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Fifty Years: How Marijuana Became Re-Legalized In America Part 6 (1988-1992)

By Allen St. Pierre

Part 6 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 sociopolitical changes underway first at the state, and soon, federal level regarding cannabis policy.

Marijuana Law Reform Advocates

The 1988-1992 period in the public effort to end cannabis prohibition is notable for myriad reasons, from the central strategic reform partners of the day coalescing around gaining therapeutic access to cannabis to the introduction of millionaire philanthropists into cannabis law reform efforts creating a grasstops vs. grassroots dynamic, the machinery of the federally-fueled ‘War on Drugs’ comes into full bloom (ie, arrest and incarceration rates start to shoot-up) at the same time popular culture (and later law and politics) starts to confront the excesses and failures of cannabis prohibition that, in time, will lead to a massive sea change in popular opinion, culture, economics and law regarding cannabis policies in the United States of America.

The progenitor organization for all of this soon-to-come public policy reforms, NORML, unfortunately reaches it’s low point as a functional and legally compliant non-profit organization, with the remarkable turnover of five executive directors in a five-year period (from Kevin Zeese, who left NORML to found Drug Policy Foundation (DPF); Jon Gettman, former deputy director under Zeese; Omaha criminal defense lawyer Donald Fiedler; interim director Gregory Porter and Texas businessman and noted libertarian commentator Richard Cowan). The lack of continuity in executive directors and lax oversight from the organization’s board of directors led to multiple and disabling IRS audits, taxes and penalties. During NORML’s largely ‘down-n-out’ period of time the DPF and Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT)—after doing extensive public polling—hone in on one of the few drug reform policies that in the late 1980s the public supported: therapeutic access to medical cannabis.

DPF and ACT launched numerous and successful print ad campaigns supporting medical cannabis (often citing the very favorable legal opinion from the 1988 NORML vs DEA decision directing the DEA to lower the legal status of cannabis so as to allow for medical research and patient access), public relations campaigns among editorial boards and columnists, organized public conferences around the subject matter and started more litigation against federal and state governments to allow medical access to cannabis.

The ‘stars’ of the DPF’s pro-medical cannabis public relations blitz were, who the Washington Post derided as the ‘Acapulco Eight’, were a handful of determined (and fortunate) medical patients, who, through one means or another, had been able to get fully registered with the Compassionate Use Act’s Investigative New Drug Program (INDCP), where they were receiving approximately 300 pre-rolled ‘joints’ monthly to treat their medical conditions. The so-called ‘Acapulco Eight’ were in fact average looking, non-threatening grandparent-types: Robert Randall (America’s first legal medical cannabis patient), Stockbroker Irvin Rosenfeld, Elvy Mussika; Midwesterners Barbara Douglas, George McMahon and Gordon Hansen; and high-profile AIDS couple Barbara and Kenny Jenks).

The George Walker Bush administration frustrated by the general success enjoyed in the media and in public opinion polls by the pro-medical cannabis DPF, ACT and ACLU, would by the end of it’s tenure try to make the ‘medical marijuana problem’ go away by simply eliminating the Compassionate IND program.

With the original grassroots pro-marijuana reform group rudderless for a few years, and growing from NORML director Jon Gettman’s forward looking efforts to genuinely build out a citizen-led/chapter based grassroots advocacy effort (in lieu of the long-lost Playboy/Rolling Stone support the organization enjoyed in the 1970s) and intellectually fueled by Jack Herer’s Emperor Wears No Clothes, the Cannabis Action Network (CAN) is founded by two female activists—Monica Pratt and Debby Goldsberry— with the help of High Times Magazine and author Jack Herer to promote grassroots activism regarding cannabis law reform, educate the public about hemp, the benefits of medical cannabis and…High Times and Emperor Wears No Clothes. Touring with Jack Herer to dozens of states between 1989-1992 CAN fulfill an important niche in re-establishing a politically viable cannabis law reform movement in America.

The last important reformer who makes his first appearances in the public record during the 1988-1992 epoch is a then associate professor at Princeton named Ethan Nadelmann, Ph.D, who, through a series of well researched and reasoned essays published by major thought-leading publications such as American Heritage, Daedalus and Washington Monthly distinguishes himself as drug policy extraordinaire, not just a warrior for weed. Later, in a short period of time, Dr. Nadelmann, due largely to his unprecedented-at-the-time ability to raise millions in funding from supportive billionaires, becomes the de facto leader of the drug policy reform movement—and by extension the most important person working to end cannabis prohibition.

Reform Policy Strategy

For good or bad, the 1988-1992 period represents the balkanization of the marijuana law reform movement into numerous advocacy camps: NORML, largely becomes principally associated with advocating for decriminalization (leading to legalization); DPF, was firstly a drug legalization organization, cannabis law reform group second who focused narrowly on medical cannabis; ACT (and later on Americans for Safe Access, ASA,) was stridently pro-medical access only; numerous non-profits and trade associations focusing only on legalizing industrial hemp production/retail also sprung up during this era.

Additionally, the Libertarian Party (America’s third largest political party), and it’s media outreach surrogates such as Cato Institute, Reason Foundation and Heartland Institute, start to regularly incorporate anti-cannabis prohibition related stories and columns into their monthly publications and political agendas.

There is no way to know retrospectively whether or not cannabis prohibition would have ended sooner in the US if these numerous groups had worked together in concert under one organizational banner such as NORML’s or Drug Policy Foundation’s, or, that cannabis reform was expedited because of these groups’ parochial tendencies.

Opposition to Legalization

A victim of their success of usurping the grassroots-oriented ‘Parents Movement’ against marijuana, by the late 1980s while the institutional opposition to reforming any aspect of cannabis prohibition was massive, so too was it’s disconnectedness to existing and evolving social trends and growing opposition to cannabis prohibition itself.

With the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) now in full operation under political gadfly and conservative activist William Bennett, the DARE and Partnership for Drug Free America programs fully funded for hundreds of millions annually by the federal government; arrest, prosecution and incarcerations on the rise in response to recently passed anti-drug legislation in the mid 1980s and cultural bellwethers in Hollywood and New York City from the entertainment industry kowtowing to the federal government’s largest propaganda campaign ever: the war on some drugs (and a whole lot of people).

With so many anti-marijuana laws passed in the 1980s, by the time the early 90s rolled around about the only place left for federal and state governments to keep ratcheting up their wars against cannabis was in taking the power away from judges in sentencing by forcing on them rigid sentencing guidelines based on the criteria created by, at the federal level, the US Sentencing Commission. Instead of possible probation or community service for a marijuana offense, multi-month to multi-decade sentences began to flood US prison system.

By example, in the early 1990s, as part of their regular correspondence with ‘pot prisoners of war’, NORML staff interacted for a number of years with a prisoner incarcerated for life for possessing what turned out to be wild hemp plants that were growing naturally along a rural highway’s median strip. Sentencing guidelines based on what was the ‘wet weight’ of the plants at the time of law enforcement seizure forced the judge in the case to mete out such an incredible sentence, for such minor offense. But, such was the anti-marijuana fervor that permeated much of the country at the time.

At the time, there were, largely at the local and state level, dozens of anti-marijuana organizations that would engage in rote recital of DEA anti-marijuana propaganda, but, in time, as the government funding against cannabis shifted else where in federal and state bureaucracies, leaving many of the anti-marijuana organizations of the day to fade away as little more than unfunded government organs.

Challenges For Reformers

No one person can create bigger challenges to any type of social justice reform more than the President of the United States.

Presidents Nixon and Reagan both greatly enhanced cannabis prohibition enforcement and stymied reform efforts. Both men however were unmistakably from previous eras and possessed little ability to relate to cannabis or it’s consumers. The same could not be said for the first Baby Boom president, William Jefferson Clinton, who, while a Democrat, had been a committed ‘drug warrior’ as Arkansas’ previous Attorney General and Governor. Clinton’s youthful use of drugs like marijuana, LSD and cocaine dogged him his entire political career, which, unfortunately, seem to push him into trying to project toughness and therein intolerance for illegal drug users.

Clinton (and his running mate, Senator Al Gore, a frequent cannabis consumer until his mid 30s) were infamous for claiming to public assemblies that ‘they felt the pain’ of individual attendees and by extension “feel everyone’s’ pain”.

When confronted on the 1992 presidential campaign by pro-medical marijuana activists (like Compassionate IND denied patients such as Jacki Rickert from WI) or hemp activists (who hand provided copies of Jack Herer’s Emperor Wears No Clothesto both candidates), the typical and personal reply from the candidates was that ‘they felt their pain’ and ‘if elected, will fix the problem’.

Later, early on in Clinton’s presidency, he ordered that the government cancel the Compassionate IND program for medical cannabis (a step that even the previous Bush Administration didn’t attempt).

Under Clinton, America’s criminal justice system explodes to over capacity.

Also, additionally, cannabis law reformers were constantly buffeted by mainstream opinion columnists, who, rip-and-read DEA propaganda releases, trying to mislead the public about the supposed risks of cannabis and building an anti-marijuana contagion among the general public (some of who were sent and oft-quoted from the DEA’s ‘How To Hold Your Own In A Drug Legalization Debate’ primer).

Thankfully, however, while anti-cannabis columnists like Joseph Califano (Washington Post), AM Rosenthal (NY Times) and Don Feder (Boston Herald) regularly published largely fact-free DEA propaganda, they were adroitly countered by anti-prohibition columnists such as Michael Kingsley (New Republic), Mike Royko (Chicago Tribune) and William F. Buckley (National Review).

Buckley, the most famous and prolific conservative writer of the past half-century, penned the most pro-cannabis reform/anti-cannabis prohibition columns, with well over two dozen columns critical of the government’s long failed public policies regarding cannabis.

Cannabis Arrests and Enforcement

Cannabis-only related arrests from 1988-1990 remained fairly stable yet on the high side of traditional arrest data, with approximately 390,000 arrests in 1988 and 400,000 in 1989. However, the two ensuing years of 1990 and 1991 see sharp reductions in cannabis arrests with 335,000 and 290,000 respectively. This reduction marks the modern nadir for cannabis-only arrests in America, with arrests skyrocketing nearly three times in size annually in the next 20 years.

As in the previous years during cannabis prohibition, nearly 90 percent of all cannabis arrests are for possession only; over 95 percent of cannabis arrests occur at the state/local level.

Public Opinion on Pot

A dearth of national public opinion surveys from 1988-1992 demonstrates that approximately 22-23 percent of Americans supported legalization (numbers higher than the early 1970s support levels around 15 percent and down from the then peak support level of 28 percent recorded in the late 1970s).


Remarkably, while the War on Some Drugs reaches new heights, a counter-culture effort surrounding the public’s affection for the herbal drug, anger at the aggressive enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws and overwhelming public support for medical patients who possess a physician’s recommendation to access marijuana as a therapeutic drug genuinely starts to take shape and, in time, strongly influences popular culture, media and ultimately in the next 20 years, public opinion such that voters—not elected policymakers—end cannabis prohibition at the ballot box rather than through the more traditional legislative route.

After nearly a decade of government pressure on entertainment and media outlets to tow the government’s anti-marijuana stance, fissures in the façade start to appear in the early 1990s, led in many respects by the emerging rap music scene. By 1991, rap and hip hop musical artists featured in music videos and live performances on MTV, VH1 and BET increasingly embrace the iconography of the marijuana leaf to both demonstrate their affection for the herbal drug and to challenge the nearly ubiquitous anti-marijuana propaganda engineered by government agencies such as DEA, ONDCP, DARE, SAMHSA and the Partnership for Drug Free America.

In 1992 an unknown rap band from Los Angeles contacted NORML and inquired if they could become the organization’s ‘official’ rap band. Blessed by NORML, the band next went to High Times, correctly claiming to be NORML’s official rap band…and wind up on the cover promoting their favorite way to consume cannabis: rolling blunts

With such, the band Cypress Hill becomes the de facto leader of dozens of rap and hip-hop acts who publicly support the use of cannabis and it’s legalization. In time MTV and the other corporate-controlled networks attempt to censor images of marijuana leaves on the clothing, hats and even tattoos of some of the most popular commercial rap performers, from Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Method Man and Cypress Hill.

In other areas musically, the jam band concert scene becomes fertile ground for pro-pot activism and public education with pro-reform groups like NORML and CAN being invited on nationwide musical tours such as Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E. and Guns-n-Roses.

Politically, during the 1988-1992 epoch, a period of public ‘marijuana mea culpa’ for some major politicians occurred in the lead up to the 1988 presidential race, when, in an open field of candidates post Reagan, over a dozen Democrat and Republican presidential wannabes—almost all Baby Boomers who’d partied during the 1960s/70s—copped to having ‘experimented’ with marijuana, often in their misspent youth while in college or the military.

Later in the epoch, cannabis became a controversy in the nomination and subsequent withdrawal of US Supreme Court Justice nominee and Harvard Law Professor Douglas Ginsberg, who admitted to having previously shared and smoked marijuana with some of his law school students. Two years later President George Bush would nominate, ultimately without controversy for cannabis, another Baby Boomer candidate for the high court in Clarence Thomas, who’d admitted to government investigators vetting his candidacy that he’d smoked cannabis as an undergraduate and law school student.


By the end of the 1988-1992 epoch a new and generation-changing industry was just on the cusp of public access and acceptance in the creation of the so-called ‘Internet’. In the coming years, cannabis law reform organizations will maximize the use of the new and emerging communications and information medium to largely level the playing field against governments spending billions annually to enforce cannabis laws and oppose most any and all marijuana law reforms.

Email, electronic bulletin boards, chat rooms, webpages and RSS feeds—all immensely affordable—empower impoverished and completely outspent non-profit drug policy reform organizations to ultimately counter government anti-marijuana misinformation and propaganda in ways that were not possible in the traditional ‘mainstream media’.

From this juncture forward, reformers for cannabis start a slow but sure climb out from the depths of cannabis prohibition in the late 1980s to ending prohibition in some states by 2012.


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.


Fifty Years: How Marijuana Became Re-Legalized In America Part 1, 1968-1972

Fifty Years: How Marijuana Became Re-Legalized In America Part 2, 1972 to 1976

Fifty Years: How Marijuana Became Re-Legalized In America Part 3, 1976 to 1980

Fifty Years: How Marijuana Became Re-Legalized In America Part 4, 1980-1984

Fifty Years: How Marijuana Became Re-Legalized In America Part 5, 1984-1988

Allen St. Pierre

Allen St. Pierre

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.

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