In Part II of my three part analysis of the regulatory history of mind-altering substances, we look at what has changed and not changed over the last hundred years or so. Part I of the series began to look at some differences between cannabis and psychedelic legalization/decriminalization movements. Part III will be a deep dive into the results of the November elections.
Charlotte Faye Greenberg, Editor and Publisher of Head Magazine (and at the time a member of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws)’s Advisory Board) wrote in 1977:
“If the Government succeeds in suppressing such publications as Screw or Hustler, can the attempted suppression of Head, or the New York Times for that matter, be far behind? What right does the government have to dictate what people may read or see (or put in their mouths?) How can any jury anywhere claim to have the omniscience to be able to decide what the standards of taste are going to be for all the people in a given community?
“Shouldn’t the people who willingly bought or saw these publications or films also be put in jail alongside the publishers and producers? The people who founded this country and enshrined the First Amendment in our Bill of Rights realized that freedom of the press must also protect those ideas and publications that are unconventional or even offensive to many people. I personally don’t care how many people are offended by Head’s frank discussion of drugs or our criticism of this country’s obscene drug laws. These laws must be changed, and for that to happen ignorance and widely held stereotypes must be replaced by facts. In this regard Head will continue to bring you the most complete and useful reporting of the drug scene available.”
Reading those words more than 40 years later makes one wonder how much has changed? Throughout the nineteenth century and the early years of the 20th century, the “drugs” of today were widely available from the local apothecary on Main Street.
In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed a law requiring every farmer to grow hemp. Oddly enough, during World War II, for industrial purposes, the federal government even issued a “Grow Hemp for Victory” campaign to solve a supply chain problem with ropes for battleships.
The U. S. Department of Agriculture hemp propaganda film, produced in 1942 is priceless:
As America moved toward repealing prohibition in 1933, the agents who had enforced the alcohol ban didn’t know where they’d end up. “Harry (Anslinger) worked for the Treasury,” says Niko Vorobyov, author of Dopeworld: Adventures in Drug Lands. “When he saw the dry law wasn’t going to last, he realized he’d be out of a job or at very least his department would be defunded.” The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Administration, was formed in 1930, before prohibition was even over, and President Herbert Hoover appointed Anslinger to run it.
By 1937, the anti-marihuana campaign was well underway, illustrated by this poster:
But for all the passion, intensity, and hysteria associated with the campaign, a White House poll in May of 1969 showed that only three percent of Americans saw drugs as an important national issue. Most of us are familiar with the War on Drugs that President Nixon launched in 1971 and Ronald Reagan escalated in the 1980’s. In fact, generations of youth were taught to “Just say no” by Nancy Reagan, and D.A.R.E. became a vocal presence at local schools. In a sign of the times, the last D.A.R.E. guy I encountered tabling outside a neighborhood Starbucks four years ago was also involved in selling cannabis.
The stigma against cannabis developed slowly, as no more than 5% of Americans had used cannabis until the late 1960’s. So why have 700,000 people a year been arrested for cannabis for decades? None for tobacco. While approximately the same number of Americans (30-40 million) regularly use both cannabis and tobacco, tobacco causes about 480,000 deaths a year. Cannabis 0. The estimated medical cost for tobacco is $400 billion a year versus negligible costs (perhaps even cost savings if diversion from alcohol and pain-killers is considered).
A simplified version of the explanation goes like this: Concern about drug use in America arose from distinct associations of certain drugs with unpopular and vulnerable societal sub-groups – of opium with the Chinese, of cocaine with “Negroes,” of alcohol with urban Catholic immigrants, of heroin with urban immigrants and of marijuana with Mexicans – and from the claim that a myriad of foreign enemies were using these drugs against the United States.
By tying cannabis use to Mexicans, Blacks and social outcasts and deviants like prostitutes, pimps and criminals, the prohibitionist themes emerge:
- Associate the drug with a hated subgroup or foreign enemy.
- Identify the drug as the sole cause of crime, insanity, violence etc. in society.
- Paint drug as threat to immobilize the youth, stymie free market capitalism and devastate important institutions like family and religion.
Or as Anslinger put it: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
Beat Poet Allen Ginsburg wrote that the government outlawed pot as a means of enforcing a conformity of consciousness. Harry Anslinger testified in 1948 to Congress: “Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.” Long time F.B.I. Director J Edgar Hoover remarked in, 1961: “The three biggest threats to America are the Communists, the Beatniks and the Eggheads.” And, in a quotation that has gotten much play recently, former Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman told Dan Baum in a 2016 Harper’s Magazine interview,”You want to know what this was really all about?” Ehrlichman asked, referring to the war on drugs.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”
“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” he concluded, according to Baum.
And why was tobacco spared this scrutiny? “A wide range of other industries
have carefully studied the tobacco industry strategy. As a result, they have come to better understand the fundamentals of influence within the sciences and the value of uncertainty and skepticism in deflecting regulation, defending against litigation, and maintaining credibility despite the marketing of products that are known to be harmful to public health,” writes Dr. Allan Brandt in his article, “Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics,” January, 2012, Journal of American Health.
Gerald Posner paints a frightening picture that fleshes out the background behind the now infamous Perdue Pharma scandal in his eye-opening book, PHARMA: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America. It is crystal clear that the pharmaceutical industry has borrowed liberally from Big Tobacco’s playbook.
While powerful forces were rallying behind the War on Drugs, meanwhile on the streets, the use and acceptance of recreational and spiritual drugs of all types was growing rapidly. Allen Ginsburg never shied away from his love of the plant:
Lifetime use of cannabis increased from about 5% of population in 1969 to about 40% by 1980. This country witnessed a jarring juxtaposition between the war on drugs and a some what rag-tag youth counter-culture. The eclectic mixture of Vietnam war protests, civil rights struggles, experimentation with mind altering substances of all types, challenged the middle class stereotypes of the 1950’s. Add to the mix a few doses of radical feminism, gay rights, environmental justice, and alternative (often communal lifestyles). In Northern California, tens of thousands of growers practiced their craft as the Emerald Triange (Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties) became the center of the cannabis universe.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded in 1970 with the mission “to move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and to serve as an advocate for consumers to assure they have access to high quality marijuana that is safe, convenient and affordable.” In 1970, as a 23 year old who was fond of his weed, this mission seemed to me like an impossible (if admirable) dream. California NORML celebrated its 50th anniversary on November 12, 2022 with a gala celebration in San Francisco that included reflections of many of the pioneers of the movement that has resulted in the ability for most people in the country to consume cannabis without fear of being arrested.
It is not the intent of this article to dive deeply in the 50 year righteous struggle of brave brothers and sisters to legalize cannabis, or to minimize the pain caused to the millions of people arrested and jailed for enjoying a harmless plant. Especially people of color who have been consistently targeted by the legal system at rates several times those of whites (with very similar rates of use). Early reform efforts often started with “low hanging fruit” (like making the enforcement of cannabis laws the lowest priority or legalizing within city limits).
Examples of these tactics include:
- 1972: The Ann Arbor City Council lowered the penalty for the possession of two ounces or less of cannabis to a $5 ticket. This law was a reaction to the jailing of Detroit poet and activist John Sinclair. Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving two joints to undercover police in 1967. In 1971, the John Sinclair Freedom Rally was held at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor. John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and 15,000 others called on the state to end his sentence. It was exhilarating to see John Sinclair on Zoom at the November 12th 50 year California NORML celebration. Fiery as ever, his analysis of the War on Drugs is: “They don’t want us to get high.”
- 1977: Madison, Wisconsin decriminalized marijuana through ballot initiative.
- 1978: San Francisco residents approved Proposition W, a non-binding measure directing city law enforcement to “cease the arrest and prosecution of individuals involved in the cultivation, transfer, or possession of marijuana” Mayor George Moscone was assassinated shortly afterwards, however, and the initiative was disregarded by new mayor Dianne Feinstein.
- 1996: California became the first state to legalize cannabis with the passage of Proposition 215 opening the door for medical patients (broadly defined) to grow, sell and consume marijuana.
- 2003: Seattle residents voted to make enforcement of marijuana laws the lowest priority for police.
- 2012: Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize adult use cannabis through voter initiative.
- In 2016, California’s Proposition 64 legalized adult use, expanding on the Medical Marijuana initiative of 1996. Part I of Paths to Legalization: Cannabis vs. Psychedelics examined some of the challenges surrounding the implementation of Proposition 64.
Legal History of Psychedelics
While significant differences exist between the cannabis and psychedelic legal framework, campaigns to legalize/decriminalize the substances bear strong resemblances to each other. Cannabis was made illegal by Congress in 1937 and has been the subject of nearly a century of intense stigmatization. LSD, for example, was introduced to this country when the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) purchased the entire world’s supply for $240,000 in the 1950’s.
Beginning in 1953, The C.I.A. distributed the LSD to American hospitals, clinics, prisons and research centers in a top secret project dubbed “MKUltra.” The goal was to identify drugs that could be utilized to weaken individuals and force confessions through brainwashing and psychological torture. LSD was one of these drugs that was given to individuals without their knowledge or permission. In an ironic twist of fate, one of the C.I.A.’s test subjects was Ken Kesey, who went on to write One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey also formed the Merry Pranksters who toured the country in their bus, Furthur, in the 1960’s and created the Acid Tests, featuring the Grateful Dead.
Maia Szalavitz wrote in her March 23, 2012 Time Magazine article, “The Legacy of the CIA’s Secret LSD Experiments on America:”
“A notable aspect of LSD’s history is the contrast in the way a single drug has been used and perceived by different groups. Just as one segment of the American population was starting to experiment with a drug they believed could produce peace and spiritual awakening, their government was using the same drug to try to ‘brainwash’ people into compliance. The hippies mainly found unity and joy; the CIA paranoia and fear.”
The 1960’s saw the popularity of LSD grow, especially on college campuses. Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass) actively promoted “acid.” I remember seeing Timothy Leary at the Human Be In held January 14, 1967 in the Polo Fields (San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park). Wearing a majestic flowing white rob, Leary urged the crowd to “Turn on, tune in and drop out.” Keep in mind LSD was only made illegal in California in 1966 and the federally in 1968.
Stigmatization of L.S.D. only began in the 1960’s, thirty years after that of cannabis. “Erich Goode, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, argues that the media used ‘stereotyping, exaggeration, distortion, and sensitization’ in order to generate hostility and ‘moral panic’ towards LSD, not because of its material threat to the individual user or to society, but because of its ‘deviant potential.’ This deviant potential is seen distinctly in the hippies: young adults who fervently promoted views of unconventionality, sexual liberation, and constructive dissent, who were often seen as dirty because they were barefoot, bearded, and long-haired, and who recreationally did LSD and other psychedelics. It’s clear how a group like the hippies became the subject of the moral panic in the sixties, and how LSD became the perfect means to foster this panic in the media,’ writes Miranda DiPaolo in a 2018 article, “LSD and The Hippies: A Focused Analysis of Criminalization and Persecution In The Sixties,” published in the PIT Journal.
While, of course, it is impossible to get accurate numbers of users of psychedelics, one reasonable estimate from the Drug Policy Institute notes, “the percentage of psychedelic use is so low that several drugs are grouped under the category of ‘hallucinogens,’ which includes LSD, PCP, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, and ‘Ecstasy’ or ‘Molly’ (MDMA).”
In each year between 2002 and 2014, an annual average of 0.1% of people across all ages were considered to be current psychedelic users (meaning they reported use within 30 days of completing the survey).”
Another key difference between psychedelics and cannabis has to do with timing. While Ann Arbor, in 1972, took the first baby step toward decriminalization of cannabis by lowering the penalty for possession to a $5 ticket, it wasn’t until 2019 that Denver voters passed Initiative 301, a ballot measure to decriminalize psilocybin. 301 also directs local law enforcement to give psychedelic mushrooms the lowest arrest priority for adults 21 and older.
In November 2020, Oregon decriminalized the possession for personal use of small amounts of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, and oxycodone. One cannot escape the conclusion that efforts to legalize psychedelics have borrowed heavily from the history and tactics of the marijuana reform movement. What is not so clear is how the failures in cannabis legalization (especially in California) impact on leadership and tactics in psychedelic decriminalization.
Part III of this series will review and evaluate the November 8, 2022 cannabis and psychedelic elections to see what they can teach us about the future. Ballot measures appeared in several state and local jurisdiction with mixed results.
Greg Kemenliev has been one of the key leaders of Contra Costa NORML, first serving as Executive Director and currently serving as the chapter’s Deputy Director, now called CoCo NORML. Greg has represented the cannabis community for years, testifying before dozens of public bodies, including city and county councils, planning commissions, state legislative hearings and meetings with legislators and their staff in Sacramento. He has been an advocate of compassion programs, working closely with Jetty Extracts Shelter Program that provides free cannabis to cancer patients.