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Hidden Figures of Drug History: Joan Ganz Cooney

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in our new Hidden Figures of Drug History series, with more to come in the future. Next week Points will feature more exciting news about drug and alcohol history in the media, as well as a great recap of LSD use in New York City in the 1960s. Enjoy this post and come back next week for more!

Image result for marihuana a signal of misunderstanding

But there’s something of particular interest for those who want to understand the role gender has long played in American drug history within this report as well.  And that’s a name that appears within the list of the commission’s thirteen members, nine of whom were appointed by President Richard Nixon, and four of whom were senators and members of Congress. 

And that name is Mrs. Joan Ganz Cooney.

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Cooney in her New York City apartment, 1977

I have to admit that I didn’t think much about the commission members themselves for the first few years I worked with the Shafer Commission’s report. I was more concerned with their findings: after two years of intensive and international research, the Shafer Commission declared that marijuana should not be a Schedule I drug, and that cannabis should be decriminalized – though not legalized – nationwide.

But as I continued to think about the report, I realized that its list of committee members was just as historically insightful as their findings themselves. There, amidst the doctors, lawyers, Ph.D.s, and congressmen, was the name of just one woman, a person whom I soon realized had influenced American culture far beyond the realm of drug policy. If you or a child you know has ever learned a lesson from Big Bird, the Count, Elmo or Grover, you have Joan Ganz Cooney to thank.

Cooney was born in Phoeniz, Arizona, in 1932, and raised in an upper-middle class household. She studied education at the University of Arizona, and, after graduating in 1951, she moved to Washington, DC, where she worked as a clerk and a typist at the State Department. She was soon inspired by Father James Keller’s Christopher Movement, which sought to apply the principles of the Gospel to everyday life, especially in the media. Over the next decade, she would work as a journalist in Arizona and a publicist in Manhattan, continuing to develop a devotion to civil rights and liberal Democratic ideals.

In 1963, she made her move into educational television, starting as a producer for New York’s PBS station, WNDT. In 1967, she took a leave of absence and traveled across the United States and Canada, interviewing experts in child development, education, and television. The result was a 55-page report called “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education.” It described a new company that would oversee the production of a show for children that would focus on basic early literacy and social skills, taught in a fun, freewheeling style – a show that would eventually become, you guessed it, Sesame Street.

Cooney had to fight for several more years to turn her ideas into reality, but she was eventually named executive director of the new Children’s Television Workshop in 1968, and Sesame Street debuted on PBS on November 10, 1969. As one of the first female executives in American television, Cooney became a national celebrity and was heralded as a leader of the burgeoning women’s movement. Scores of awards followed, including numerous Emmys, the “Woman of the Decade” award in 1979, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. Cooney remained chairwoman and chief executive officer of the Children’s Television Workshop until 1990, when she stepped down, but, at 88, she remains active in children’s educational initiatives today. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, located in New York, is an independent research and innovation lab that “focuses on the challenges of educating children in a rapidly changing media landscape.”

So what does this have to do with cannabis, and how did a woman who became an expert in children’s educational television become the only female member of the Shafer Commission? I wondered that too, so, in February of this year, I decided to call her.

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Members of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse delivering their report to President Nixon, March 22, 1972. Cooney is fourth from left, standing next to the president

Cooney was excited to speak to someone about her time on the Shafer Commission, which she described as a “fascinating, odd blip” on her storied resume. She also admitted that she had to think hard about her memories of the time before we spoke, since her participation on the committee is rarely mentioned in articles about her and was something she almost never got asked about, either in the 1970s or today. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since, given the Commission’s support for national decriminalization, even President Nixon tried to hide their findings, with which he vehemently disagreed.

Still, Cooney reflected positively on her time on the Commission. “No one was prejudiced” against the drug when the group formed, she said, and “we all came in with an open mind.” For two years, she worked with the other members, including Raymond P. Shafer, the chairman and former governor of Pennsylvania; Dana Farnsworth, the Commission’s vice chairman and chair of the University of Michigan department of pharmacology; Henry Brill, director of the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in New York; and John A. Howard, president of Rockford University and founder of the conservative think tank the Rockford Institute, as well as Representatives Tim Lee Carter of Kentucky and Paul G. Rogers of Florida and Senators Harold Hughes of Iowa and Jacob Javits of New York. “They were a wonderful group of Republican men,” she said.

So how did a known liberal Democrat children’s television producer end up with such a group? “Well, Chuck Colson [Nixon’s Special Counsel and one of the Watergate Seven] came into my office in New York,” Cooney said, “and told me that the president was forming a new commission on marijuana and wanted me to serve.”

“Why me?” Cooney asked.

“You’re a twofer,” Colson replied. “A woman and a Democrat.”

In spite of, or perhaps because of, her obvious tokenism, Cooney agreed to serve, telling Colson that the job seemed “intriguing.” But unlike many of the other Commission members, Cooney was unable to travel to the national hearings and international investigations that many of the other members undertook. “I was running the Children’s Television Workshop at a crucial time and couldn’t leave,” she said, but “the committee would report back and met often.”

So how did she feel about the Commission’s findings and the president’s response? “Well, Nixon wanted to declare marijuana the major drug threat in America,” Cooney said, “but that’s just not what we found. We saw alcohol as the most dangerous drug in America, since that caused much more trouble.”

When the Commission finalized its report and delivered it to the president, the response wasn’t much better. “Nixon didn’t even have the press there when we presented our findings,” Cooney said. “Though I understand why – we found out later it was the same day that John Dean [Nixon’s White House Counsel] said there was a cancer on the presidency.”

When I asked her why she looks so visibly uncomfortable in the photograph of the Commission members with President Nixon, Cooney laughed. “Oh, I was!” she said. “Nixon seemed so nervous and strange. I remember he had a lot of makeup on. Later I told Fred Friendly [the president of CBS News], ‘Fred, there is something wrong with the president.'”

Cooney, obviously, was right: it was just two years later that Nixon resigned. But despite Nixon trying to brush the Shafer Commission’s findings under the rug, the “fascinating, odd blip” on Joan Ganz Cooney’s resume continues to have a life of its own as, over forty years later, more states are heeding the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse’s advice and decriminalizing, and even legalizing, marijuana.

For her part, Cooney remains proud of her participation on the Commission, and generally supportive of the measures being passed today. “Locking kids up in jail” for marijuana just didn’t seem right to her, Cooney said, either in the 1970s or today.  And while tokenism for women certainly isn’t dead, Cooney’s story proves that “twofers” like her continue to have a lasting impact on the history of cannabis in the United States.



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