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Marijuana Activism

Apr 05, 2018 12:41PM ● By Leland Rucker

Eventual legalization of cannabis in America seems a certainty. Twenty-nine states now allow some form of medical marijuana. Nine of those and the District of Columbia allow adults to possess and use it for any reason. Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle, who for the most part have been silent on the issue for decades, are signing onto bills seeking legalization for adults and access to banking and standard business deductions for cannabis companies. Investors are looking to get in. Everyone, it seems, is predicting victory for marijuana.

With so much success, it’s easy to think it’s a given. I’ve written as much myself, so I got to thinking again about it after reading Emily Dufton’s new book, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana, which reminds us that public support for cannabis legalization has changed dramatically, especially in the 48 years since 1970, when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act. Adult support for legal marijuana back then lingered below 20 percent. Today, more than 60 percent of Americans support cannabis legalization in every poll.

“More than any other legal or illegal substance, marijuana is a drug that makes people care, that inspires them to take to the streets,” author Emily Dufton writes in Grass Roots, which tells the stories of activists on both sides who have helped shape public opinion about cannabis. “There has been nothing like it.”

Hemp, which is cannabis with minuscule amounts of THC, was a staple industrial crop promoted by the founding fathers, and though Americans were using cannabis in the early 20th century, it was a mostly underground phenomenon. Fake news back then depicted marijuana as a substance that drove children insane and caused innocent people to commit acts of rage and violence, and most Americans believed it. National support was virtually nil.


Marijuana made a reappearance in the mainstream via poets like Allen Ginsberg, musicians, and bohemians, all who praised its virtues in public, with Bob Dylan declaring in 1966 in a hit single that “everybody must get stoned.” Marijuana became associated with popular music as well youth protests against the Vietnam War, leading President Richard Nixon to force cannabis onto the Schedule I substances list in what aide John Ehrlichman later admitted was a blatant attempt to disrupt the president’s two least-favorite minorities: black Americans and the hated hippies, both of whom opposed his policies.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman told an interviewer. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

And here’s where it gets really interesting: Nixon’s decision met with more citizen resistance than expected. In the five years after the state of Oregon decriminalized possession and use in 1973, Alaska, Maine, Colorado, California, Ohio, Minnesota, South Dakota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, and Nebraska followed suit. (One thing I liked about moving to Colorado in 1983 was that possession was considered a civil, not criminal, offense.)

Advocates, led by pro-cannabis lobbying organizations, especially the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), provided grassroots support for those regional successes, and its flamboyant director, Keith Stroup, made national inroads that reached all the way into the Jimmy Carter White House, who won the presidency in 1976 on a platform that included decriminalization at the state level. The public seemed to be seriously waking to the possibilities of legalization at the state level.

Then the whole movement unraveled. There is still debate over what took place at a 1977 holiday party that included 400 supporters, including Stroup and Carter chief drug policy advisor Peter Bourne. Whatever happened (did Bourne use marijuana or cocaine or not?), the fallout, especially after revelations that he had pre- scribed barbiturates for a colleague under an assumed name, he was swept from the White House, and Stroup was ousted from NORML (he’s back again these days).

At the same time, local citizens’ groups, outraged by the growing, unregulated paraphernalia market that they claimed was making major profits by marketing smoking accessories to children, began to organize and contact legislators. It was the perfect storm. “In the wake of the Peter Bourne scandal and nationwide coverage of the connections between paraphernalia and kids’ rising marijuana use,” Dufton writes, “parent activists turned their eyes to the nation’s capital in 1978, right when the city was becoming increasingly sympathetic to their cause.”

At one point, more than 1500 citizen groups were active against paraphernalia stores and “head shops” around the country. The final blow came when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, and his wife, Nancy, co-opted the parents’ movement into her “Just Say No” campaign. What public support there had been for legalization evaporated for more than a decade. 

Activists began getting traction in the late 1990s by emphasizing what we were learning about cannabis’ medical qualities, the growing number of Americans incarcerated for using or selling cannabis, and the realization that though whites and blacks used it at about the same rates, many more blacks were being arrested and imprisoned. California, followed by a host of other states, allowed its citizens to use marijuana for certain medical conditions in 1996.

Today, legalization is so much farther along than it was in the 1970s, with businesses, voters, and law- makers all lining up behind the (at least) 50 million American cannabis users. But as there were back then, there are active parental groups in open opposition. The best-known, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, calls cannabis today’s “Big Tobacco” out to hook vulnerable Americans. And though a majority support it, there are many people still against legalization, even in states where it’s legal.

Possession arrests have plummeted in legal states while teen use, crime, and impaired driving are statistically stable, but blacks are still arrested at a higher rate than whites for cannabis offenses. “Legalization has raised questions about the effects of commercialization and business interests in a newly legal marketplace,” Dufton notes. “And most importantly, about its ability to alter the racial dichotomy of drug arrests.”

I’m not suggesting that legalization is going to fail. But Americans are not known for patience, and if voters notice, for instance, increased rates of adolescent drug use, they could still change their minds. It’s not likely, but in the long run, legalization is not really up to the whims of Jeff Sessions as much as it is the whims of public opinion. Let’s hope we don’t change our minds again.