Q&A: America’s Marijuana Moments

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era policies in early January, which had prevented federal prosecutors from pursuing marijuana cases in states that had legalized or decriminalized the drug, the staunch conservative rekindled the debate over a drug that some researchers and users believe is less toxic than alcohol.

In Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America, independent historian Emily Dufton, a former American Council of Learned Societies fellow at the Center for Public Integrity, details how 1960s social movements fueled both the marijuana decriminalization effort and the reactionary “parent movement” that sought to recriminalize the drug. She cautions that today’s marijuana activists should view marijuana’s history as a pendulum swinging between more liberal marijuana policies and harsher criminal penalties. The American Prospect spoke to Dufton about how attitudes toward the drug have evolved in recent decades. This interview has been edited and condensed.

The American Prospect: You describe the waves of activism surrounding marijuana, the first ones coming in the 1960s and 1970s, when marijuana gets entangled with the counterculture and the peace movement. How did marijuana become synonymous with these movements?

Emily Dufton: It really was not widely used prior to that point. There is a 100-year history of marijuana use in some form or other prior to the 1960s, but this is the moment where it becomes a signifier of generational break and protest. Prior to and in the immediate wake of World War II, America is a hardcore boozing country. Marijuana was a way to become intoxicated without alcohol. It’s a symbolic break with the alcohol-abusing, Vietnam-supporting hawks of previous generations. Marijuana is one of the largest signifiers of this break, along with changing clothing and commune-living.

What sparked your interest in marijuana and the grassroots struggle for its decriminalization?

I actually started researching this project in 2010, two years before any of the legalization laws passed. The 1970s and 1980s anti-legalization movement, which had formed in response to the widespread decriminalization laws of the 1970s, didn’t really get that much attention. It was called the “parent movement,” and people made fun of it—it’s just a bunch of grouchy parents, mad that their kids are smoking pot. The movement formed in response to widespread activism in support decriminalization and legalization, and actually inspired a renewed legalization movement as well.

That’s the real story, the way the pendulum keeps moving back and forth between expanded access to marijuana and tightening against it.

Those parental activists weren’t necessarily arguing from a conservative, law-and-order perspective. What was it about weed culture in the 1970s that worried them?

They did not expect the Reagan administration to essentially bastardize their movement so completely. The people who [started the movement]—Sue Rusche, Keith Schuchard, Thomas Gleaton—are well-known, incredibly liberal social democrats. But they truly were freaked out by rising rates of adolescent marijuana use in the 1970s. (If you’ve seen Dazed and Confused, that gives you a great idea of it.)

Kids have access to pot, which is, of course, a product of decriminalization rather than legalization—we don’t have the subsequent regulation and oversight. You have to keep in mind that people’s understanding of marijuana’s physical effects is pretty underdeveloped, so they read reports that say it’s going to make boys grow breasts and render girls infertile, and that’s really terrifying. Even amotivational syndrome is really terrifying to parents.

The [parents were] inspired by grassroots movements of the 1960s. They [formed] consciousness-raising groups, very much born of second-wave feminism, where parents got together, [realizing] “the personal is the political.” They’re saying, “Oh my god, my family is dying, how can we stop this, how can we pass laws, how can we change things in our own families, our own communities our own neighborhoods?”

This is as an outgrowth of 1960s activism and 1970s feminism, although with rather different effects. None of them really expected it to become the deeply problematic, punitive, and racialized drug war that Ronald Reagan [was] known for. Pot definitely paved the way, because it freaked people out about drug use and made all drug-using adults dangerous criminals and threats to the health and safety of our nation’s precious youth. But it was crack that really brought on the drug war as we understand it, and brought on extensive mandatory minimums and locked people up.

Are opiates playing a role today in the debates about marijuana?

National feelings about marijuana have always fluctuated based on whether we’re abusing another drug that’s more dangerous. Crack played that role, and even the heroin epidemic from about 1967 to 1976 helped pave the way to decriminalization during that time. When there is no other demon drug, pot fills that void.

But Sessions is doing something totally different. Over 50,000 people are dying each year of opioids, but Sessions said, “We’re going to target pot again.” It’s saber-rattling more than anything else: 95 percent of drug arrests occur at the state level, not at the federal level, and the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Justice Department don’t actually have the resources to crack down. But it’s a clear symbolic shift: It is so ahistorical and so unnatural, [but also] so unsurprising because we know who Sessions is.

What strikes you about the legalization fight today?

Probably how tied to other movements marijuana really is, and how deeply influenced it was by the anti-war movement and the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the fight for gay rights. Pot has become a part of so many larger movements. I wasn’t just writing a history of marijuana or marijuana activism, I was really writing a history of the entire United States, and of what people have been inspired by, impassioned by, and have been willing to fight for. Pot has been at the center of all these things.

Do you see a grassroots movement pushing for a crackdown on marijuana use again in the future?

I see people trying to do that now. But the biggest opposition to legalization is coming from pharmaceutical manufacturers that make the opiates. In states with medical or recreational laws, opioid prescriptions have dropped dramatically, because people are using marijuana to treat their pain. That’s cutting into Purdue’s and Abbott Laboratories’ bottom line, and they’re spending oodles of money to lobby legislatures.

Additionally, there’s also a couple of large corporations interested in patenting marijuana in the same way Monsanto patents strands of corn. BioTech Industries has a few utility patents on specific strains of marijuana, so anyone who grows or develops or transports or traffics that particular strain is going to owe a lot of money to them.

This is a problem for small farmers who are already battling larger farmers, especially in California, and for states that allow people to grow in their home. Marijuana is becoming a multibillion-dollar business, and the anti-legalization movement has lots of money, lots of resources, and is a little bit more professional than those fighting for legalization. 

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