What America’s War on Drugs Looked Like in 1969

Co Rentmeester—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Co Rentmeester—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Not published in LIFE. U.S. Customs agents tailing a suspected drug smuggler, 1969.
Co Rentmeester
'60s

For all of the myriad, often-brilliant ways that LIFE covered the world in the middle part of the 20th century, the magazine had a rather fraught relationship with at least one pivotal aspect of the age: namely, the counter-culture of the 1960s, in the U.S. and around the globe.

That a publication of LIFE’s influence and reach only grudgingly paid attention to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Hendrix and other avatars of the pop-culture revolution might suggest that every aspect of the era’s tumult passed virtually unnoticed. In fact, though, while LIFE might not have covered the Sixties with as much unceasing, breathless fascination as some other periodicals, when it did turn its attention to, say, the explosion of recreational drug use among Americans, its coverage was often admirably even-handed, and something close to exhaustive.

Co Rentmeester—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Co Rentmeester—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Case in point: In October 1969, LIFE ran a cover story (or rather, a series of stories) under the banner: MARIJUANA: At Least 12 Million American Have Now Tried It. Are penalties too severe? Should it be legalized?

Across 10 full pages, intermingling opinion, photography and reportage, LIFE took a hard look at pot smoking in the U.S., but waded deep into the debate — already heated then — of whether or not the country’s draconian marijuana statutes were doing more harm than good.

Part of the coverage, meanwhile, was a thoughtful, full-page essay by a former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (and Bonnie Raitt’s stepfather), Dr. James L. Goddard.

An estimated 12 million Americans have tried the drug in recent years [Goddard wrote]. Now we are in a near crisis caused by ignorance and the blanket of misinformation which governmental agencies have used to cover their ineptitude. . . .

Our laws governing marijuana are a mixture of bad science and poor understanding of the role of law as a deterrent force. They are unenforceable, excessively severe, scientifically incorrect and revealing of our ignorance of human behavior. The federal and state laws should be revised to reflect the fact that marijuana is a hallucinogen and should be classified as such. The federal statutes should be repealed. . . .

[But] I do not believe that marijuana should now be legalized, and the steps which I have suggested will not satisfy those who seek to legalize it . . . One has only to visualize marijuana being more freely available and more widely used by adolescents who have not learned to cope with the problems of daily life and it is not difficult to reach the conclusion that cannabism would become a societal problem.

But the most riveting element of the feature in that issue of LIFE was a series of pictures by photographer Co Rentmester made at various points along the U.S.-Mexican border, in which he chronicled the efforts of U.S. Customs agents to stem the flow of (primarily) pot and certain kinds of drugs into the States through a program dubbed “Operation Intercept.”

The pictures in this gallery, many of which never ran in LIFE, provide a window into the government’s early attempts to patrol an enormous and notoriously porous border, while also reminding us that America’s war on drugs is not only nothing new, but for decades has been a profoundly divisive response to a phenomenon — namely, people getting high — that is never, ever going away.

The rolling of a joint, photographed by LIFE's Co Rentmeester, 1969.

Co Rentmeester—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The paraphernalia and the steps involved in the rolling of a joint, circa 1969, photographed by LIFE's Co Rentmeester.

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