Part of a year-long series, longtime cannabis law reform advocate and historian Allen St. Pierre examines monthly for Cannabis Business Executive the last fifty years of cannabis prohibition and the public advocacy efforts in America to bring about the ongoing and inescapable socio-political changes underway first at the state, and soon, federal level regarding cannabis policy.
Part 1 (1968-1972): Marijuana Law Reform Advocates
Cannabis law reform advocacy began in earnest in the United States in the mid 1960s with two California-based loosely organized reform groups, LeMar (short for Legalize Marijuana) and Amorphia. LeMar grew out of an individual’s challenge against cannabis prohibition laws when, in 1964, twenty-eight-year-old Lowell Eggemeier walked into San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, lit a joint, and asked to be arrested in order to challenge the constitutionality of cannabis prohibition in the state of California.
A felony for simple possession, Eggemeier spent nearly a year in prison unsuccessfully challenging cannabis laws, however, his brazen and brave act of civil disobedience sparked one of the longest and most visible criminal justice reform efforts in the nation’s history: Ending Marijuana Prohibition
LeMar was publicly backed by poet Allen Ginsberg, academician Michael ‘Dr. Dope’ Aldrich, Ph.D. and activist Ed Sanders first in California, then east to New York, notably in Buffalo (where Aldrich was breaking ground with the first publication dedicated to cannabis, Marijuana Review) and New York City (where cannabis law reform was first married with Vietnam War protests and counter-culture, specifically a hybrid of leftist politics called Yippies, Youth International Party, the creation of street theater activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin).
Founded in 1969 in San Francisco by Blair Newman, Amorphia was an amalgam of paraphernalia seller and unabashed marijuana law reform organization, focusing on the sales of hemp rolling papers called Acapulco Gold as the primary means to fund their legalization efforts. Not long after, in 1970, public interest attorney Keith Stroup founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington, D.C.
In time, while numerous, often college campus-based chapters of LeMar, Amorphia and NORML started to lay down the grass-roots of modern cannabis law reform in America, three groups became two, and eventually, Amorphia merged with NORML in 1972 to form the most organized and politically viable marijuana law reform organization that worked at the local, state and federal levels to reform cannabis laws.
Reform Policy Strategy
Divisions among marijuana law reform organizations were evident early on with west coast-based organizations favoring full legalization whereas east-based organizations, like NORML, drawing from national polling data and surveying state and federal lawmakers, did not see enough public support for ending pot prohibition outright, instead, chiefly advocating for reduced penalties from felonies to civil offenses publicly; as well as for scientific studies to help determine the medical utility of marijuana.
Reformers were buoyed by the publication in 1972 of the massively researched National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (aka Shafer Report) that, in many aspects, affirmed NORML’s general advocacy position that, at a minimum, cannabis possession for adults should be decriminalized (the report also paved the way for the first federal funding of marijuana therapeutic research at universities across the United States).
Regrettably, when anti-marijuana zealot President Richard Nixon was informed by marijuana commission head and former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer (R) that the principle recommendation of the commission is to decriminalize cannabis for adults, Nixon, caught later on his then-secret taping system, declared to aides in the room that the commission’s recommendations were “f*cking DOA”.
Opposition to Legalization
The primary opposition to the efforts of early cannabis law reformers, 1964-1972, was largely law enforcement agencies (including Hoover’s FBI), social and religious conservatives.
The primary federal agency organized against cannabis law reform, going back to the days of Harry J. Anslinger’s Reefer Madness in the 1930s, was the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), the predecessor government anti-drug agency to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Richard Nixon, declaring a ‘War on Drugs’ in the 1968 presidential campaign, according to interviews with his top political aides, cared little about public safety, civil rights or personal autonomy vis-à-vis drug policy as much as creating political wedges in the American electorate in hopes of sewing a re-election victory to president in 1972.
In a 1992 interview with Smoke and Mirrors author Dan Baum, top domestic political aide to President Nixon, John Ehrlichman acknowledged, “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. Raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Challenges For Reformers
The political challenges for early reformers were both geographical and cultural with the west coast marijuana advocates seeking more progressive reforms (i.e., outright legalization) whilst ensconced in politically supportive local governments in coastal California where cannabis use (and it’s advocacy) were moderately tolerated whereas the east coast-based reform organizations, rooted in less supportive political environs (such as Washington, D.C.), advocated for the levels of reform that they thought the then public was comfortable with (based on public surveys and opinion polls): decriminalizing marijuana possession and use for private adult use
With almost every major public institution against marijuana legalization and use, the early cannabis law reform organizations struggled for funding, competent social organizing and political legitimacy.
Cannabis Arrests and Enforcement
From 1968 to 1972 approximately 800,000 cannabis consumers, cultivators or sellers in total were arrested by federal, state, county and local law enforcement (consistently, since the 1960s, according to criminal justice data, well over ninety percent of all marijuana-related offenses are prosecuted locally with nearly ninety-five percent of all cannabis-related offenses equating to simple possession).
By the mid 2000s, the average arrest rates nationally for cannabis offenses soared to over 800,000 annually.
Public Opinion on Pot
Gallup polling indicated that from 1968-1972 only between twelve and sixteen percent of the US public supported legalizing marijuana.
With only a few available TV channels on government-monitored broadcasts, about the only positive cultural references in the 1960s to cannabis (save for the boundary-pushing TV show Laugh-In) were in some avant-garde films (Easy Rider), literature (A Child’s Garden of Grass) and music (Don’t Step On the Grass, Sam).
When cannabis was depicted on broadcast TV the coverage was often non-scientific at best, hysterical at worse, with episodes of popular TV dramas like Dragnet, Adam 12 and Marcus Welby, MD trotting out Reefer Madness-induced plot lines.
However, comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and the cannabis-centric team of Cheech and Chong mused about marijuana publicly when few other entertainers would.
In the coming years, the music, movie and TV industries would play major roles for both prohibitionists’ and reformers’ attempts to influence American culture and public attitudes about cannabis.
Arguably, the two most impactful reform strategies undertaken by cannabis law reformers occurred in 1972 when…
- NORML filed a rescheduling petition against the federal government to down schedule cannabis from a highly restrictive and prohibitive Schedule I classification to II or lower, which, at minimum, would allow for controlled scientific studies, that could lead to physician-prescribed therapeutic cannabis products (seeking too, if only left-handedly, establishing the general safety of cannabis as a means for juxtaposition to other legal and taxed, but, more dangerous drugs like alcohol and tobacco products).
- Despite President Nixon’s immediate rejection of the Shafer Commission’s recommendations to decriminalize marijuana possession for adults, NORML championed the federally-funded report to all fifty state legislatures seeking their implementation of the report’s recommendations to largely stop arresting and prosecuting cannabis consumers.
Relatively soon, before the end of the 1970s, nearly a dozen states would adopt decriminalization policies and over thirty states would pass, albeit, politically flaccid medical cannabis legislation.
In future decades, both the strategies of decriminalization and medicalization of cannabis would play key roles in chipping away at the public’s support for pot prohibition (and by extension, so too their elected policymakers’ support for an always unsustainable, and, in time, an increasingly unpopular public policy in cannabis prohibition) and establishing a socio-politico-economic framework instead favoring tax-n-regulate policies for the popular herbal drug—rather than Prohibition—similar in manner and scope to alcohol and tobacco policies.
Three books helped to forever reshape the public debate about cannabis: Dr. Lester Grinspoon’s Marihuana Reconsidered, Dr. Tod Mikuriya’s Marijuana Medical Papers and Dr. Edward Brecher’s Licit and Illicit Drugs.