as a psychological sickness.

1971: There are 817 narcotics arrests in the City of Boulder.

In January, the Camera runs a series exploring Boulder’s drug problem, including the following articles: “Courts Overburdened with Huge Increase in Cases,” “Officials Cite Various Causes, Cures for Drug Scene,” and “City Officials Cite Action Program to Control Problem.”

Solutions offered by the “action plan” includes the establishment of a runaway home and treatment centers, plans to increase the trust between police and citizens, newfangled drug education in public schools and legislative amendments to “oppressive” drug laws.

Local law enforcement and judicial officials show alignment with hardline federal drug policies as indicated by articles like: “DA Opposed to Reducing ‘Pot’ Possession Charges” and “Judge Scott Advocates Firm View on Drug Sales, Sentences Youth.”

1971 – 1973: Until 1970, articles about drugs are few and far between and usually reserved for pressing political coverage or breaking news. Between 1971 and 1973, coverage becomes frequent, almost a daily occurrence, and a significant portion is dedicated to police blotter-style articles, while bigger headlines are reserved for big money and smuggling busts.

1974: In January, Boulder officials and concerned citizens begin looking into reformatory sentences as an alternative to mandatory sentences.

1975: Boulder’s rising drug arrest rates are found to fit a national pattern, revealing that what was experienced as a local problem is, in fact, a national one.

Boulder police find that teen drug use is declining.

Colorado State Legislature works to “liberalize ‘grass’ laws,” enacting legislation that removes jail terms from small marijuana possession charges.