A Brief History of Marijuana Legalization


Article originally published by Marijuana.com
Written by Paul Winter
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After the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 eviscerated America’s cannabis pharmacopeia, along with the industrial uses of hemp; it not only capped a low point in legalization, it also represented a loss of personal freedom and manufacturing innovation. Ironically, just one year after the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act, Popular Mechanics and Mechanical Engineering magazines both ran articles touting hemp as “the new billion-dollar crop.” That billion-dollar day would never come for industrial hemp in America. But hard fought gains would made for cannabis, accomplished only by traversing a bumpy road fraught with political potholes, legal setbacks, and hidden agendas.

The main reason the Marijuana Tax Act passed was that most of the population in the 1930s had no contact with nor interest in marijuana, so prohibition was a non-issue for most ― and the government and special interest propaganda machines were running at redline; William Randolph Hearst had been spewing the same brand of vitriol in print as the new drug czar, Harry Anslinger, did in his press conferences and speaking engagements; in fact Hearst often quoted Aslinger in his chain of newspapers. Additionally, the year before in 1936, the now satirical film “Reefer Madness” was released. The social climate for cannabis in America was mostly negative, apathetic at best — with the exception of the American Medical Association. The AMA wrote anti-prohibition letters to legislators and was present at many hearings. All to no avail. Their letters were ignored and their representatives were derided at hearings.

In the 40s, the degree of cannabis acceptance around the world varied. Legal hashish consumption continued in India and regained momentum in Greece. It was unrestricted business-as-usual in China and the Middle East, with American hemp receiving a small reprieve in 1942. At the start of WWII, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing, and subsidizing, the growing of industrial hemp for the production of canvas, rope, and oil to support the war effort.  However, this order was rescinded after the war, and all hemp production ceased with farmers receiving orders to plow their fields under. Additionally, in support of the war, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), working with U.S. scientists, developed a “truth serum” made from cannabis extract, to be used to break down psychological barriers during enemy interrogation.

Robert Mitchum

For the better part of next two decades, there was little in the way of positive marijuana activism; any movement was in the opposite direction, with the government shoring up laws and arresting those who ran afoul of them.  In September of 1948, celluloid hero and all around bad boy, Robert Mitchum, was busted for pot and became the poster child for “marijuana will get you jail time.” This dangerous, societal miscreant received six months in jail, and two-years-probation.

There were little more than setbacks for the movement in the 1950’s: the Bogg’s Act (1952) and the Narcotics Control Act (1956) were both passed into law; setting the stage for 2-10 years of prison time, and fines of up to $20,000, for first-time offenders. It wasn’t until the mid-1960’s, with the United States becoming more embroiled in the Viet Nam War, and the rise of the anti-establishment, that more of the general populace joined forces and rose up in mass. Some engaging in civil disobedience, following the words of Thomas Jefferson, hemp farmer and framer of the constitution, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey, he is obligated to do so.” These activists and “disobeyers” weren’t society’s cast-offs, these were artists and poets, ivy-league-educated beats, and sentient hippies. There was one small glowing ember at the end of the decade. In 1957, beat poet, Jack Kerouac published “On the Road,” creating a best-selling focal point for the budding counterculture.

Cannabis activism started in earnest on August 16, 1964, when Lowell Eggermiers walked into a San Francisco Police Station, announced, “I am starting a campaign to legalize marijuana smoking. I wish to be arrested.” Whereupon he fired up a joint, took a hit, and his wish was granted. This brazen display of public disobedience caught the attention of a libertarian attorney, one James R. White III, who described himself as “to the right of Barry Goldwater.” Mr. White negotiated Eggermiers’ sentence to less than one year for the felony committed. The defendant served his time and quietly exited the movement he began. But as part of his defense strategy, James R. White III started LEMAR (short for Legalize Marijuana) to gain maximum exposure for the cause and hopefully garner public support. LEMAR was the first marijuana reform advocacy group. The organization held its maiden protest in December of 1964 in Oakland, CA. Coincidently Allen Ginsberg was in the Bay Area and attended the rally. Not only did he lend some high profile credibility to the movement, but he also started a chapter of LEMAR upon his return to New York. Joining the movement with Ginsberg were Ed Sanders, a shaggy-haired classics scholar, and Michael Aldrich, a recent Ph.D. graduate whose doctoral thesis was on “Cannabis Myths and Folklore.”

These were the first activists, but there were legions more getting and spreading the news; as well as those making scientific discoveries about the plant’s active components.  In the latter category was Dr. Raphael Mechaloum, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. Dr. Mechoulam was the first to synthesize tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in marijuana, in 1964. Today, at a spry 82 years old, he lectures and continues to be a proponent of medicinal cannabis.

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Timothy Leary

But it was the drug culture icon and unintentional activist, Timothy Leary, whose marijuana arrest in 1965 went all the way to the Supreme Court; and was solely responsible for overturning the ridiculously unjust Marijuana Tax Act. The court found the Act violated the 5th Amendment, the protection from self-incrimination. Though Leary got his case thrown out, the victory for cannabis was short lived. By 1970 the Marijuana Tax Act was replaced by the Controlled Substance Act, which shot the movement backward by listing cannabis as a Schedule 1 Drug, the worst of the worst — having no medicinal use and a high propensity for abuse.


Jack Herer

Luckily there were other firebrands in the wings ready to bear the activist torch. Jack Herer was a force of nature. A Korean War vet who appreciated the viability of hemp, and only experienced marijuana recreationally when he was 30. Jack wrote the seminal activist tome, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” while serving a 6-month term for speaking at a pot rally. He traveled extensively and proselytized passionately about the industrial, medicinal, and recreational value of cannabis. In honor of his service to the cause, Jack Herer now has a potent marijuana strain named after him. Ed Sanders joined Ginsberg in LEMAR and used the proceeds from touring with his band, the FUGS, to fund LEMAR events. Steve DeAngelo, actively fought for legalization in his teens, orchestrating the first “smoke-in” in DC, in 1974.  DeAngelo helped Jack Herer edit “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” and helped legalize medical marijuana in DC with serious involvement to pass Initiative 59.

The 1970s brought coalescence, fractions became factions, and common ground was found. In 1973, Oregon became the first state to pass cannabis decriminalization legislation. The first birth of a major activist force came in 1974 when Amorphia (formerly LEMAR) joined forces with Keith Stroup’s well established National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

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Allen Ginsberg

This brought Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders, two ballsy, intellectual activists, together with an extremely cannabis-friendly attorney, Keith Stroup. Stroup added not only legal muscle, but also dressed the movement in a suit and a tie for the first time since James R. White III in 1964. Another major breakthrough came in the form of Robert C. Randall, who in ’76 fought for and won the right to use medical marijuana to treat his glaucoma, and have it supplied by the US government. Call that a double score.

In the 1980s darkness fell again. It began innocently enough when first lady, Nancy Reagan, visited an Oakland, CA elementary school and was asked by a schoolgirl, “what should I do if I am offered drugs?” The First Lady replied, “Just say no.” So began the impetus for an on-campus war that put police on campus, accepted zero tolerance, and resulted in a classroom to prison pipeline.  Throughout the decade, NORML successfully lobbied 36 states to pass non-binding medical marijuana laws, mostly asking for the rescheduling cannabis under the Controlled Substance Act. In a last Hail Mary pass to close the decade on a positive note, DEA administrative law judge, Francis Young, ruled in favor of NORML to classify cannabis as a medicine, affirming “marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest, most therapeutically active substances known to man.” The Reagan administration intercepted this pass by appealing Judge Young’s ruling, and seeking to uphold the continued ban on cannabis; even for the sick, dying and sense-threatened patients for whom cannabis was recommended by their physicians.

As the sun rose on the decade of the 90s, San Francisco passed the nation’s first ordinance in favor of allowing access to medical cannabis. Only to be eclipsed in 1994 by the cloud of Governor Pete Wilson, who vetoed the popular ordinance from the state legislature. Then in 1996, California citizens place on the ballot, and rally to victory, Proposition 215, which would legalize medical cannabis use, possession, and cultivation. But, in a zoetrope of hope and despair, numerous federal challenges greet the new proposition. When the dust settled, the basic law remained intact allowing doctors the right to recommend cannabis to their patients. And, to close out the decade, in 1999 Maine voters approved a medical cannabis initiative.

At the dawn of the new millennium, Nevada and Colorado approved medical marijuana laws; and Hawaii passed medical cannabis legislature. Then, it’s boom-boom-boom for the entire decade; Montana and Vermont pass medical initiatives in 2004, Rhode Island in 2006, New Mexico in 2007, Massachusetts (decriminalization) and Michigan in 2008, Arizona (passed a cannabis initiative), DC and New Jersey joined in with medical cannabis approval in 2010. That same year, a full legalization initiative in California was narrowly defeated by a 53% to 47% margin.

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So here we are, over half way through 2016 and the wins keep coming, with Ohio being the latest state to freshly approve medical cannabis, passing House Bill 523 into law on June 8, 2016. But even though there are now four states with full legalization, and twenty-two states with medical cannabis laws on the books, there is still plenty of work to do from many angles. There are still twenty-four states where cannabis is either illegal to various degrees (depending on amount and intent) or a felony. And the Veterans Administration still will not allow veterans to access medical cannabis, even in states that allow medicinal use. Under the Controlled Substance Act, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 Drug, placing it in the same category as heroin and LSD. The good news is, up to eight states will have marijuana initiatives on the November ballot, pending last minute signature gathering. So celebrate the wins, but get out to do what you can to at least get medical cannabis to those who need it―go vote, write a letter to your congressman, or go to NORML.org and get involved.

(Photo Cover Courtesy of deamuseum.org)

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