The following is an excerpt from the history chapter of A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition (The New Press, 2014), co-authored by Cannabis Wire founders Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian.
There was a time when cannabis grew freely in America. Green leaves blanketed fields where farmers now sow golden rows of wheat and corn. The cannabis plant likely originated in Asia and traveled westward with British colonial expansion until it arrived in the 1600s in what would become the United States. Hemp from cannabis made the ropes and sails of ships that brought settlers to places unknown, the tents these men and women slept in, the fabric that kept them warm, and, perhaps, the oil that lit their lamps.
For many years, cannabis was called the hemp plant because that was its primary utility. While hemp is of the genus Cannabis, which also includes plants abundant in THC and other cannabinoids, plants grown for hemp are distinct because they have negligible traces of THC and are valued for their seeds and meaty and fibrous stalks. Therefore, it is accurate to call both industrial hemp and marijuana “cannabis,” but each has been given distinguishing nomenclature.
In 1854, Englishman Edmund Saul Dixon described hemp as a “crop of lances.” This stiff, upright plant, he wrote, was “destined for robust purposes, becoming almost a weapon in the hands of man.” But his admiration was directed only at the plant’s stalk, which contains the useful fibers. Of the flowers and leaves, he wrote: “it furnishes, in the shape of ‘bang,’ a poisonous as well as an intoxicating agent.” Hemp is not intoxicating, so it seems that the precise differences between varieties of cannabis were unclear at the time. In an 1801 essay, Dr. William Roxburgh, who oversaw the cultivation of hemp for the East India Company in Calcutta, compared hemp plants grown using European seeds with hemp plants found in India; he wrote that he “can discover no difference whatever, not even to found a variety on.” He added, “Yet, I cannot discover, that the fibres of the bark have ever been employed by them for any purpose. It is cultivated in small quantities everywhere (in India) on account of its narcotic qualities.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1856 inaccurately suggested in the entry for hemp that the “intoxicating properties of hemp” (likely the cannabis Americans know today) resulted solely from the climate in which it was grown. Then the text reiterated, “But it is not as a narcotic and excitant that the hemp plant is most useful to mankind; it is as an advancer rather than a retarder of civilization, that its utility is made most manifest.”
England relied on colonies to produce an abundance of hemp and began to lose access to hemp grown in the soon-to-be United States as tensions rose in the mid-1700s. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin backed the colonists’ refusal to send hemp to London, saying, “We have not yet enough for our own consumption.” In some regions, individuals could be penalized for not producing hemp during those crucial years.
Thomas Jefferson grew hemp, which he said was “abundantly productive, and will grow forever on the same spot.” Jefferson’s letters from 1815 reveal that he dithered between hemp and cotton, which would later come to replace hemp. “But the breaking and beating it,” Jefferson wrote of hemp, “which has been always done by hand, is so slow, so laborious, and so much complained of by our laborers, that I had given it up and purchased and manufactured cotton for their shirting.” Over time, as cotton was increasingly used for such essentials as clothing and rope, the nation curtailed its dependence on the hemp crop.
After the cultivation of cannabis for hemp products declined, its cultivation for consumption steadily increased. Recreational cannabis smoking in the United States is often traced back to Mexican immigrants in the early twentieth century. It is possible, however, that some Americans partook of the “intoxicating properties of hemp” long before.
Prohibitionist ideology also overtook the country at the turn of the twentieth century, with some of the first legislative efforts to ban or regulate alcohol and drugs. Efforts to specifically curb recreational cannabis use began state by state. Between 1911 and 1933, thirty-four states changed their laws so that the plant could be manufactured only for medicine and industrial use. Cannabis was almost included in the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, a federal law requiring those who manufactured or dealt opium, coca, and their derivatives outside of a medical practice to register and pay an annual tax. The act represented the first time the federal government enforced substance regulation. Indirect control through taxation also allowed the federal government to engage the criminal justice system in drug control but avoid full-on prohibition. Those who sold or possessed but did not register or pay taxes—which dealers and addicts were unlikely to do—faced arrest. Individuals who abused these substances were not given treatment, but time behind bars (fifteen years would pass before mention, in 1929, of opening the first federal drug rehabilitation centers). The seed for the war on drugs mentality was planted.
The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was inspired by the 1912 International Opium Convention at The Hague, one of the first international drug control efforts, which was led by the United States and aimed to unify countries in restricting opium and coca leaves and their derivatives. While cannabis was not included in this treaty, it was in subsequent international drug control efforts beginning in 1925. A cannabis law for the United States would soon follow.
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Many factors led to America’s newly hostile attitude toward cannabis. The popularity of temperance—a movement that targeted alcohol as the root of excess and ruin, placing abstinence at the heart of a ful lling life—likely contributed to states’ willingness to outlaw the plant. Although the aim of the movement was alcohol prohibition, there was no such thing as a good intoxicant. And with the tracks already built, it was easy to add another boxcar. But as alcohol prohibition came and went between 1920 and 1933, states continued to pass anti-cannabis laws.
What is unclear is why the United States would declare one prohibition a failure and then choose to embark on another. Perhaps drug prohibition was considered dissimilar because it dealt with unfamiliar substances and, in minorities, unfamiliar targets. Temperance, while it had some racist roots (it was argued that alcohol turned a black man into a “beast” or a violent rapist), was primarily built on religious rhetoric meant to save whites from themselves. The new state and national drug laws, on the other hand, were framed as saving whites from minorities and righteously saving minorities from their own supposed lack of self-control. The narrative behind these early laws was that blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese were going mad, turning murderous, and luring whites with cocaine, “marihuana,” and opiates.
In addition to race, panic played into the misunderstanding around certain drugs. It’s now known, for example, that cannabis doesn’t turn people into murderous lunatics. Did people truly believe that then and, if so, why? Was it racism gone rampant, an irrational hysteria among the misinformed? Evidence suggests it was both.
Certainly, at the sensationalist height of yellow journalism, horror stories about “loco weed” proliferated. As early as 1901 the New York Times wrote that cannabis “sends its victims running amuck.” In 1905, the Los Angeles Times reprinted an article that claimed cannabis made smokers’ “brains dry up and they die, most of the time suddenly.” A cannabis user in El Paso, Texas, killed a policeman. A California man decapitated his friend in a cannabis-induced craze. A young boy in Florida axed his parents and three siblings to death. On the streets of New Orleans, a man killed his wife while under the influence. Word from Colorado was that “Mexicans” were cultivating and selling “the weed” to “white school students.” Floyd K. Baskette, city editor of the Alamosa Daily Courier in Colorado, wrote to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics about hundreds of “murders, rapes, petty crimes, insanity” that he linked to cannabis. “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarete [sic] can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents,” Baskette wrote. “That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of whom are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”
Most of these tales about cannabis were brought to national attention by Harry J. Anslinger, who in 1930 became the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. If the story of cannabis prohibition were told in a comic book, Anslinger would be a formidable villain. Anslinger didn’t investigate the panicked rumors. Instead, he became a federal megaphone for these accounts during his exaggerated and impassioned testimonies against the “killer weed.” Already tasked with enforcing the Harrison Act, Anslinger pushed for similar legislation for cannabis.
The proposed law was closely modeled after the Harrison Act. Instead of prohibiting cannabis outright, HR 6385, better known as the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, aimed to tax the plant out of existence. An annual tax of $50 was imposed on manufacturers, compounders, and importers; $15 for dealers; $25 for producers (growers); and $1 for researchers and medical professionals who sought to prescribe it. All of the above were required to register and file returns to “the collector of internal revenue.” Additionally, the transfer of cannabis to a registered user required an additional $1 tax per ounce and transfer to a non registered user $100 per ounce. For perspective, fair market value of one ounce of cannabis was $1. Dealers had to self-incriminate and pay the taxman out of pocket to sell cannabis at a loss.
The Marihuana Tax Act passed within a year of the release of the propaganda film Reefer Madness. The rationale behind the act as well as the mindset of the time can be summed up by a statement Anslinger gave during hearings for the act: “The deleterious, even vicious, qualities of the drug render it highly dangerous to the mind and body upon which it operates to destroy the will, cause one to lose the power of connected thought, producing imaginary delectable situations and gradually weakening the physical powers. Its use frequently leads to insanity.”
So began the wrongful banishment of cannabis. It may be tempting to excuse the missteps of the time with the reasoning that no one knew better. But Anslinger was presented with alternative views; he chose to ignore them. The American Medical Association’s legislative counsel, Dr. William C. Woodward, expressed particularly vocal opposition during hearings for the act. Importantly, he noted that using the term “marihuana” in the name of the act, instead of the scientifically correct “cannabis,” led to misconceptions. In his words, “It was the use of the term ‘marihuana’ rather than the use of the term ‘Cannabis’ or the use of the term ‘Indian hemp’ that was responsible . . . for the failure of the dealers in Indian hempseed to connect up this bill with their business until rather late in the day. So, if you will permit me, I shall use the word ‘Cannabis,’ and I should certainly suggest that if any legislation is enacted, the term used be ‘Cannabis’ and not the mongrel word ‘marihuana.’” The word “marihuana” remained in the act—and therefore in American vernacular for decades to come, maintaining a stigma that “cannabis” did not carry.
Anslinger’s deceptive efforts didn’t end there, and Dr. Woodward expressed even deeper concerns about the haste and hysteria surrounding the act. “It has surprised me, however, that the facts on which these statements have been based have not been brought before this committee by competent primary evidence,” he said. “We are referred to newspaper publications concerning the prevalence of marihuana addiction. We are told that the use of marihuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marihuana habit. An informal inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point.” Dr. Woodward proceeded to note that not only was the Children’s Bureau not present to testify in response to Anslinger’s tales of schoolchildren on “marihuana,” but that they and the Office of Education had heard no such complaints. He added, “The Bureau of the Public Health Service has also a division of pharmacology. If you desire evidence as to the pharmacology of Cannabis, that obviously is the place where you can get direct and primary evidence, rather than the indirect hearsay evidence.”
Dr. Woodward’s statements were not taken into consideration, and the act was passed in 1937. By 1942, cannabis was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopeia. Anslinger was not satisfied. He pushed for the Boggs Act of 1951, which lumped cannabis with narcotics (the drugs included in the Harrison Act), and subsequently the Narcotics Control Act of 1956. Both acts increased penalties and marked the first efforts to determine mandatory minimum federal criminal sentences for those who possessed or distributed narcotics. By 1956, conviction for first-time possession of cannabis led to a two-year mandatory sentence; second-offense possession or first-time sale resulted in five years with no option for parole or probation; and a third-time possession or second-offense sale resulted in ten to forty years with no option for parole or probation. An infrequent user caught in possession of just enough cannabis for personal use on three occasions was required to spend a minimum of ten years in prison. Convinced that the increased threat of incarceration would work as a deterrent, Anslinger insisted that these penalties would reduce drug abuse in America by 60 percent.
Of course, these laws didn’t stop the increasing use of cannabis—they just put more people behind bars. In 1958, just after these laws were passed, there were 3,287 reported state and local “marihuana arrests.” In 1967, there were 54,468, a third of whom were offenders under twenty-one years old. If cannabis was as lethal as Anslinger claimed, that alone would have been more effective at curbing use than his laws. Most people, though, understand the difference between self-destruction and self-indulgence; a 2011 survey showed that roughly 300,000 people used heroin in the previous month while more than 18 million used cannabis.
Cannabis use continued to climb not because the plant is so overpoweringly addictive, but because people began to realize that the weed wasn’t so loco after all. By the 1960s, cannabis had become an integral part of counterculture. Hundreds of thousands of people (many of them white, middle-class, and college-aged) reclaimed the plant as a political symbol of peace, love, and protest during a time of turmoil and progressive change. A writer described the use of cannabis during these years in a 1967 issue of Life magazine as “the greatest mass flouting of the law since prohibition.”
By the late 1960s, with early breakthroughs in cannabinoid research under way, many more doctors and officials spoke out against the reefer madness narrative. But those who advocated for cannabis law reform during legislative hearings throughout the 1960s and 1970s, prompted by the rise in Americans’ consumption, were mostly shamed and ignored by the (shrinking) majority. One progressive doctor summed up this hostility when he said, “I have come under a lot of attack simply because I am saying the Emperor has no clothes on.”
In 1967, Dr. James L. Goddard, the U.S. commissioner of Food and Drugs (head of the Food and Drug Administration), stated that he was unsure if cannabis was more dangerous than alcohol. This sentiment, bold for its time, shocked members of the House of Representatives who called him unfit for office. His underlings at the FDA even penned a limerick:
A well-known physician named Jim,
Has really gone out on a limb.
Believe it or not
He’s decided that pot
Is better than drinking straight gin.
When confronted about his views during a hearing, an exasperated Dr. Goddard made a point that still resonates decades later, as hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders sit behind bars and millions are haunted by a possession arrest record: “All I have to ask is what price are we attaching to this as far as the future cost to society by making felons of these people, by arresting juveniles, whether they actually technically become felons or not? Do we not tend to cast them in the role of involvement with drugs for the rest of their lives, involvement with criminals? Now, are there not better ways of getting at this particular problem?”
Year after year, these rather theatrical hearings played out more like interrogations of government officials who spoke out against common prohibitionist views surrounding cannabis than balanced discussions about a national issue. Attempts at rational and factual conversation often regressed into bickering. When one doctor said cannabis was technically not a narcotic, as it was often called, a committee member suggested changing the definition of narcotic so it would fit; when another doctor clarified that cannabis does not cause physical addiction, a committee member launched into a conversation about how psychological dependence was worse. If, like Dr. Goddard, someone was less than disparaging about cannabis, they were told that they were responsible for encouraging youth experimentation with drugs.
The following exchange between Dr. Stanley Yolles, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and South Carolina representative Albert W. Watson, from a 1969 hearing, illustrates what often resulted from these tiresome battles of opinions, in this case about the gateway drug theory:
Mr. Watson: The fact that 80 to 95 percent of present hard narcotic and heroin users started with marihuana, that is a specious argument or relationship?
Dr. Yolles: Some of them had mothers’ milk, some of them have used alcohol.
Mr. Watson: Doctor, that is the most absurd thing. Are you now intimating that we are comparing the use of marihuana with mothers’ milk? Now, let’s don’t get ridiculous on this.
Dr. Yolles: Mr. Chairman, the World Health Organization itself has stated there is no relationship between the use of marihuana and a progression to heroin.
During that hearing, Dr. Yolles reiterated what Dr. Goddard had said two years prior, which bears repeating. “The major point I wish to make,” he said, “is that in the case of marihuana, legal penalties were assigned to its use that are strict enough to ruin the life of a first-time offender, with total disregard for medical and scientific evidence of the properties of the drug or its effects. I know of no clearer instance in which the punishment for an infraction of the law is more harmful than the crime.”
Up until this point, no president had led a major national rewrite of drug policy. But in 1969, Richard Nixon’s first year in office, he detailed his plans for what one newspaper referred to as a “war on drug abuse,” which would include the passage of a new federal drug control act and an increased budget for enforcement. Nixon’s actions were mixed: he amended harsh past policies and then created some harsher new ones. For example, despite the conversations during the cannabis hearings that attempted to link the plant to alcohol and distance it from narcotics, Congress, with Nixon’s support, passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 that officially placed cannabis in Schedule I with heroin, where it remains to this day. (It is worth noting that at the time this legislation was passed, the cannabis plant was so misunderstood that a report misstated that cannabis resin could be injected, like heroin, into a person’s arm.) Substances were listed in one of five schedules—one being the most restrictive and five being the least—based on harm and medical potential. Schedule I, the most tightly regulated and home to cannabis, was reserved for substances with no medical utility and high abuse potential. This act, most often referred to as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), still dominates the federal approach to drugs.
Conversely, the CSA reduced mandatory minimum drug sentences. First-offense simple cannabis possession, for example, fell from a minimum of two but up to ten years behind bars to up to one year. This was an improvement, though by no means the total decriminalization recommended in 1972 by the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, created by Nixon to research cannabis and suggest sound policies. The commission wrote in its report, “Unless present policy is redirected, we will perpetuate the same problems, tolerate the same social costs, and find ourselves as we do now, no further along the road to a more rational legal and social approach than we were in 1914.” Nixon ignored the very advice he sought.
Nixon’s budget to fight what was in 1971 first referred to as the “war on drugs” increased from $81 million at the start of his presidency to nearly $800 million by the time he left office. (The budget has continued to increase, reaching $25.4 billion for 2014.) In a departure from prior (and subsequent) federal drug control efforts, though, Nixon made treatment a financial priority. As he said to Congress in 1969, “It has been a common oversimplification to consider narcotics addiction or drug abuse to be a law enforcement problem alone.” While many presidents have since repeated versions of this sentiment, Nixon was the only president to spend more money on drug treatment and prevention than on enforcement. But what eventually survived of Nixon’s approach, and what required the bulk of his budget by the time he left office, was an extension of the Anslinger method of federal drug control: the use of law enforcement (Nixon created the DEA in 1973) to “tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers, and thereby loosen the noose around the necks of drug users.”
Gerald Ford took office post-Watergate in 1974, and he received a white paper in late 1975 stating that the war on drugs could not be won and that any progress made between 1972 and 1974 had reversed. The paper acknowledged the need for a new direction because drug supply and use could not be eliminated and the aim of the government should be to contain it. “Quality arrests” should come before the number of arrests. While this war would mellow for a decade or so, Ronald Reagan would later reignite it with calls for “a drug-free America by 1995.”
Despite Nixon’s launch of the war on drugs, one man’s misfortune sparked the movement that has now breached the castle walls of cannabis prohibition. In 1972, Robert Randall, an energetic twenty-four-year-old, had just moved to Washington, D.C., to be a speechwriter when he was devastated by a glaucoma diagnosis and informed that he would likely be blind by thirty. One evening a year later, after smoking a joint obtained from a friend, he noticed the blurry halos around the streetlights were gone. After a string of similar experiences, Randall concluded, though it was difficult for him to believe, that cannabis reduced the pressure in his eyes that caused the halos and would hasten his blindness. No medicine alone had had the same effects.
Randall continued to self-medicate with cannabis until he was found with plants and arrested in 1975. As Randall explained to his lawyer that he used cannabis for medicine, his lawyer challenged him to prove it. With the help of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), then a five-year-old cannabis lobby and now the oldest in the country, Randall set out to do just that. (Other groups had formed prior to NORML, and a notable one was the short-lived Legalize Marijuana, or LeMar. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and several of his friends started the New York City chapter in the mid-1960s.) It just so happened that the same year Randall was diagnosed with glaucoma, NORML led a petition to move cannabis out of Schedule I and into Schedule II so it could be considered a medicine, as it had been until thirty years earlier, when it was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopeia.
Randall visited Keith Stroup, the young lawyer who founded NORML with funding from the Playboy Foundation, for any information that would help his case. Stroup handed him a folder that contained documents about the potential therapeutic uses of cannabis. Randall had never heard of cannabis in a medical context before. With this as a starting point, Randall found information from NIDA about a study conducted at the University of California–Los Angeles on cannabis and glaucoma. The researcher, Dr. Robert Hepler, had obtained his cannabis from the federal research farm at the University of Mississippi. By the end of 1975, four months after his arrest, Randall became the subject of one of Dr. Hepler’s glaucoma studies as a part of the Marijuana Research Project at UCLA. The results revealed that, indeed, smoking cannabis reduced the pressure in Randall’s eyes that would have accelerated his blindness. In the absence of another therapy that offered the same results, Randall decided that he would challenge his arrest by arguing that his use of cannabis was a medical necessity. In a separate and pioneering move, he would petition for a supply of cannabis as medicine from the federal farm.
A continued “mass flouting” of drug laws in the 1970s would eventually come to aid Randall’s case. Americans felt more lenient toward cannabis than ever before and between 1968 and 1970, laws in thirty-three states were amended to make cannabis possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony. By 1975, the penalty for possession of under an ounce in California and Oregon had been reduced to a violation—a slap on the wrist—with a fine of up to $100. Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, was the first (and only) president to seriously consider the decriminalization of cannabis possession. Within months of when Carter took office, congressional hearings were held to discuss the possibilities. Peter Bourne, director of the Office of Drug Abuse Policy (the equivalent of today’s drug czar), said at one of these hearings, “We believe that the mechanism for discouragement should not be more damaging to the individual than the drugs themselves. We will continue to discourage marihuana use, but we feel criminal penalties that brand otherwise law-abiding people for life are neither an effective nor an appropriate deterrent.” Representatives from the Department of Justice and the DEA said that such a move would not negatively impact their organizations’ efforts.
The novelty of a president advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis was amplified by an unprecedented bond between cannabis activists and the White House. NORML’s Stroup was friends with Carter’s son, Chip, with whom he says he smoked cannabis. Just as Randall felt like he could go directly to the federal government for medical cannabis, Stroup went directly to the White House when he sought change. (Today, cannabis advocates circumvent the federal government to seek change at the state level.) While NORML’s cannabis rescheduling petition remained unattended to, another issue distressed Stroup at the time: the U.S. government encouraged and funded the spraying of paraquat, a toxic herbicide, to destroy cannabis crops in Mexico. This wasn’t the first time the U.S. government turned a forbidden substance poisonous in an attempt to destroy the supply and discourage use. During alcohol prohibition, an estimated ten thousand people died as a result of alcohol adulterated by the government with such substances as methyl alcohol. Stroup was concerned that the contaminated cannabis was not being discarded by growers, but instead sold in the States. The fear of unintentionally ingesting sprayed cannabis was widespread. One poster promoting a Village Voice cover story written by Fred Gardner about Bourne and paraquat cautioned, “Poison Pot: Even Your Dealer Doesn’t Know for Sure.” Stroup said he met with Bourne to discuss what he considered a major potential health hazard. But as the spraying continued, Stroup felt that Bourne wasn’t taking his concerns seriously enough. Their relationship became strained.
In December 1977, NORML held a swank holiday party for hundreds of influential people in a D.C. townhouse. The celebration encapsulated the soul of the decade—but that decade was coming to an end. There are many versions of how events unfolded that night. This is what Stroup remembers: As a band played, Stroup and a female friend were talking when Bourne showed up and began to flirt with her. Stroup walked away to entertain other guests when the woman came to him and said that Bourne wouldn’t mind getting high. “What do you mean?” Stroup remembers asking. “I think he might like to snort some cocaine,” she replied. Stroup, Bourne, Hunter S. Thompson (on the NORML advisory board), and a couple of journalists from High Times (one of the first go-to publications for cannabis enthusiasts) went to the top floor of the town house together. “So we went up and did what people did in those years. We sat around and chatted and passed a joint around and somebody laid out a couple of lines of cocaine,” Stroup said as he described this very extraordinary example of what was at the time a rather ordinary activity. Yes, Stroup said America’s drug czar got high with the head of the nation’s largest pro-cannabis group—and they would both come to regret that decision.
Months passed with no public mention of what happened at the NORML party. One Wednesday the following summer, newspapers reported that Bourne illegally wrote a Quaalude prescription for an aide. The next day, the secret kept for months by the journalists who had been there came out, and the cocaine story broke on Good Morning America. The Washington Post also covered the cocaine story. Journalists from both had been at the party, and at least one from the Post was in the room when the snorting occurred. It is unclear why the journalists withheld this story for so long. Maybe they were uncertain of what they heard or saw. But once the Quaalude story broke, perhaps they piled on. Friday newspapers reported that Stroup wouldn’t deny the cocaine allegations. Bourne had taken a leave of absence in the wake of the prescription incident, but resigned once the cocaine story was out, though he never admitted to the events. At the time, Stroup felt no remorse about the resignation and said to reporters, “I do not see it with any great sadness.” Stroup believed he owed no loyalty to Bourne, who still wasn’t paying much attention to the paraquat issue.
Today, Stroup recalls the incident with apparent sorrow. He said that allowing his anger to override his better judgment to deny Bourne’s cocaine use remains the greatest embarrassment of his career and that he didn’t foresee the consequences for NORML. As a result of this betrayal and Bourne’s resignation, a much less cannabis-sympathetic drug czar took Bourne’s place. The White House no longer wanted anything to do with NORML, which, as Stroup remembers, became “persona non grata.” Stroup had no choice but to step down as executive director of NORML.
The Bourne-Stroup scandal—and Stroup’s response—potentially altered the course of an entire movement. Any progress that could have been made at the federal level during Carter’s term vanished, and decriminalization never came to pass. In hindsight, it is hard to pin too much blame on Stroup. Bourne’s prescription incident could have eventually forced his resignation, or at least lessened his credibility as an advocate for decriminalization. Even if Stroup’s revelation hadn’t turned the tide against NORML then, the link between the cannabis lobby and the White House would have been severed with Carter’s departure. And with Reagan’s election, the Dark Ages, as cannabis activists have retrospectively named the decade to come, was inevitable.
In 1982, Ronald Reagan declared a new war on drugs, nullifying much of the progress that had been made during Carter’s term. “The mood towards drugs is changing in this country and the momentum is with us,” he said. “We’re making no excuses for drugs, hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad and we’re going after them.” In just a few years, discussions about cannabis decriminalization gave way to efforts to eradicate cannabis at any cost.
While the White House post-Nixon had conceded that containment was a smarter approach to drugs and drug use, Reagan believed he could wipe this cockroach of a plant off the map if he just tried hard enough. In 1981, the DEA was involved in six states’ aggressive “cooperative eradication programs” for cannabis; by 1983, the DEA expanded the programs to forty states. That year, the number of “DEA-sponsored training schools,” which taught local law enforcement about “aerial observation techniques, the legal requirements to obtain search warrants in their state, methods to conduct raids to destroy the cannabis crop, and procedures to arrest and prosecute those individuals identified with the cultivation,” expanded from four to seventeen. By 1983, ten states had signed memorandums of understanding and received support from their local National Guard units to go after domestic cannabis growers. Thomas G. Byrne, chief of the Cannabis Investigations Section of the DEA, insisted that “the military should be encouraged to incorporate marijuana production detection as a regular part of their ongoing air training activities.” When Reagan declared war, he meant it.
Although the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 had been written explicitly to limit U.S. military interference in local law enforcement, in December 1981 Reagan amended it to allow for unprecedented military involvement in “civilian” (federal, state, and local) law enforcement efforts. According to a 1983 hearing, “Underlying the action of the Congress was the notion that even though the times called for fiscal restraint, all possible resources should be utilized to combat narcotics trafficking; all involved agencies should cooperate, and perhaps the greatest untapped resource was the Department of Defense.” There was some concern that shifting the military’s attention to the drug war had the potential to interfere with their preparedness. But with Reagan’s amendment to the act, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force increasingly lent troops, facilities, and aircrafts previously marked for international defense to domestic drug law enforcement.
Reagan’s war made Nixon’s look like a play fight. He pushed for laws allowing seized assets involved in illegal drug operations to be reinvested into the drug war. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, over $3 billion worth of stuff was seized by the Justice Department, a dramatic increase compared to the years before the new law. One stated objective was to let the drug war help pay for itself. But when Americans guilty of nothing lost anything from tens of thousands of dollars to their homes and their supposedly suspicious possessions were not returned, some experts suggested that the rewards gained from such seizures had become a corrupting incentive. A bust, warranted or not, was a guaranteed windfall.
Reagan also reintroduced and increased the mandatory minimums that had all but disappeared under the original CSA, including mandatory life imprisonment. In a move that seemed to target minority communities, five grams of crack cocaine led to a minimum of five years in prison, while it would take five hundred grams of powder cocaine to warrant the same sentence. The core difference between the two substances was their markets; one was popular on Wall Street and the other on backstreets. As a result of penalties introduced during Reagan’s administration, anyone convicted of a drug offense, even simple possession, could be denied federal benefits—including student loan aid, subsidized housing, and access to welfare—over their lifetime. In many cases, drug charges can also revoke one’s right to vote. According to Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, these new drug policies served as a way to foment race-based fear and build a solid, white working-class voting bloc, as well as a backdoor way to disadvantage and disenfranchise minority populations over the long term. To this day, one bad choice could mean a lifelong burden; it’s the conviction that keeps convicting.
While Reagan pushed law enforcement and legislation, his wife Nancy went mainstream with her First Lady cause: Just Say No. This phrase, still chanted in grade schools today, came to represent a symbiotic relationship between the First Lady and a parent-driven anti-drug movement, notably less present in earlier decades. As Carla Lowe, vice president of the National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth, said in a 1983 hearing about cannabis eradication, “Marihuana has been the impetus for the parent movement.” From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, a handful of parents’ groups grew to a few thousand. Their battle cries of “D.A.R.E.” and “Drug-Free” and “Just Say No” were loud and influential as their mission spread from the White House to popular culture. These groups pushed legislation that criminalized drug paraphernalia. The New Teen Titans comic book’s anti-drug series (“in cooperation with the president’s drug awareness campaign”) included a letter from Nancy Reagan herself that told kids they were in combat. “The battle is against drug abuse,” she wrote. “Declare that you will stay drug-free. At any cost. You’re guaranteed to win. And you’ll be a hero—to your mother and father, family and friends, but most of all, to yourself.” By the 1990s, after Reagan left office, drug-related Public Service Announcements were added to the end of popular television shows; one Saved by the Bell episode about cannabis use was called “No Hope with Dope.”
The Reagans’ manifold approach might have halted cannabis reform for decades if not for Robert Randall’s ambitious pursuit of federal medical cannabis, which was well underway before Reagan took office. Randall’s expectations must have sounded delusional: he wanted a medical exception to cannabis laws and for the federal government to bestow upon him an abundant and consistent supply of joints. But he was armed to make those demands with proof in hand that cannabis helped reduce the pressure in his eyes and with testimony from a doctor who was supplied with federal cannabis to conduct such research. Certainly, neither Randall nor the federal government knew just how much water was building behind the dam when Randall’s crusade began in the 1970s, or else this crack in the drug war would have been promptly sealed.
The course for cannabis in America had been irreversibly altered in November 1976. That month, Randall’s arrest case was dismissed due to medical necessity and he soon became the first person with access to a federal supply of cannabis for medical use. The original process through which Randall obtained federal cannabis was makeshift because no program yet existed. Cannabis joints were shipped each month from the federal farm to the physician who applied on Randall’s behalf and who gave them to him as medicine. Randall was urged to keep quiet about his new privilege and was even briefly cut off from his cannabis supply after appearing on national television to smoke his medical joints. The media couldn’t get enough of Randall, and they could hardly be blamed—the idea of federal medical cannabis is still somewhat unfathomable decades later. In 1978 Randall fought back and was officially entered into an FDA Investigational New Drug (IND) program that allowed him to go to pharmacies in Washington, D.C., to pick up his cannabis.
The push to silence Randall only intensified his desire to extend medical cannabis access to other patients. While speaking about medical cannabis in New Mexico, Randall met a terminally ill twenty-five-year-old, Lynn Pierson, who wanted cannabis to relieve nausea from chemotherapy. After thinking through many possibilities together, Randall suggested that Pierson and his supporters in the New Mexico legislature pass a state medical cannabis research law. Federal cannabis could be obtained for research purposes only, so the state had to pass a law that indicated its intent to collect data and learn from the patients’ use while supplying the patients with federal cannabis. Randall believed that the resulting research would once and for all prove cannabis’s medical value. This strategy was used to pass the first state medical cannabis research law, the New Mexico Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act, in early 1978. Pierson died before his cannabis supply arrived the following year.
The dam had burst: the first wave of medical cannabis was underway in America. Access to federal cannabis was now available to individuals either through the federal IND program or through New Mexico’s research program. Over the next decade or so, thirty-three additional states passed similar research laws, and a total of six managed to actually procure federal cannabis for hundreds of patients: New Mexico, Tennessee, New York, Michigan, Georgia, and California. Fifteen patients (of the dozens approved) received cannabis through the federal IND program.
This turned out to be too much, too soon. With increasing demand in the 1980s, NIDA faced a supply problem and stalled. To grow more plants in response to increasing IND applications and state medical cannabis research laws would have threatened to contradict Reagan’s (and then George H.W. Bush’s) national push to eradicate cannabis. The implications of Reagan’s presidency were not lost on Randall, who had written in 1982 to his friend Roger Winthrop, coordinator for NORML in Michigan, “The news is not good . . . The White House is bonzo over pot.” Two years prior, in 1980, the National Cancer Institute got approval to do its own version of the IND, with plans to distribute capsules of synthetic THC to cancer patients. Randall also saw this as an ominous sign. THC hadn’t worked for him in studies, and he didn’t want a pharmaceutical product in development to replace his or anyone else’s plant-based medicine.
Activists were hopeful, though, when the languishing petition NORML had proposed in 1972, to move cannabis from Schedule I, was finally heard in 1986. After two years of hearings, DEA chief administrative law judge Francis L. Young agreed that cannabis should be rescheduled and wrote in his recommendation that “marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” In what was likely a top-down directive, a higher-up DEA judge rejected that ruling within a year.
While support for state medical cannabis research laws and individual INDs was at its peak, Randall thought he could encourage NIDA to increase the federal supply of cannabis if he could quickly demonstrate need—and there was unprecedented need due to the emerging AIDS crisis. Cannabis’s anti-nausea and appetite-inducing properties were well suited for this population. In 1991, Randall bundled hundreds of individual IND applications from AIDS patients and sent them to the FDA. The response was not what he’d expected: denial, because the federal supply program would soon shut down. States were cut off and their medical cannabis research laws essentially voided. The individuals in the IND program already receiving cannabis from the federal farm would be grandfathered in; everyone else could pursue the THC capsules.
Yet a resilient medical cannabis movement was budding. As the federal government withdrew, the majority of Americans sided with medical cannabis because the concept had grown increasingly familiar and acceptable over years of exposure. Patients remained dissatisfied with synthetic THC. If the federal government wouldn’t supply patients’ cannabis, they would just grow it themselves. Just as the states were first to outlaw cannabis in the early 1900s, progress would henceforth be initiated from within the states.
At least, this was the bold logic of Dennis Peron, well known in the Castro area of San Francisco for selling cannabis and for his gay rights advocacy (he had been a friend of the late Harvey Milk). In 1991, San Francisco, which had been particularly devastated by the AIDS epidemic, passed Peron’s citywide Proposition P with 80 percent of the vote. This law was mostly symbolic. It did not actually legalize the use of medical cannabis, but it suggested that patients who cultivated or used it with a physician’s recommendation be the “lowest priority” for law enforcement. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors wrote a resolution in response to Prop P: “Federal agencies have refused to recognize marijuana’s important role in medical therapy, continue to maintain legal prohibitions against marijuana’s prescriptive medical use, and recently cancelled the nation’s federal marijuana-as-medicine program.” Prop P was the unprecedented solution to this clearly stated dilemma. One year later, Santa Cruz County passed a similar measure.
The fuel behind these propositions came from the AIDS community, which had essentially created alternative treatment plans when the medical field could not catch up quickly enough. Groups like ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) had started “buyer’s clubs,” which were illegal but tolerated, so patients could access experimental drugs not yet available in the United States. Soon enough, cannabis was on the menu. Then cannabis-only buyer’s clubs—essentially the country’s first dispensaries—began to emerge.
After the IND program phased out and Californians prepared for a statewide vote on medical cannabis, Randall neared his fiftieth birthday and was exhausted by the years-long fight for cannabis. The state law strategy was, in his opinion, piecemeal and unsustainable. He’d worked hard for the federal medical cannabis model, but it had slipped away. By the time Randall died from AIDS in 2001, however, the movement he helped create had garnered unstoppable support and strength as it spread from coast to coast.
This state-by-state approach led by Californians was, and continues to be, the only way for new patients to legally obtain medical cannabis. In 1996, almost twenty years after Randall first accessed federal cannabis, Californians passed the statewide Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act. The one-page proposition was simple and straightforward: with a doctor’s recommendation, patients could legally cultivate, or have a caregiver cultivate on their behalf, cannabis for medical use. This is the version of medical cannabis most Americans know today.
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