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Fifty Years: How Marijuana Became Re-Legalized In America

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 Seven (1992-1996)

Marijuana Law Reform Advocates

From the depths of the Reagan drug war just five years previously, by nearly every salient measurement cannabis law reformers’ collective work turns the tide against Cannabis Prohibition garnering increased funding, media appearances, staff hiring, public survey data indicating increasing support for cannabis law reforms, all of which, leads to more political credibility among the general public (and in time elected policymakers).

While NORML is publically recognized as the oldest and largest marijuana law reform organization, the newly formed Washington, DC-based Drug Policy Foundation (DPF), coupled with Ethan Nadelmann’s New York City-based The Lindesmith Center (TLC), become the driving forces in mainstream America (and internationally) on the issue of drug policy reform, with a concentration on firstly achieving substantive marijuana law reform at the state level.

The ubiquitous B-footage on television depicting marijuana smoking was of Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics’ (ACT) Robert Randall, smoking a government-provided marijuana joint that he received as a Compassionate IND patient. The general public, slowly but surely was starting to both understand the need for medical cannabis and the absurdity of it’s blanket prohibition for all purposes. ACT, along with NORML, DPF and other parties to the litigation were in the US Court of Appeals still legally fighting over whether or not the DEA could overturn an adverse administrative court ruling it received in 1988 instructing the agency to immediately reschedule cannabis from I to II for therapeutic access.

Inspired by his writings and fueled by the proceeds from his underground bestselling ‘bible’ on cannabis, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the Cannabis Action Network (CAN) along with hemp visionary and author Jack Herer increased their public outreach efforts attending music festivals nationally and proselytizing about the need to reform cannabis laws.

Spurred on by the mainstream grant funding groups like DPF and the Lindesmith Center were receiving for their public advocacy for drug policy reform, numerous other non-profit organizations are founded (or start to solidly establish themselves) during this period, such as the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the Hemp Industries Association (HIA).

After a totally failed 1995 office coup at NORML led by Rob Kampia, post his termination from the organization, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), steeped in controversy, was founded soon after.

Reform Policy Strategy

During this period of time, 1992-1996, The Lindesmith Center’s Ethan Nadelmann becomes the dominant drug policy reform expert in America and internationally, consolidating authority, influence and access to resources by securing the financial support of a triumvirate of billionaires (Peter Lewis, George Soros and John Sperling) who supported marijuana law reform, but would not donate to an activist-oriented organization like NORML.

With their backing the TLC-DPF-DPA pro-reform ‘machine’ was minted and would soon begin to rack up reform victory after reform victory at voting booths.

Both in public and private polling neither legalization or decriminalization polled especially high (low twenty percentile for the former and high forties for the latter). However, when the question was specifically about medical patients accessing marijuana as a therapeutic, the surveys consistently demonstrated overwhelming public support (mid sixties). Recognizing this Nadelmann and company focused heavily on medical access to marijuana in any state (especially in California) and federal lobbying efforts.

Amazingly, despite substantial federal opposition, the California legislature in consecutive sessions in 1994 and 1995 passed pro-reform medical marijuana legislation that were both vetoed by then Governor Pete Wilson (R), setting up marijuana law reform activists in California and Washington, DC to move forward in 1996 with a binding voter initiative that would substantively reform the state’s marijuana laws to allow qualified patient access to the herbal drug. After qualifying for the 1996 ballot (along with a similarly worded voter initiative in Arizona) reform groups worked in concert to try to pass the initiative that would come to be known as ‘Prop 215’.

Groundbreaking in it’s political scope, Prop 215 passed, 54 – 46% (so too did Arizona’s drug policy reform initiative pass by similar numbers, but, however, a highly oppositional state legislature and governor largely nullified the majority vote by legislative fiat and won ensuing court challenges from the TLC/ACLU) and public policy, commerce and culture were forever changed first in California, then in dozens of states in the next twenty years.

Opposition to Legalization

The 1992-1996 period of cannabis law reform is marked by both the disconnectedness to the general public on the matter of marijuana and disingenuous defense of Cannabis Prohibition of anti-drug government agencies and their non-profit surrogates.

While the public’s attitudes were just starting to be supportive of marijuana policy reforms the federal government doubled down on a modern version of ‘Reefer Madness’, producing and broadcasting hundreds of anti-marijuana commercials for mainstream TV, radio and print. The US Sentencing Commission, with no prodding from the general public, enhanced the penalties for cannabis-related offenses.

Lastly, possibly as a way to appease and/or disabuse pro-law enforcement Republicans that Democrats were ‘soft on crime’, ‘anti-family’ or worse, ‘pro-drug’, after winning the presidency in 1992, Bill Clinton launched the most aggressive policing actions at the time, resulting in a huge increase in cannabis arrests nationwide.

Mainstream media was ‘all in’ supporting the executive branch’s anti-marijuana efforts, with hundreds of millions of dollars of ad time and creative talent donated; as well as some creative scripts manipulated by anti-drug agencies. Newspaper and magazine columns and editorials parroted the government’s Reefer Madness redux.

The primary non-profit organizations that publically opposed marijuana law reform were PRIDE, CADCA and law enforcement organizations such as the National Sheriffs Association, National Association of Attorney Generals and an alphabet soup of federal and state government agencies—costing taxpayers tens of billions annually—actively opposing any marijuana law reforms such the DEA, ONDCP, NIDA, SAMHSA, etc…

Challenges For Reformers

Beyond the massive institutional and governmental opposition to anydegree of cannabis law reforms, even for industrial hemp or compassionate therapeutic access, and a pre-Internet age media fawningly supportive of pot prohibition, the most significant challenges for cannabis law reformers from 1992-1996 came from ‘the establishment’ trying to thwart policy changes in 1) the proponents in NORML vs. DEA finally losing after twenty years in the court systems in a 2-1 DC Court of Appeals decision and 2) medical cannabis advocates in California prevailing in the state legislature, but having to suffer through two vetoes from Governor Wilson despite the public’s strong support for medical access to marijuana.

The incoming Clinton Administration was equal or more aggressive in it’s anti-marijuanism than the Nixon and Reagan Administrations, possibly trying to ameliorate potential public backlash for Mr. Clinton—America’s first baby boom president—and his possible use of illegal drugs as a young person (remember Clinton’s pre-election classic line ‘I smoked marijuana, but didn’t inhale it’?).

In July 1993 President Clinton shut down the Compassionate Investigative New Drug Program (IND) to all new applicants to participate in the highly limited government program and grandfathered less than a dozen qualifying patients to remain receiving three hundred government-rolled joints monthly.

Not long after the conflation of significant public policy losses for reformers—legal defeat in NORML vs. DEA, Clinton’s shutdown of Compassionate IND and medical marijuana legislation being stymied in California by a popular governor—NORML convened the first ever ‘National Medical Marijuana Day’ November 15 1994 at the National Press Club and organized hundreds of patients, doctors, researchers and family members in front of the White House for a rally, that, tellingly, received no media coverage whatsoever.

As cannabis law reform started to re-find its footing in the early to mid 1990s, concurrently the government’s arrest, prosecution and incarceration rates for cannabis-related offenses soared, fueled by aggressive police tactics, the allure of assets derived from civil forfeiture and law enforcement’s use of confidential informants.

Cannabis Arrests and Enforcement

After a few years of unexplainable decline in the national arrest rate for marijuana-related criminal offenses in the early 1990s, starting in 1993 the arrest rate for marijuana skyrockets from 380,000 to 499,000 in 1994, 588,000 in 1995 and 641,000 in 1996—an nearly eye popping seventy percent increasein marijuana arrests nationally in just four short years!

Public Opinion on Pot

Public support in surveys favoring marijuana legalization from 1992-1996 are fairly stable, starting around 19 percent and edging upwards to nearly 25 percent in 1996 (pre-Prop 215 in California; after the largest state in the union votes to legalize medical access to cannabis from this juncture going forward, public opinion in favor of marijuana legalization in national polling consistently increases year-after-year in America…for the next twenty years).


Interestingly, while the institutional support for a war on marijuana was at it’s societal peak in the early 1990s, culture started to demonstrably push back against the government’s Reefer Madness, excessive government enforcement of the failed prohibition and denial of a safe, non-toxic medicine to sick, sense threatened and dying patients.

Despite the omnipresence in the United States of anti-marijuana government propaganda programs like DARE or the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, numerous movies had clear cannabis-centric themes such as Clerks, True Romance, Friday, The Stone Age and Dazed and Confused; so too with episodes from TV shows such as The George Carlin Show,Homicide, Life on the Streetsand The Roseanne Show.

In 1992, the Black Crowes put on a free concert for over 50,000 in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park expressly to benefit NORML’s marijuana law reform efforts.

Capricorn Records (a longtime supporter of cannabis law reform going back to the 1970s) and High Times Magazine produce a compilation music CD in 1995 to benefit NORML called Hempilation featuring over a dozen popular bands such as the Black Crowes, Govt Mule, 311, Cypress Hill, Blues Traveler, Sublime and Ziggy Marley.

High Times Magazine starts to convene an annual event in The Netherlands called the ‘Cannabis Cup Awards’ where to best marijuana and hash products are judged and winners awarded.

In a number of large American cities, such as Seattle, Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC ‘protestivals’ in favor of marijuana law reform are organized by activists, attracting hundreds of thousands of attendees, to both protest Cannabis Prohibition laws and to celebrate responsible adult cannabis use.

A number of well-researched and written books, as well as some long-format magazine articles on the scope of Cannabis Prohibition are published from 1992-1996, having substantial impact on public knowledge and effecting opinion about whether or not Cannabis Prohibition was a functional, fair and rational public policy:


Marijuana, the Forbidden Medicine, by Dr. Lester Grinspoon

Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts,by Dr. Lynn Zimmer and Dr. John P. Morgan

Smoke and Mirrors, by Dan Baum

Hemp: Lifeline to the Future, by Chris Conrad


‘Reefer Madness’ and ‘Marijuana and the Law’, AtlanticMonthly, by Eric Schlosser

‘How Pot Has Grown’, New York Times Sunday Magazine, by Michael Pollan


Marijuana law reform activism in the early to mid 1990s arguably turned the corner from verboten to political power player because of the advent of the so-called ‘Internet’ and it’s accompanying communication and information platforms ‘email’, ‘webpages’, ‘listservs’, ‘RSS feeds’, ‘search engines’ and in time ‘social media’.

These tools in the hands of the citizenry—provided by companies like America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, Yahoo, Lycos and Netscape—largely denude the government’s ability to effectively disseminate anti-pot propaganda, check mainstream media’s championing anti-marijuanism and empowered largely impoverished non-profit groups to cost effectively challenge anti-cannabis dogma and organize citizens to oppose Cannabis Prohibition from the privacy of their homes.

The passage of California’s Prop 215 in 1996 (while, vexingly for consumers and activists, concurrently the marijuana arrest rate and anti-marijuana enforcement is exploding to hitherto unknown levels) is one of the top contributing events that factor into a nation, a continent, a world currentlyrejecting nearly one hundreds years of the failed public policy of Cannabis Prohibition, making the 1992-1996 period in marijuana law reform one of the most significant and important to appreciate and understand.

 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

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





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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