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Why the Fight to Legalize Marijuana Is Part of a Much Larger Populist Struggle

The marijuana issue has galvanized activist energy on the left and the right, from anti-globalization protesters to free-market capitalists.
 
 
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On January 10, 1965, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg led a march for marijuana legalization outside the New York Women’s House of Detention in lower Manhattan. A dozen demonstrators waved placards and chanted slogans, resulting in one of the iconic images of the 1960s: a picture of Ginsberg, snowflakes on his beard and thinning hair, wearing a sign that said "Pot Is Fun." Another picket sign read "Pot Is a Reality Kick."

The pro-pot protest was the inaugural event of the New York chapter of the Committee to Legalize Marijuana, a group launched by Ginsberg and fellow poet Ed Sanders at a time when most pot smokers remained in the closet about their recreational substance of choice. The idea, Sanders explained, was “to get people who use marijuana to stand up and agitate for its legalization.” The protest marked the beginning of a grassroots countercultural movement that would develop years later into a widespread populist revolt against conventional medicine and extra-constitutional authority. 

Ginsberg sensed that marijuana, a substance essentially banned by the US government since 1937, “was going to be an enormous political catalyst.” Though marijuana prohibition didn’t deter widespread use, the funny stuff did encourage doubts about officialdom in general. It wasn’t the chemical composition of cannabis that fostered skepticism toward authority—it was the contradiction between lived experience and the hoary propaganda of “reefer madness,” enshrined in draconian legislation mandating five years in prison for possession of a nickel bag of grass.

Marijuana’s status as a forbidden substance added to its allure in the 1960s, when cannabis first emerged as a defining force in a culture war that has yet to cease. From the outset, efforts to end pot prohibition were inextricably linked to a broader movement for social justice that encompassed many causes. Marijuana was never a single-issue obsession for Ginsberg or Sanders. Both were high-profile peace activists who protested against nuclear proliferation, racial discrimination and censorship. In October 1967, Sanders and his folk-rock ensemble, the Fugs, stood on a flatbed truck and performed “The Exorcism of the Pentagon” at a huge antiwar rally that bequeathed to the world another iconic image: the stunning picture of flowers sprouting from the rifle barrels of young soldiers guarding the high church of the military-industrial complex.

For good or ill, cannabis was intimately associated with the rising tide of cognitive dissonance that prompted millions of Americans to question, re-evaluate and oppose their nation’s bully-boy foreign policy. “You couldn’t separate laws against drugs from the war,” said Yippie impresario Paul Krassner, who declared at a peace rally that he “wouldn’t stop smoking pot until it was legal.” To many onlookers, however, the widespread consumption of cannabis was a symptom—if not the actual cause—of public disorder and moral decay. Henry Giordano, chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the mid-1960s, told Congress that calls to legalize pot were “just another effort to break down our whole American system.” Denigrated by politicians and deified by dissidents, the little flower that millions loved to smoke had become a totem of rebellion, a multivalent symbol of societal conflict. 

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President Richard Nixon saw marijuana as a useful wedge issue that he could play for political advantage. His declaration of all-out war against illicit drugs in general, and cannabis in particular, cast aspersions on all the troublesome currents that flowed from the rebellious ’60s. For Nixon, the anti-drug crusade was more than just a formula for padding arrest statistics and appearing tough on crime. It was also a symbolic means of stigmatizing youth protest, antiwar sentiment, Black Power and anyone with a nonregulation haircut—underscoring once again that pot prohibition had little to do with the actual effects of the herb and everything to do with who was using it.