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Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: The Populist Politics of Cannabis Reform | The Nation

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Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: The Populist Politics of Cannabis Reform

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(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

On January 10, 1965, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg led a march for marijuana legalization outside the New York Women’s House of Detention in lower Manhattan. A dozen demonstrators waved placards and chanted slogans, resulting in one of the iconic images of the 1960s: a picture of Ginsberg, snowflakes on his beard and thinning hair, wearing a sign that said Pot Is Fun. Another picket sign read Pot Is a Reality Kick.

The pro-pot protest was the inaugural event of the New York chapter of the Committee to Legalize Marijuana, a group launched by Ginsberg and fellow poet Ed Sanders at a time when most pot smokers remained in the closet about their recreational substance of choice. The idea, Sanders explained, was “to get people who use marijuana to stand up and agitate for its legalization.” The protest marked the beginning of a grassroots countercultural movement that would develop years later into a widespread populist revolt against conventional medicine and extra-constitutional authority. 

Ginsberg sensed that marijuana, a substance essentially banned by the US government since 1937, “was going to be an enormous political catalyst.” Though marijuana prohibition didn’t deter widespread use, the funny stuff did encourage doubts about officialdom in general. It wasn’t the chemical composition of cannabis that fostered skepticism toward authority—it was the contradiction between lived experience and the hoary propaganda of “reefer madness,” enshrined in draconian legislation mandating five years in prison for possession of a nickel bag of grass.

Marijuana’s status as a forbidden substance added to its allure in the 1960s, when cannabis first emerged as a defining force in a culture war that has yet to cease. From the outset, efforts to end pot prohibition were inextricably linked to a broader movement for social justice that encompassed many causes. Marijuana was never a single-issue obsession for Ginsberg or Sanders. Both were high-profile peace activists who protested against nuclear proliferation, racial discrimination and censorship. In October 1967, Sanders and his folk-rock ensemble, the Fugs, stood on a flatbed truck and performed “The Exorcism of the Pentagon” at a huge antiwar rally that bequeathed to the world another iconic image: the stunning picture of flowers sprouting from the rifle barrels of young soldiers guarding the high church of the military-industrial complex.

For good or ill, cannabis was intimately associated with the rising tide of cognitive dissonance that prompted millions of Americans to question, re-evaluate and oppose their nation’s bully-boy foreign policy. “You couldn’t separate laws against drugs from the war,” said Yippie impresario Paul Krassner, who declared at a peace rally that he “wouldn’t stop smoking pot until it was legal.” To many onlookers, however, the widespread consumption of cannabis was a symptom—if not the actual cause—of public disorder and moral decay. Henry Giordano, chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the mid-1960s, told Congress that calls to legalize pot were “just another effort to break down our whole American system.” Denigrated by politicians and deified by dissidents, the little flower that millions loved to smoke had become a totem of rebellion, a multivalent symbol of societal conflict. 

* * *

President Richard Nixon saw marijuana as a useful wedge issue that he could play for political advantage. His declaration of all-out war against illicit drugs in general, and cannabis in particular, cast aspersions on all the troublesome currents that flowed from the rebellious ’60s. For Nixon, the anti-drug crusade was more than just a formula for padding arrest statistics and appearing tough on crime. It was also a symbolic means of stigmatizing youth protest, antiwar sentiment, Black Power and anyone with a nonregulation haircut—underscoring once again that pot prohibition had little to do with the actual effects of the herb and everything to do with who was using it.

On October 27, 1970, Congress ratified the Controlled Substances Act, which placed all drugs into five different categories or “schedules” according to their safety, medical uses and potential for abuse. There was a political calculus behind Attorney General John Mitchell’s decision to label marijuana a Schedule I narcotic, a designation reserved for dangerous drugs with no therapeutic value. “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Mitchell blithely assured a reporter. His prediction would come to pass, and the drug war would figure prominently in American democracy’s long slide toward oblivion. 

The Controlled Substances Act required the president to appoint a national commission to assess the dangers of marijuana and make long-term policy recommendations. Nixon stacked the commission with drug war hawks, who nonetheless confounded expectations by issuing a comprehensive 1,184-page report, Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, that endorsed the removal of criminal penalties for “possession of marihuana for personal use” and for “casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana.” The commission also asserted that cannabis should be studied for possible medical benefits. Nixon never read the report before dismissing its recommendations.

Nixon’s drug-war saber rattling provoked a pushback by pro-pot partisans. The Washington, DC–based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, formed in 1970 by a young attorney named Keith Stroup, lobbied federal officials and state legislatures and mounted a legal challenge to get marijuana removed from the list of Schedule I substances. NORML positioned itself as a single-issue consumer advocacy group, a Nader’s Raiders for reefer smokers. 

NORML drew broad support from an unusual mix of long-haired leftists, suit-and-tie liberals and conservative libertarians. In 1972, William F. Buckley Jr., America’s most prominent right-wing intellectual, came out in favor of marijuana legalization. Buckley’s protégé, Richard Cowan, co-founder of the student group Young Americans for Freedom, would later serve as NORML’s executive director. Writing in the National Review, Cowan argued that penalizing marijuana consumption made a mockery of conservative principles: “The hysterical myths about marijuana…have led conservatives to condone massive programs of social engineering, interference in the affairs of individuals, [and] monstrous bureaucratic waste.”

With the groundswell for decriminalization building, the American Bar Association, the Consumers Union, the National Council of Churches, the National Education Association, the American Public Health Association and several other influential organizations queued up to support marijuana-law reform. By the late 1970s, several states had ended criminal penalties for small amounts of weed. During the Carter administration, many people assumed that it was only a matter of when—not if—cannabis would be decriminalized by the federal government. 

But NORML managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when, in 1978, Stroup disclosed that President Carter’s drug policy adviser, Peter Bourne, was present at a cocaine party on Capitol Hill. The ensuing scandal caused Bourne to resign and derailed the president’s reform agenda. “It was probably the stupidest thing I ever did,” Stroup later acknowledged.

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