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 Four (1980-1984) The Reagan Years
Marijuana Law Reform Advocates
This four-year period at the beginning of the 1980s marks the starting point for the bleakest years for cannabis law reformers. The election of Ronald Reagan and his renewed calls for a ‘War on Drugs’ (a la Richard Nixon’s similar declaration a dozen years earlier) and it’s sharp focus on cannabis; along with the functional collapse of the only reform organization, NORML, post the Bourne-Stroup scandal; and the unmistakable political rise of the so-called Parents Movement Against Drugs (really marijuana) marks the ‘Dark Ages’ for cannabis law reform in the United States.
However, as this dark period for cannabis law reform settles in, a spark, a genesis of future and substantive reforms started to germinate during this fallow time for reform regarding medical access to cannabis (via NORML vs DEA), industrial hemp (a soon-to-be-infamous headshop owner in Santa Monica has a vision about hemp, saving the earth and government conspiracy theories) and a renewed sense of grassroots activism (NORML rediscovers it’s core mission, other pro-cannabis reform groups like the Cannabis Action Network are envisaged).
Along with a decidedly anti-marijuana federal government in place under Reagan, whipping up Reefer Madness hysteria where it can, a vexing component is introduced into the cannabis trade, notably from southern suppliers of the illicit herb such as Columbia and Mexico, where concurrently the cocaine trade was starting to flourish, and, where, looking to employ the previously established routes and shipping methods for cannabis, major cocaine exporters started to induce marijuana exporters and smugglers to also start carrying ‘pounds’ of cocaine alongside ‘tons’ of marijuana bales.
This unfortunate conflation of these illegal products’ transportation routes not only ties naturally occurring ganja to an otherwise hitherto unpopular ‘hard’ drug but the increased competition for smuggling space also unfortunately creates a massive price surge in cannabis: nearly tripling the retail cost of an ounce (seeded cannabis) from $40 to $100 and more.
Additionally, aggressive law enforcement along with increased penalties, gird the sellers of cannabis to justify the large increase in prices.
However, the rapid rise in the cost of retail cannabis spawned two wonderful developments in cannabis consumption: sensimilla becomes the dominant product over seeded cannabis and a proliferation in US domestic cannabis production (including home grown).
In the 1970s cannabis was primarily foreign grown (Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, etc…), seeded and lower-than-not in THC. By the end of the 1980s, in response to the government’s overreach against marijuana, the product largely became a domestically produced one and therein the quality and potency, blessedly, soared.
Ironically, historically speaking, the more the government pushed against cannabis, the better cannabis became.
Reform Policy Strategy
Survival. This becomes the single word strategy for a marijuana reform organization like NORML, or, for that matter, a marijuana-centric publication such as High Times Magazine.
With cannabis-related arrests skyrocketing, federal and state governments whole heartedly embracing ‘Reefer Madness’, a slate of harsh criminal and civil sanctions being implemented and employers mass adopting drug testing as a means to ‘contribute’ to the war against drugs, notably marijuana, it was not fun being a cannabis consumer and/or reform activist during the first Reagan term.
No longer receiving high profile gratis ads in publications like Rolling Stone, Playboy and High Times, and with arrest rates for marijuana soaring and criminal sanctions becoming increasingly severe, NORML starts to focus less on grassroots activism among the, albeit, tens of millions of cannabis consumers, and more so on building up a legal committee comprised of criminal defense lawyers who donated to the organization largely for legal referrals from the organization’s busted members and supporters rather than to genuinely advance any cannabis policy law reforms at the state or federal level.
There are so many anti-marijuana laws being proposed and passed into law at the state and federal levels at this time that a small non-profit like NORML (often working in tandem with the ACLU) found themselves engaged in litigation derived from these ‘new’ government efforts to thwart cannabis use in America (drug testing, civil forfeiture, olfactory challenges, guidelines for mandatory minimum sentencing, medical access, etc…) rather than largely challenging the constitutionality of cannabis prohibition itself.
NORML’s then eight-year old federal lawsuit against the DEA to reschedule marijuana continued on through the administrative court process, with reformers winning all the key motions, setting up the federal government for a jarring and shocking court loss in the near future, a loss that forever changes the public debate about marijuana in America.
Opposition to Legalization
By the time President Carter is out of office and Ronald Reagan becomes large and in charge, it is genuinely hard to see any well organized public opposition to government’s increased efforts to stigmatize, arrest and incarcerate cannabis consumers, sellers and cultivators.
Much to their ultimate chagrin, being a victim of their own success, the once local and volunteer-based parents groups against marijuana that sprung up all over the place in the late 1970s were slowly subsumed by large (and at times rivaling) federal anti-drug agencies and/or educational programs.
Groups of highly motivated parents who’d pooled together their donated resources to come up with localized outreach efforts to try to deter youth from using cannabis were soon induced to ‘sell out’ to federal anti-drug agencies with the promise of tens of millions in resources to spread their anti-marijuana messaging.
Contrastingly, cannabis reform groups like NORML, or ACT, annually reported revenues under $200,000.
President Reagan appointed a notoriously anti-marijuana doctor named Carlton Turner, MD to over see the federal government’s enhanced focus on cannabis. Incredibly, Dr. Turner once insisted in 1984 that cannabis consumption could cause homosexuality.
Challenges For Reformers
With institutional/mainstream support having largely evaporated for cannabis law reformers due to changing times (Reagan’s muscular reinvigoration of Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’) and self-inflicted wounds (such as NORML’s self-implosion of the late 1970s/early 80s or the specter of the drug paraphernalia industry becoming almost as much a legal pariah as cannabis itself), the challenges for marijuana law reformers were a plenty, notably, just the mere act of survival.
During these lean reform years, the US House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Narcotics and Control (established in 1976) was a fount of proposed Reefer Madness legislation, proposals and public hearings.
The federal government during this time under Reagan sought to suspend the Posse Comitatus Act, allowing military to engage in domestic law enforcement in the so-called drug ‘war’.
If the drastic increase in marijuana arrests, enhanced penalties and civil enforcement of pot prohibition laws (i.e., workplace drug testing programs) were not enough, the federal government’s war on weed was just warming up with a planned major push deep into American culture the notion that the use of marijuana is dangerous, illegal and uncool. To accomplish what one former ad executive called the ‘unselling of drugs to society’, the government needed massively funded and ubiquitous anti-marijuana campaigns, largely directed to young people.
Anti-drug organizations, employing billions over time of taxpayer resources, like the DARE program in public schools, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America splashed across national media and, at one point later on, a cabinet office in the Office of National Drug Control and Policy (aka ‘Drug Czar’s office’) all start to take shape during cannabis law reform’s darkest days.
Again, during these years non-profit organizations dedicated to fighting marijuana legalization too enjoyed massive government funding from Reagan’s administration, groups like National Families in Action, Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education and the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth.
Hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by the government annually to actively oppose marijuana, with law reformers raising a fraction of that.
Cannabis Arrests and Enforcement
Numerous anti-marijuana laws and enforcement procedures are proposed and many enacted during this period of time—mandatory minimums, civil forfeiture and use of National Guard to eradicate domestic cannabis—with the full bloom of their implementation in the immediately ensuing years.
The trend of increased arrests for cannabis solidly continues under Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’. For the first time the Department of Justice delineated cannabis arrest data to reflect both possession and sales with 400,000 total arrests in 1981 (56,000 for sales); 455,000 in 1982 (68,000 for sales); 406,000 in 1983 (69,000 for sales) and 419,000 in 1984 (74,000 for sales).
Public Opinion on Pot
Unsurprisingly, along with a newly declared ‘War on Drugs’, enhanced enforcement and government-backed parents groups against pot, public opinion surveys regarding marijuana continued a downward trend from 25% in 1981 shrinking back to 23% midway through the Reagan years.
The good news here is that from this point forward in US history cannabis legalization becomes increasingly more popular among citizens with the low point for legalization decidedly marked as 1984.
As indicated above, the federal government in the 1980s sought to deeply involve itself in trying to eradicate cannabis cultivation, dole out massive funding for anti-drug educational programs in public schools and engage in the longest sustained government propaganda campaign in the nation’s history with the ironically named Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
Ironic because the so-called ‘partnership’, formally founded in 1985, was largely comprised at it’s creation by the sellers of alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical products and there has never been, to the ultimate fatality of their business models, a drug-free nation.
However, without malice and naively, the so-called Partnership for a Drug-Free America was not born of rabid anti-pot activism, angry parents, concerned corporate executives or focus groups. Instead, according to Mr. and Mrs. Reagan’s communications director and personal friend Michael Deaver, the Reagans, previously of Hollywood fame, enjoyed the opportunity often to view movies in the White House. Supposedly during a viewing of the 1980 hit movie Nine to Five, where the three leading ladies—Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin and Dolly Parton—disorganized and angry at their tyrannical boss (played by Dabney Coleman), the three women, from diverse backgrounds and previously unassociated, meet after work, smoke a joint, and the hilarity (and solidarity against the jerk-of-a-boss) ensue.
Apparently, after the movie concluded the otherwise innocuous weed smoking caught the attention of Mrs. Reagan, who was agitated that three women who’re major public figures, used an illegal drug with no negative consequences or social stigma—complaining then to Deaver and her husband that Hollywood should fix that, meaning if there is to be drug use featured in a movie or on TV that the outcome is a negative one for the user in the form of an arrest, removal from school, incarceration, overdose or death—the seed for the Partnership for a Drug Free America was planted.
With the Reagan crackdown on marijuana in the 1980s and insistence that countries who want to join NATO comply with US dictum that they not be exporting drug countries, for all and intent purposes, by the mid 1980s there is little-to-no regular supply of hashish.
Additionally, with rigorous marijuana cultivation enforcement starting to take place against guerilla grow ops and even small personal plots in people’s backyards, logically, cannabis cultivators in the mid 1980s started to seek the sanctuary of indoor cultivation as a way to avoid over flight detection. Bittersweetly, while cultivating cannabis indoors vastly improved the quality of the product over all, it too also regrettably tempted the federal and state governments to pass civil forfeiture laws with the intent on seizing the homes of cannabis cultivators as a partial ‘solution’ to ‘fixing’ the country’s marijuana ‘problem’.
Pre the cable TV and Internet explosions of the mid 1990s, sources for credible information in mainstream culture regarding marijuana, notably during an overt period of government crackdown on cannabis consumers (and their subculture therein) were increasingly disappearing (for example, all of the ‘stoner’ magazines that flourished in the 1970s went out of business as the government and parents groups went after their base of advertising—paraphernalia leaving High Times Magazineas the only one standing by mid decade).
However, there were some stellar and informative books published from 1980-1984 examining drugs and cannabis, such as Dr. Norman Zinberg’s 1984 ‘Drug, Set and Setting’, Dr. Andrew Weil’s terrific 1983 book for parents and young persons ‘From Chocolate to Morphine’, Larry Sloman’s 1980 reviewed Reefer Madness(as compared to Eric Schlosser’s equally compelling 2003 ‘Reefer Madness’) and finally Patrick Anderson’s fascinating look in 1981 into the rise and fall of NORML under the organization’s founder Keith Stroup in the page-turning ‘High in America, the true story behind NORML’.
Allen St. Pierre is the vice president of communications for Freedom Leaf, a partner in the investment firm Sensible Alternative Investments and a NORML board member. In 1997, St. Pierre founded the NORML Foundation and was executive director for both NORML and NORML Foundation from 2006-2016.