This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Reefer Madness on Campus and Park Avenue

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Reefer Madness on Campus and Park Avenue

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Reefer Madness on Campus and Park Avenue

Our endorsement of marijuana legalization comes after decades of questioning the fundamental assumptions of the War on Drugs.


On Thursday, October 31, The Nation will publish a special issue about marijuana, with our first-ever endorsement of national legalization. But as early as 1966, Nation contributors were questioning the fundamental assumptions of marijuana prohibition, as well as the cultural attitudes and government policies that culminated in Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs in 1971.

In “Drugs on Campus: Turned On and Tuned Out” (January 31, 1966), Mervin Freedman and Harvey Powelson, a psychologist and a psychiatrist, respectively, questioned whether the growing use of drugs in the American counter-culture was really as alarming a development as mainstream authorities were making it seem:

It is difficult to fashion a serious case against smoking marijuana except that a user will find himself in serious trouble if he is caught by the police. The effects on society at large, were pot smoking to be as ubiquitous as the consumption of alcohol, are unknown, but within the current limits of use, there is little evidence that marijuana damages the individuals who smoke it.

Freedman and Powelson also wrote about the political meaning of marijuana and hinted that prohibition was counter-effective, as it only heightened the drug’s allure:

The consistent pot smokers are for the most part graduate students in the arts, philosophy, the humanities and, to some extent, in the social sciences. The rebellion they express in many ways, pot smoking among them, stems from their disillusion with American life and values…. Aside from enjoying pot’s intrinsic satisfactions—relaxation, heightened sensibility, etc.—these students get pleasure from sharing a rebellious, illegal activity. The more rebellious or ‘anti’ the movement, the greater the likelihood that pot smokers will be drawn to it.

But within a few years pot went mainstream, as the novelist Maitland Zane wrote in “Turning on in Society” (December 7, 1970).

Remember the hip flasks of Prohibition? Nowadays on Park Avenue and in Pacific Heights the daring fashion is to smoke grass. Thirty years ago, virtually the only people who smoked tea, as it was then called, were outcasts—jazz musicians, artists, blacks, Mexican-Americans. Even in the early 1960s, pot smoking was considered by most middle-class white people to be outré, scandalous, dangerous, criminal. Then came The Pill, Vietnam, rock music, sexual liberation, widespread alienation from the American of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon…Nowadays it’s not just the longhairs of Cambridge and Berkeley who are into marijuana. It’s also their little brothers and sisters, some as young as 9. And for the first time, their parents—and grandparents…

San Francisco, with an enormous population of homosexuals, is tolerant of “deviant” behavior, and this extends to pot smokers. Nowadays, instead of being jailed, they’re routinely put on probation. Fourteen hundred otherwise law-abiding people were dealt with in that way during the first nine months of 1970.

Drug policy has only grown more repressive in the past forty-three years, criminalizing thousands upon thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens and handing out punishments much harsher than mere probation. Our special issue next week will highlight prohibition’s pernicious effects—as we did in two previous special issues on drug policy in 1999 and 2010—and will look at the history of the legalization movement and plot new strategies for taking it national in a progressive, humane and responsible way.

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