Why the Fight to Legalize Marijuana Is Part of a Much Larger Populist Struggle
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.
On October 27, 1970, Congress ratified the Controlled Substances Act, which placed all drugs into five different categories or “schedules” according to their safety, medical uses and potential for abuse. There was a political calculus behind Attorney General John Mitchell’s decision to label marijuana a Schedule I narcotic, a designation reserved for dangerous drugs with no therapeutic value. “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Mitchell blithely assured a reporter. His prediction would come to pass, and the drug war would figure prominently in American democracy’s long slide toward oblivion.
The Controlled Substances Act required the president to appoint a national commission to assess the dangers of marijuana and make long-term policy recommendations. Nixon stacked the commission with drug war hawks, who nonetheless confounded expectations by issuing a comprehensive 1,184-page report, Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, that endorsed the removal of criminal penalties for “possession of marihuana for personal use” and for “casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana.” The commission also asserted that cannabis should be studied for possible medical benefits. Nixon never read the report before dismissing its recommendations.
Nixon’s drug-war saber rattling provoked a pushback by pro-pot partisans. The Washington, DC–based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, formed in 1970 by a young attorney named Keith Stroup, lobbied federal officials and state legislatures and mounted a legal challenge to get marijuana removed from the list of Schedule I substances. NORML positioned itself as a single-issue consumer advocacy group, a Nader’s Raiders for reefer smokers.
NORML drew broad support from an unusual mix of long-haired leftists, suit-and-tie liberals and conservative libertarians. In 1972, William F. Buckley Jr., America’s most prominent right-wing intellectual, came out in favor of marijuana legalization. Buckley’s protégé, Richard Cowan, co-founder of the student group Young Americans for Freedom, would later serve as NORML’s executive director. Writing in the National Review, Cowan argued that penalizing marijuana consumption made a mockery of conservative principles: “The hysterical myths about marijuana…have led conservatives to condone massive programs of social engineering, interference in the affairs of individuals, [and] monstrous bureaucratic waste.”
With the groundswell for decriminalization building, the American Bar Association, the Consumers Union, the National Council of Churches, the National Education Association, the American Public Health Association and several other influential organizations queued up to support marijuana-law reform. By the late 1970s, several states had ended criminal penalties for small amounts of weed. During the Carter administration, many people assumed that it was only a matter of when—not if—cannabis would be decriminalized by the federal government.
But NORML managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when, in 1978, Stroup disclosed that President Carter’s drug policy adviser, Peter Bourne, was present at a cocaine party on Capitol Hill. The ensuing scandal caused Bourne to resign and derailed the president’s reform agenda. “It was probably the stupidest thing I ever did,” Stroup later acknowledged.
Several more drug-policy reform organizations formed in the years after the Bourne debacle, including the Drug Policy Alliance, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and, later, the Marijuana Policy Project. But their cogent arguments for harm reduction and marijuana legalization gained little traction inside the Beltway, and the pro-cannabis tide that had been building since the ’60s came to a standstill once Ronald Reagan reached the White House.
Reagan relaunched the “war on drugs” with a vengeance. He granted the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies extraordinary powers to wage a militarized campaign against marijuana (“the most dangerous drug in America,” according to Reagan) and other illicit substances. Reagan’s attempt to enforce compliance with pot prohibition would entail wiretapping, mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, routine property seizures and forfeitures, and other activities on the part of cops and narcs that were similar to the practices prevalent in police states.
Just when the legalization struggle had reached its nadir, however, there emerged an improbable hero who championed cannabis as a multifaceted sustainable resource, an eco-friendly source of food, fiber, medicine and recreation. Jack Herer, a charismatic, barrel-chested Korean War veteran and former Goldwater Republican, was instrumental in catalyzing a renewed interest in the many forgotten industrial uses of hemp, a plant once prized by America’s founding fathers. In his influential underground bestseller The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Herer maintained that hemp—marijuana’s versatile, nonpsychoactive twin—possessed a near-limitless potential for replacing petrochemical and timber products and phasing out environmentally destructive industries. Herer’s boisterous marijuana evangelism widened the scope of the drug-policy reform movement and inspired a new generation of cannabis activists.
Debby Goldsberry, one of Herer’s young disciples, would play a pivotal role in jump-starting a nationwide grassroots movement for marijuana-law reform. In the fall of 1989, Goldsberry formed the Cannabis Action Network and embarked on a series of cross-country “hemp tours.” Soon there were several CAN caravans on the road at the same time, setting up information booths in town squares and on college campuses, spreading the ganja gospel at rock concerts, engaging in debates, teach-ins, smoke-ins and rallies in forty-eight states. Everywhere they went, they touted the industrial, therapeutic and ecological benefits of hemp. For CAN activists, liberating the weed wasn’t just about smoking pot to get high—it was also about saving the environment and healing the sick.
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More than any other single factor, it was the AIDS epidemic that made medical marijuana an urgent, cutting-edge issue. AIDS patients found that cannabis, an appetite stimulant, was the most effective and least toxic treatment for HIV-associated anorexia and weight loss. Without cannabis, many would not have been able to tolerate the severe nausea and other harsh side effects of the life-saving protease inhibitors that became available in the mid-1990s. For people with AIDS, marijuana was a matter of life or death. With the federal government slow to respond to the escalating public health crisis, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and other pro-pot community activists took matters into their own hands. They built extensive support networks and staged boycotts, demonstrations, “die-ins,” cannabis giveaways and other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience to publicize the disaster that was unfolding.
No city in America was more devastated by this voracious illness than San Francisco. And no one played a more significant role in providing cannabis to AIDS patients than Dennis Peron, the Bay Area’s most effective and controversial marijuana activist. Peron, a gay Vietnam vet, was a close political ally of the late civil rights leader Harvey Milk, who circulated petitions for marijuana-law reform in San Francisco’s Castro District several years before he became the first openly gay person elected to California public office.
Peron broke the law in order to remake it when he opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club, an over-the-counter public storefront that, at its peak in the mid-1990s, supplied marijuana to more than 10,000 members. Situated a stone’s throw from City Hall, Peron’s pot club pioneered what sociologists would later call the “San Francisco model”: a medical marijuana dispensary that allows on-site medication and encourages patients to socialize, smoke reefer, make new friends, and avail themselves of counseling and recreational facilities.
Peron and his battalion of willing and disabled volunteers were responsible for instigating the dynamic social movement that evolved into Proposition 215, the Golden State’s landmark medical marijuana law. The passage of Prop 215 in 1996 was a game-changer: it rocked the law-and-order establishment and put the most populous state in the country on a collision course with the US drug-control behemoth. Much more was at stake than the provision of an herbal remedy to ailing patients. If American society embraced medical marijuana, it could change the national conversation about cannabis and topple the entire drug war edifice.
The backlash was immediate and ugly. Federal officials, working in tandem with state and local law enforcement, reacted to the medical marijuana groundswell by deploying paramilitary units against US citizens, trashing homes, ripping up gardens, raiding hundreds of cannabis clubs, seizing property, threatening doctors and prosecuting suppliers. But nothing could stop the renewed pro-marijuana momentum: pot was either too much fun or too essential a balm for too many folks.
The medical marijuana insurgency on the Left Coast triggered a domino-like chain reaction across the country. Thus far, twenty states, plus the District of Columbia, have opted out of America’s drug war juggernaut by legalizing cannabis for therapeutic use. The big breakthrough that came in 2012, when residents of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, was in many ways the culmination of forces that California had set in motion sixteen years earlier.
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On August 29, 2013, the Justice Department issued new marijuana policy guidelines indicating that Uncle Sam would not interfere in states that had legalized the sale and consumption of reefer if several conditions were met. Even large-scale marijuana businesses would be allowed to operate as long as cannabis commerce was tightly regulated, marijuana didn’t cross state lines, and minors didn’t puff the stuff. There were other caveats as well, but federal law remained unchanged: cannabis was still officially classified as a dangerous Schedule I substance with no medical value, and US agencies continued to mislead the public by overstating marijuana’s alleged harms and denying its benefits.
Time will tell whether the latest missive from the Justice Department represents a significant shift in the “war on drugs.” But this much is certain: the Obama administration would never have budged on marijuana if legions of legalization proponents had not persevered in challenging a venal, destructive and dishonest policy—one that has fostered crime, social discord, racial injustice, police corruption and drug abuse itself.
Over the years, the marijuana issue has galvanized activist energy on the left and the right, from anti-globalization protesters to free-market capitalists. Mainstream civil rights organizations, denouncing law enforcement practices that disproportionately target people of color, also joined the cause. An odd-duck coalition coalesced around cannabis: pro-pot liberals embracing states’ rights, conservative libertarians begging for taxation and government regulation, gangsta hip-hop artists and blue-collar labor organizers, ex-cons and ex-cops—all part of an emerging marijuana majority united in its opposition to the federal government’s hyperbolic crusade against pot, the cheap hippie high that spurred America’s leading illicit growth industry.
No wonder they call it the funny stuff.